The HPO is think­ing be­yond the con­cert hall

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - EMMA REILLY

On Fri­day, Jan­uary 5, 1996, the front page of the Hamil­ton Spec­ta­tor trum­peted the death of the Hamil­ton Phil­har­monic Orches­tra.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion, first founded in 1883, had been deal­ing with a deficit that had grown to $1.2 mil­lion over eight years. A last-ditch at­tempt to fundraise enough to save the orches­tra dur­ing the fi­nal months of 1995 had fallen short. The Jan­uary 5 Spec­ta­tor story, which took up the ma­jor­ity of the front page, ques­tioned the fu­ture of clas­si­cal mu­sic in Hamil­ton.

To­day, things are markedly dif­fer­ent for the HPO. The orches­tra has in­creased its bud­get from $1.2 mil­lion to $1.6 mil­lion over the past four years — roughly a 30 per cent in­crease — and ex­pects to end its sea­son this year with a mod­est sur­plus. Mu­sic Di­rec­tor Gemma New, cho­sen in 2015 out of 70 ap­pli­cants from 15 coun­tries over a two-year se­lec­tion process, is push­ing the orches­tra to new cre­ative heights with bold reper­toire choices and innovative con­cert for­mats.

It’s cer­tainly a far cry from the days when Hamil­ton’s premier arts or­ga­ni­za­tion was forced to shut its doors. In the years since its slow rein­car­na­tion — the orches­tra was re­born in 1997 as the New Hamil­ton Orches­tra and re­turned to the HPO name in 2000 — the or­ga­ni­za­tion has re­built it­self into a well-re­garded ensem­ble that punches above its weight.

The road ahead

But like all sym­phony or­ches­tras, de­spite its suc­cess, the road ahead for the HPO is lit­tered with chal­lenges.

The orches­tra’s bud­get and scope is much smaller than in its hey­day — and com­pared to other or­ches­tras in the area, rel­a­tively tiny. The Toronto Sym­phony orches­tra is a $25 mil­lion or­ga­ni­za­tion, while the Kitch­ener-Water­loo Sym­phony op­er­ates on a $5 mil­lion bud­get. HPO play­ers no longer make enough in­come from the orches­tra alone (most teach and play in other en­sem­bles to sup­ple­ment their in­come).

It’s now up to newly ap­pointed Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Diana Weir, New, and the team of HPO ad­min­is­tra­tors and mu­si­cians to en­sure that the or­ga­ni­za­tion con­tin­ues to thrive.

For Weir, 31, who took on the HPO’s top ad­min­is­tra­tive j ob in Jan­uary af­ter for­mer di­rec­tor Carol Ke­hoe moved to the pri­vate sec­tor, it’s im­por­tant to strike back against the per­cep­tion that the orches­tra is “just a bunch of eggheads play­ing Beethoven at Hamil­ton Place.”

“We think that our in­dus­try suf­fers from a cer­tain stereo­type of our mu­sic be­ing elit­ist, and of there be­ing bar­ri­ers to ac­cess,” Weir said. “We’re very com­mit­ted to en­sur­ing that Hamil­ton feels like the HPO be­longs to them, and that no mat­ter where you live, or who you are — and whether or not you even at­tend a con­cert — you’re proud to have the HPO in your city.

“We want to be rel­e­vant to peo­ple — we want peo­ple to feel a sense of civic pride about us.”

Matthew Wool­house, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of Mu­sic Cog­ni­tion and Mu­sic The­ory at McMaster Univer­sity, says for too long, or­ches­tras have fallen into the trap of hav­ing an “us and them” men­tal­ity.

“I think what’s in­ter­est­ing is that a re­ally suc­cess­ful orches­tra isn’t like that. It isn’t us and them — they are part of the com­mu­nity,” he said. “Clas­si­cal mu­sic has had that image — I think the HPO is work­ing to get rid of that image. It is rein­vent­ing it­self as an in­te­gral part of the com­mu­nity. It’s not win­dow dress­ing.”

