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Editorial

 

Going back to the start of the pandemic, we expressed concern for the survival of not only the businesses in Springfield and across the region, but also the institutions that contribute to the quality of life we all enjoy here.

That’s a broad category that includes a number of museums, the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Springfield Thunderbirds and other sports teams, and arts venues ranging from Jacob’s Pillow to Tanglewood to the Springfield Symphony Orchestra. All of them are part of the fabric of this community.

Among all those, perhaps the one we feared for the most was the symphony, which has seen several changes in leadership over the past decade and has seemingly struggled to attract younger and broader audiences. If there was an institution that couldn’t afford to be on the sidelines, out of sight, and in many cases out of mind, it was the SSO.

“Reading between all the lines, it appears that concerns about the future of the venerable, 75-year-old institution are very real and quite warranted.”

These fears gained some legitimacy last week when musicians who play for the orchestra issued a press release that doubled as both warning and call to action. These musicians, some of whom have been playing for the SSO for decades, raised questions about how committed the SSO’s board is to everything from giving long-time maestro Kevin Rhodes a new contract to a 2021-22 season for the SSO. They asked for “an encore, not a curtain call.”

The SSO’s interim executive director, John Anz, responded by saying many of these issues are intertwined, and the orchestra cannot proceed with a new contract for Rhodes or a 2021-22 season until negotiations with the musicians’ union are resolved.

Reading between all the lines, it appears that concerns about the future of the venerable, 75-year-old institution are very real and quite warranted.

We sincerely hope the SSO is able to rebound from what is certainly the greatest challenge of its existence. Springfield needs these institutions to become the destination that we all hope that it can be.

Indeed, many things go into making a community livable — jobs, neighborhoods, schools, a thriving downtown, and, yes, culture. Springfield has already lost CityStage; it simply cannot afford to lose another thread of its fabric.

This is especially true as the state and the nation emerge from this pandemic. We’ve heard the talk that large urban areas are now less attractive to some segments of the population, who are now looking more longingly toward open spaces and less crowded areas. And we’ve seen dramatic evidence of this in our own real-estate market.

Springfield is to emerge as a player in this new environment, a true destination, then it will need institutions like the SSO to create that quality of life that both the young and old are seeking out as they search for places to call home.

The SSO has certainly been rocked by this pandemic. Emerging from it will be a stern test. We certainly hope it can move forward and be part of Springfield and this region for decades to come.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield Symphony Orchestra (SSO) has announced that its current executive director, Susan Beaudry, will be leaving the SSO effective April 23, to pursue entrepreneurial interests.

John Anz, currently development director, will step in as interim executive director, according to SSO Board President Robyn Newhouse.

“We appreciate all that Susan Beaudry has done on behalf of the symphony and for the arts in our region. Susan has made valuable contributions during her six years leading the symphony, first as development director and then as executive director. She is a strong leader and will be sorely missed,” Newhouse said.

Beaudry said she will pursue a passion in the wine industry. “I will be leaving my position with the symphony in the good hands of the board and John Anz. I was pleased to be a part of the most recent strategic planning process that I believe will lead to the re-emergence of the SSO and the goal of providing classical music in the region. As the arts and live performances re-emerge from the pandemic, I am optimistic the SSO will continue to fulfill its mission.”

Anz joined the SSO as development director in 2019 and has a 20-year career in development that includes independent schools, the YMCA and in music and the arts. Prior to joining the SSO, Anz worked as director of Development at Berkshire Hills Music Academy in South Hadley, and is a former board member of the Northampton Community Music Center.

“These are challenging and exciting times for live music and symphony orchestras everywhere,” said Anz. “So, it is both an honor and privilege to be asked to serve the SSO in this capacity at this moment. I look forward to working with all of our community leaders, cultural and business partners, and other key players to continue to move this cherished institution forward as we look toward a bright future, and beyond.”

According to Newhouse, the strategic planning process and the choosing of a new executive director will figure largely in how and when the symphony meets its mission of engaging the public around classical music performances. No time frame has been finalized on the selection of a new leader, she said.

