Utah Symphony | Utah Opera musicians hear from national leader and expert

Utah Symphony | Utah Opera • ICSOM chairman says musicians and orchestra leadership must remain confident and alert.
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If you're skeptical about the future of symphony orchestras in the United States, Bruce Ridge would love to chat with you.

The chairman of International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians was in Salt Lake City this week to speak with Utah Symphony | Utah Opera musicians and artistic advisory committee. Ridge's nonprofit organization helps represent 51 member orchestras nationwide, including the Utah Symphony.

Ridge is considered an international expert in arts administration, as well as a professional symphony musician who plays the double bass. He often finds himself in the middle of symphony crises. He's consulted and commented widely on the recent turmoil engulfing the Minnesota Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, where musicians are in a lockout over unresolved disputes with board and management.

But there's a another side to the health of symphony orchestras, Ridge said, which isn't often talked about in the post-recession landscape of the classical music world.

Pulling out his iPad in the Abravanel Hall lobby, Ridge runs through the numbers: Chicago Symphony's latest fund giving campaign ended at a record level, St. Louis Symphony recently reported its best financial year of the past 10 years, and San Diego Symphony's operating budget is up 135 percent since 2003, with ticket sales at an all-time high.

"The biggest threat to symphony orchestras nationwide is a negative perception of the future of the arts in this country," Ridge said. "It's a self-fulfilling prophecy that resonates with too many people. A 1970 United Press International article predicted doom for 25 symphony orchestras. The year before that, Time magazine said we'd lose half to one-third of our symphony orchestras. Guess what? All those predicted to die still exist today."

While happy to take criticism for being too positive, Ridge said he doesn't advise symphony musicians and management to be complacent. Far from it. Challenges on the horizon exist, with more audience members buying single tickets over season packages. Ties between musicians and the community that must be expanded and fortified, while relationships between musicians and symphony boards and management that must be maintained and improved. On top of all this, the new landscape of social media must be harnessed to build future audiences.

"People benefit from a symphony orchestra in their community even if they never attend a single performance," Ridge said. "These musicians teach their children, perform in schools, and concerts fill restaurants."

Ridge's visit was a rare opportunity for musicians to hear a national expert as orchestras are mending after years of financial turmoil, said George Brown, a Utah Symphony timpanist and ICSOM representative.

Utah musicians and administrators took a 10 percent paycut in 2009, when the arts organization cut $1 million from its $19 million operating. Relative to some symphony orchestras nationwide, however, matters could be far worse.

Utah Symphony violinist Lynnette Stewart said it was inspiring to hear Ridge. "He had some real strong evidence that many orchestras are in great shape, with strong futures ahead," Stewart said.