- Associated Press - Saturday, April 26, 2014

PEORIA, Ill. (AP) - Symphony orchestras are changing with the times.

They’ve had to, said Susan Hoffman, the executive director of the Peoria Symphony Orchestra with 30 years of experience in the “orchestra industry.”

“The economy hit everyone hard in the orchestra field,” said Hoffman, who’s had the Peoria job for two years. She previously served as the executive director of the Adrian Symphony Orchestra in Michigan and then spent three years with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra.

“We were not immune from suffering from the economic downturn,” said Hoffman of the Peoria symphony which turned 117 this year, making it the 14th oldest orchestra in the nation still operating.

According to Guidestar.com, the website charting not-for-profits, the Peoria symphony’s expenses from June 2011 to May 2012 amounted to $894,000 while revenue was only $681,167.

“Ticket sales only cover a small portion of expenses - 30 percent of the total budget that’s now about $850,000,” she said.

“The rest has to come from contributions from individuals and corporate donations,” said Hoffman.

Classical music suffers from lower visibility these days, requiring a more creative approach to programming, she said. “The focus is on audience development, finding ways to reach a broader segment of the community,” said Hoffman, pointing to the upcoming April 11 concert with banjoist Bela Fleck as an example.

“We try to bring in world-class guest artists,” she said, referring to past performers such as pianists Andre Watts and Olga Kern.

Hoffman credited music director George Stelluto for helping bring top-flight talent to Peoria. “Being on the faculty of the Juilliard School of Music in New York, George has great contacts in the music world,” she said.

Putting together big shows has become increasingly important, said Pam Johnson, who chairs the Peoria symphony’s board. “There’s less interest in season tickets with more importance placed on single ticket sales. We’re definitely seeing different trends, such as decisions made at the last minute,” she said.

Ten percent of the tickets sold to the program featuring Andre Watts last year were purchased just 24 hours in advance, said Johnson.

To help promote interest, the Peoria Symphony also reaches out to young people across the community, she said.

Along with concerts that draw 3,000 to 4,000 students each year to the Peoria Civic Center, the symphony engages in outreach programs that include programs on public television.

“We try to make classical music more accessible,” said Hoffman, noting that the average crowd for a Peoria Symphony concert is between 1,000 and 1,200.

But there’s more than one classical music venue in central Illinois. Next month, the Heartland Festival Orchestra concludes its fifth season at Five Points Washington.

Heartland audiences average between 750 to 800 people while the group’s annual budget “hasn’t broken $300,000 yet,” said David Commanday, Heartland’s artistic director and the former music director of the Peoria Symphony Orchestra.

“We’ve been able to reinvent the product a little bit and it’s proved popular. We’ve been in the black all five years,” he said.

Commanday says the Heartland group’s success at bucking the national trend that’s seen symphonies struggle is due to a number of factors.

“We have a great venue in Washington; we offer live video during the performance, sometimes live dancing and we make a commitment to local charities. We’ve mixed it up,” he said.

Commanday stressed that Heartland seeks to avoid any conflict with Peoria performances. “Any perception that there’s a competing relationship (with the Peoria symphony) is a misunderstanding,” he added.


Source: (Peoria) Journal Star, https://bit.ly/1oz71GI


Information from: Journal Star, https://pjstar.com

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