Coronavirus

Developments of Note

SSO

The SSO hasn’t been able to perform live since the pandemic arrived, but it has found ways to keep the music coming.

Susan Beaudry called it a ‘stop the presses’ moment — quite literally.

Indeed, the program book for an adjusted, and truncated, 2020-21 season for the Springfield Symphony Orchestra (SSO) was at Hadley Printers back in April, and the presses were set to roll. But at the very last moment, the order was canceled.

“The tenor of our industry was … ‘I wouldn’t say anything, I wouldn’t announce a season,’” said Beaudry, adding that, back then, as the number of cases in this state and around the country were soaring, industry groups were advising that it didn’t make sense to put a schedule down in black and white. And it still doesn’t.

“When you’re selling, which is what we’re doing when we announce a season, it’s very difficult in this climate,” she told BusinessWest. “People are afraid, still, to make a commitment — they’re not sure they want to gather in large groups, or they’re not sure what their financial situation is going to be. They’re not going to pre-buy for a concert that may be months away; we just felt it was an awful lot to ask our patrons and the community to make that kind of commitment.”

This episode captures, in poignant fashion, the state of limbo in which the SSO, and most all other institutions of its kind, now resides.

In short, the future is unknown, and when it comes to live performances before real audiences — the absolute lifeblood of these orchestras — it comes down to a waiting game. A wait for a vaccine, most probably, or perhaps an effective treatment for the virus. Something that will prompt the governor of the state to give the green light for phase 4 of his reopening plan.

“We’re listening and waiting,” Beaudry said. “We’re not planning based on our needs or our desires; we’re just listening. And when it’s the right time, we have a season ready to rock and roll. We may have to move some dates around, we may have to move some soloists around … but we know what we’re doing when the time comes.”

“People are afraid, still, to make a commitment — they’re not sure they want to gather in large groups, or they’re not sure what their financial situation is going to be.”

Beaudry stressed that she and others at the SSO are not simply waiting. Far from it.

In fact, she said she’s probably working harder and longer than she would during a typical season, largely because of an even longer to-do list.

It includes providing music to an audience — not the typical audience and not in the typical way; the SSO is now offering the HomeGrown Series, a weekly (Wednesday) webcast featuring a performance, demonstration, or lecture. It also includes fundraising, creating a fund to pay musicians sidelined by the pandemic, planning — as much as that assignment can be carried out in the COVID era — and working ever harder to create ways to broaden the orchestra’s audience.

Indeed, those at the SSO were well aware, long before anyone had ever heard the term COVID-19, that it needed to expand its base of patrons and supporters, said Beaudry, adding that the pandemic has perhaps brought a greater sense of urgency to this work.

“What we’re not doing is waiting,” she explained. “We’re fully engaged, and we’re working very, very hard. We still have to raise money, we still have to market our brand, we have to keep our musicians in front of our patrons, we have budgetary issues, a strategic plan to undertake … I’m working harder and longer hours than ever, but it’s exciting, fun, and rewarding work.”

As BusinessWest continues its extensive coverage of the pandemic and its broad impact on the region and its business community, we take an in-depth look at the SSO and how it intends to not just weather the storm but use the time and this extreme challenge to examine how to change and become a stronger institution moving forward.

Working in Concert

As she and others at the SSO packed up their computers and whatever else they might need in mid-March and left the orchestra’s offices in downtown Springfield to work at home, the expectation was that it would be for just a few weeks, said Beaudry, adding that this was roughly the same mindset taken with regard to shelving events on the schedule.

Indeed, even before state and federal shutdown orders were put if effect, orchestras, knowing that their audiences are dominated by seniors, began postponing or canceling events — a few weeks or a month at a time.

“We were halfway through March, and we said, ‘let’s just cancel the rest of March,’” she explained, noting that there were several events impacted, from a show at Symphony Hall to a chamber-music performance at Twin Hills Country Club in Longmeadow. “The board agreed — ‘it’s prudent, it’s the right thing to do … let’s not worry about April yet.’”

Soon, though, those at the SSO had a lot more to worry about than just April. As the full scope of the pandemic became clear, the rest of the season was canceled — and soon it also became apparent that the new season, which traditionally starts in September, was now a huge question mark.

Susan Beaudry

Susan Beaudry says that, while waiting for the green light to start its new season, the SSO is busy with everything from fundraising to building its brand to undertaking a strategic plan.

Which takes us back to that order to stop the presses. The program book that was set to roll detailed a truncated schedule that would start with the popular Holiday Pops performance and include four or five other events, said Beaudry.

Now, as noted, even that shorter, simpler schedule is very much in doubt — but ready to go when and if the word — in whatever form it takes — is given.

In the meantime, there is much more than waiting to do — starting with the HomeGrown series, which started back in April with Maestro Kevin Rhodes performing some Brahms on the piano. Over the ensuing weeks, the program has presented a variety of short programs featuring individual artists and even the entire oboe section.

“It’s been very successful, and we’ve received some very positive feedback,” Beaudry said. “It redirects people to a less stress-filled subject and a little levity, a little beauty. As we’ve always said, the healing power of music is very real, and the longer this pandemic lingers, the more that rings true.”

But to provide that healing power, the orchestra must survive what will almost certainly be its most difficult financial test — although it has weathered many over the years, including recessions and even world wars. This one is different, because there are so many unknowns, said Beaudry, adding that the pandemic has already forced the orchestra to furlough some staff and reduce hours for those who remain; she personally volunteered to take a 30% pay cut.

“We’ve basically lost a season,” she said, referring to the second half of the 2019-20 season and the first half of the upcoming season — at least. “We have no box-office sales right now, and we still have expenses.”

A Paycheck Protection Program loan helped keep staffers employed for several months, but those funds ran out, she went on, forcing the furloughs that were announced several weeks ago.

Moving forward, and with no program book for the upcoming season and no concerts to sponsor at the moment, the SSO is looking for different ways to provide value for its sponsors, and for those sponsors to provide the continued support needed to propel the orchestra to the proverbial other side of the pandemic.

“What we’re hoping is that we can turn sponsorship into a sustainability partnership,” she explained, “where these sponsors are going to philanthropically help us get over the hump so that we’re solvent on the other side and ready to take our place in the community and on stage when this whole thing is done. And the only way we do that successfully is with the full support of the community around us.”

While sustainability is now the most critical issue, a related need — to change and broaden the audience base — takes on even more importance in this era of COVID-19.

“We need to remind ourselves that not everyone is going to get dressed up on a Saturday night and drive to downtown Springfield from wherever and sit for two or three hours through a concert,” she explained. “It’s a commitment to come, so we need to figure out what people want to come to and how we can morph — not that we’re going to change our mission; we’re a classical music organization, and we intend to remain that.

“There are lots of considerations for us to make what we do a better product,” she went on, adding that, in some ways, the pandemic is amplifying the need for change and perhaps accelerating the process. Meanwhile, it is also helping to move the SSO in directions it knew it needed to move, such as virtual offerings, like HomeGrown.

“What COVID did was prompt us to ask, ‘what can we do virtually — how can we reach bigger audiences with a stronger reach electronically and virtually?’” she told BusinessWest. “That is a new wave of performances. We’re a live-performance organization; that’s really how we’ve focused — how do we get people to Symphony Hall? But if we can figure out how to best use livestreaming, who can we reach? What does that do for our education programs and our performances, or even the snowbirds who are gone for half our season?”

On a Final Note…

“This music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.”

That’s a quote from Mozart, and it now graces the SSO’s home page in large, bold type.

Not nearly as large and bold as the words “When the Orchestra Returns, Your Seat Will be Waiting.”

That’s a confident pronouncement in itself, with emphasis on the word ‘when.’

“We’ve been around for 76 years, and we’ve been through wars and other disasters, and we’ll get through this, too,” Beaudry said in conclusion. “We’re here to serve; we’re mission-driven. That’s the priority, and we’ll be ready.”

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

Working in Concert

Executive Director Susan Beaudry

Executive Director Susan Beaudry

As the Springfield Symphony Orchestra prepares to kick off its 75th season on Sept. 22 with “Gershwin, Copland, and Bernstein,” it faces a host of challenges shared by most orchestras its size, especially a changing, shrinking base of corporate support and a need to make its audiences younger. Susan Beaudry, the SSO’s executive director, says the way to stare down these challenges is through imaginative responsiveness — and especially greater visibility through stronger outreach. And she’s doing just that.

Susan Beaudry says there’s a great deal of significance attached to the fact that the Springfield Symphony Orchestra turns 75 this season — starting with the harsh reality that fewer institutions of this type are reaching that milestone.

Indeed, several orchestras, including one in New Hampshire, have ceased operations in recent years, and many, if not most, others are struggling to one degree or another, said Beaudry, executive director of the SSO for more than a year now.

The reasons have been well-documented — the decline of many urban centers where such orchestras are based, falling attendance, declining corporate support, ever-increasing competition for the public’s time and entertainment dollars, and an inability to attract younger audiences are at the top of the list. The SSO is confronting these obstacles as well, Beaudry told BusinessWest, as well as the additional challenge of not knowing who will manage its home (Symphony Hall) after the Springfield Performing Arts Development Corp. announced last week that it will no longer manage that venue and CityStage, leaving the immediate future of those venues in doubt.

But while the institution is not as healthy financially as it has been in the past, it embarks on its 75th season on solid footing (there’s been a 20% increase in the annual fund since Beaudry’s arrived, for example), with determination to stare down the challenges facing it and seemingly all arts institutions, and optimism that an improving picture in Springfield and especially its downtown will benefit the SSO moving forward.

And Beaudry is a big reason for all of the above.

The former director of Development for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Beaudry was recruited to the SSO three years ago to lead development efforts for the institution. When Peter Salerno retired in the spring of 2017, she became interim executive director and later was able to shed that word ‘interim.’

“If you’re always doing your product behind closed doors, then it’s easy for other people to decide who you are and to give you an identity in the community. So it’s our job to open those doors, to get out, and to be playing.”

She brings to her role experience with not only fund-raising but business management — she’s a graduate of the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, began her career as a national and international product marketing manager for Gardner-based Simplex, and operated her own restaurant.

She’s calling on that wealth of experience to create a new business plan for the orchestra — figuratively but also literally — that focuses on raising the profile of the SSO, introducing more people to orchestral music, and taking full advantage of what is, by most accounts, a rising tide in Springfield and its downtown.

Summing it all up, she said the orchestra has to do much more than what it’s done through most of first 75 years — perform about once a month, on average, at Symphony Hall.

“One thing that I’ve recognized since I’ve been here is that we can and must do a better job with our outreach and education and sharing the good work that we do with the community,” she explained. “If you’re always doing your product behind closed doors, then it’s easy for other people to decide who you are and to give you an identity in the community.

Principal percussionist Nathan Lassell

Principal percussionist Nathan Lassell was one of the SSO musicians featured at a recent performance at the Springfield Armory, an example of the orchestra’s efforts at greater outreach within the community.

“So it’s our job to open those doors, to get out, and to be playing,” she went on, adding that there have already been some good examples of this effort to move beyond Symphony Hall and creating more visibility. There was the SSO string quartet playing in the renovated National Guard Armory building at MGM Springfield’s elaborate gala on the eve of its Aug. 24 opening. There was also a sold-out performance of percussionists at the Springfield Armory on Sept. 1, a performance that Beaudry described as “the coolest chamber event concert I’ve ever seen in my life,” and one that did what needs to be done in terms of changing some perceptions about the institution.

“People were cheering and laughing, and it was so engaging,” she recalled. “People walked out literally moved; they now have a new perception of what orchestral music can be like.”

There will be more such performances in the future, including 4U: A Symphonic Celebration of Prince, an MGM presentation featuring the SSO, on Sept. 18, said Beaudry, adding that, overall, the orchestra, at 75, must create the opportunities and support system it will need to celebrate 100 years and the milestones to follow.

It’s a challenge Beaudry fully embraces and one she’s essentially spent her career preparing for. And she believes the timing is right for the SSO to hit some very high notes moving forward.

“We’re sitting at the pinnacle place,” she said. “We have a chance to hit it out of the park.”

Achievements of Note

It’s called the League of American Orchestras.

That’s the national trade association, of you will, for symphony orchestras. The group meets twice annually, once each winter in New York and again in the spring at a different site each year; the most recent gathering was in Chicago.

At that meeting, as at most others in recent years, the topics of conversation have gravitated toward those many challenges listed earlier, and especially the one involving lowering the age of the audiences assembling at symphony halls across the country.

“Every arts organization is looking to lower the average age of its patrons,” she explained. “That’s the only way to secure your future — having people joining you at those lower ages, at a lower ticket price, and eventually that will filter upwards and be your replacement audience.”

Chicago and New York are only a few of the dozens of cities Beaudry has visited in her business travels over the course of her career, especially when working for Simplex, maker of the time clock, among many other products, as divisional senior marketing director — specifically, a division devoted to a fire-suppression and alarm product line.

“This was a job where you on a plane every Monday, and you didn’t come home till Friday,” she explained, adding that this lifestyle — especially eating out all the time — helped inspire what would become the next stage in her career, as a restaurateur.

“As a result of all this travel, I became very interested in regional cuisine,” she explained. “When you’re the marketing person visiting from headquarters, they want to take you to what they’re proud of — their symphony, their museum, their opera, and their best restaurant; after a while, those meals start to grow a little thin, as do your pants.

“So I would say, ‘instead of going to a big, fancy meal at yet another steakhouse, let’s find a little hole in the wall that’s a representation of what the cuisine is in this area,’” she went on. “So I became really interested in food.”

So much so that, when she became a mother, and that ‘get on a plane Monday, return home on Friday’ schedule wasn’t at all appealing anymore, Beaudry, after staying at home for a few years, opened her own restaurant, Main Street Station, in Chester, not far from her home and where she grew up, and just down the street from the Chester Theater Company, which her parents ran.

She described the venture as a hobby, one she pursued for three years, before “returning to work,” as she called it, specifically with the Boston Symphony as director of the corporate fund for Tanglewood. She stayed in that job for seven years before being recruited to South Florida to set up the annual fund for Junior Achievement, before returning to this region.

She said she was approached by David Gang, president of the SSO (he’s still in that role) and encouraged to apply for the open position as director of Development for the orchestra. She did, and came aboard nearly three years ago.

Beaudry said she welcomed the opportunity to succeed Salerno, and for a number of reasons. First and foremost, there was the opportunity to lead an orchestra, one of her career goals. But there was also the opportunity to orchestrate (no pun intended) what would have to be considered a turnaround effort for the institution.

And as she commenced that assignment, she did so knowing that she had a number of strong elements working in, well, harmony.

“People were cheering and laughing, and it was so engaging. People walked out literally moved; they now have a new perception of what orchestral music can be like.”

Starting with the conductor, Kevin Rhodes, who has been with the SSO for 18 years, remarkable longevity in that profession, and has become in ways a fixture within the community.

“He’s such a high-energy, high-profile person,” said Beaudry. “And he’s so willing to jump in to help promote the SSO. In the commercials on TV, he’s willing to dress up in costume, be in character, and be light and silly. And that goes a long way toward changing the perception of what’s happening at Symphony Hall, that it’s not stodgy and stuffy and only for a certain demographic.”

Another strong asset was the board, Beaudry went on, adding that many of the 30-odd members have been with the institution for many years and thus bring not only passion for the SSO but a wealth of experience to the table.

“We’ve been lucky to have board members who have stayed with us for a very long time,” she explained. “So you have institutional knowledge and history and some people who have been through the ups and downs of the organization and can give new leadership like myself feedback about things that have been tried in the past, things we haven’t done in a while that might be successful, and more. To have that kind of leadership has been very helpful.”

Sound Advice

But a well-known, community-minded conductor and a committed board are only a few of the ingredients needed for success in these changing, challenging times, said Beaudry.

Others include imagination, persistence, and a willingness to broaden the institution’s focus (and presence) well beyond what would be considered traditional.

And this brings us back to that list of challenges facing the SSO and all or most institutions like it, starting with the development side of the equation, where the corporate landscape is changing. Elaborating, Beaudry said that, in this market and many others, fewer large companies remain under local ownership, and thus there are fewer potential donors with keen awareness of the institution, its history, and importance to the city and region — a reality far different than what she experienced in Boston.

“The corporations have left or merged — you used to be able to hit five banks in a week and take care of half your season in corporate sponsorships,” she told BusinessWest. “Now, you have to call long-distance; running into the bank president on the street corner just doesn’t happen anymore. You’re taking to someone who doesn’t have any idea what you are or who you are to the community or what the giving history or the relationship history has been, and, sometimes, not interested in learning about it.”

Then, there’s the growing competition for the time and entertainment dollars of the public, she noted, especially the young professionals that comprise the constituency the SSO — and all arts institutions, for that matter — are trying to attract.

“You need people that have discretionary income and time,” she explained, adding that the latter commodity is becoming the more difficult for many people to amass. “Busy parents who are running to soccer games and ski races and cross-country matches are exhausted come Saturday night. Not only are we competing with how busy family lives have become, we’re also competing with the ease of entertainment right in your home. Come Saturday night after a really busy work week and really busy Saturday taking care of your life, do you have the energy to get dressed up on Saturday night and go out when you can order a pizza, open a bottle of wine, and order any movie you want on Netflix?”

In this environment, which, she stressed again, is not unique to the city and this symphony orchestra, greater outreach, and making more introductions, is all-important.

“If the environment’s changed and you’re still doing the same things, eventually you’re going to see your own demise,” she said. “So you need to be reactive and responsive. One of the things I’ve done is increase the number of events that we have. Events are a nice way to introduce yourself to the community, shake a lot of hands, and meet a lot of people in one evening — and from there you can build further relationships and start meaningful relationships around giving.

This was the case at the Armory concert and the performance at MGM’s grand opening, she said. Hearkening back to the former, she said it’s clearly an example of what the SSO needs to do more often — partnering with other organizations and institutions within the community and putting itself in front of before new and different audiences.

“The Armory had a concert series, and we contacted them and said we wanted to participate,” she recalled. “As a mission-driven community partner, we need to be doing more of that; we need to be out in the community.”

And the performance resonated, she said, not just in enthusiastic applause for the performers, but, perhaps even more importantly, in pledges for all-important financial support.

“I literally had people telling me, as they were leaving, that they were going to be giving us more money — they were so impressed, they wanted to increase their gift to us,” she recalled. “And in the end, that’s what keeps us playing — people loving what we do and becoming excited to support it.”

While adding more events, the SSO is also adding more family-oriented performances to its lineup, said Beaudry, adding that, in addition to the annual holiday celebration in early December, there will be On Broadway with Maestro Rhodes, featuring songs from Oklahoma, Carousel, Guys and Dolls, and other Broadway hits, and also a Movie Night with Maestro Rhodes, featuring music from Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia, and many other timeless hits.

Moving forward, Beaudry said the opening of MGM’s resort casino and the coming of big-name acts like Stevie Wonder, who performed on Sept. 1, and Cher, who’s coming to Springfield on April 30, will bring more people to Springfield and, hopefully, expose them to more of its assets, like the SSO, CityStage, and others.

“As they say, a rising tide lifts all ships,” she noted, adding that the SSO could certainly be one of those ships, especially if works to become more visible across the area and even more of the fabric of the community. “When people are checking out a new place, sometimes they’ll open themselves up to new experiences.”

The Big Finale

Taking in a performance by a symphony orchestra would be a new experience for many, and moving forward, it is Beaudry’s goal — and mission — to make it something … well, less new.

It’s a challenge facing all those attending meetings of the League of American Orchestras, and one that can only be met, as she’s said repeatedly, by being imaginative, responsive, and reactive.

Beaudry and the SSO are working diligently to be all those things, and because of that, and to borrow a term from this industry, things are more upbeat.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]