HPO’s suc­cess

In­deed, part of the HPO’s suc­cess is due to the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s abil­ity to think be­yond the con­cert hall and reach out to the com­mu­nity in new and innovative ways, said Kather­ine Car­leton, the Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor of Or­ches­tras Canada, a na­tional service or­ga­ni­za­tion that pro­vides sup­port for Canada’s pro­fes­sional, semi-pro­fes­sional, com­mu­nity, cham­ber and youth or­ches­tras.

“The story that I think it tells about the or­ga­ni­za­tion re­ally be­ing forced to look at where it made most sense for them to be in terms of mean­ing­ful con­tact with the pub­lic,” Car­leton said. “What I sus­pect has hap­pened with the HPO is that they’ve said yes to the right things, but no to things that are a good idea but don’t have the fi­nan­cial model to sup­port them.”

What works for or­ches­tras in other, larger mar­kets wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily fit here, Car­leton notes. An ex­act replica of the Toronto or Los An­ge­les or Ber­lin or­ches­tras “is not re­ally the orches­tra that Hamil­ton needs, Hamil­ton wants, and Hamil­ton can sup­port at this time,” said Car­leton.

“That’s the kind of ques­tion that smart, pas­sion­ate peo­ple are ask­ing — what does our com­mu­nity need and what is our com­mu­nity pre­pared to sup­port?”

Out in the com­mu­nity

The HPO has ap­peared in the com­mu­nity roughly 60 times dur­ing the 2016/2017 sea­son, says Weir, rang­ing from their for­mal main­stage con­certs to se­niors teas and fam­ily con­certs. Each ap­pear­ance is a chance to in­tro­duce the orches­tra to new lis­ten­ers.

The HPO’s Gallery Se­ries, for ex­am­ple, is a free one-hour con­cert with HPO mu­si­cians staged in gal­leries across the city — most re­cently at Gallery on the Bay in the Beasley neigh­bour­hood, Carnegie Gallery in Dun­das, and All Sorts Gallery in the Crown Point neigh­bour­hood.

“It’s free, it’s ca­sual, and it’s specif­i­cally tar­geted to the neigh­bour­hood that we’re in,” Weir said. “It’s a way for our mu­si­cians to get out of the con­cert hall and en­gage with new au­di­ences in di­verse neigh­bour­hoods — and it’s a way for us to pro­vide mul­ti­ple en­try points for peo­ple who want to ex­pe­ri­ence our art form, but maybe not in the tra­di­tional way.”

The orches­tra has also per­formed with lo­cal bands — in­clud­ing Black Col­lar Union, The Red­hill Val­leys, and the Medicine Hat — for its indie se­ries, a pop­u­lar mashup that teams HPO artists with rock, roots, and ex­per­i­men­tal pop musi- cians. “We work to rein­ter­pret their mu­sic within our id­iom,” said Weir. “We feel strongly about live mu­sic in gen­eral, and want to be sup­port­ing that as an an­chor arts in­sti­tu­tion.”

Num­bers are grow­ing

The strat­egy is work­ing. Au­di­ence num­bers at their main­stage con­certs, which range from 1,400 to 1,900, are climb­ing — in the 2015/16 sea­son, there was a 50-per-cent in­crease in sin­gle tick­ets sales com­pared to the sea­son be­fore. Sub­scrip­tions, cur­rently sit­ting at 1,300, are also in­creas­ing — par­tic­u­larly in the 2014/15 sea­son, when sub­scrip­tions climbed by 18 per cent. In 2015/16, sub­scrip­tions rose by 5 per cent.

New’s pres­ence at the helm is a boon to the orches­tra, Car­leton said. Both New, 30, and her pre­de­ces­sor, Jamie Somerville, who was 45 when he first took on the HPO role, added youth­ful en­ergy and musical caché to the ensem­ble.

“I think it’s a sign that peo­ple in the orches­tra were able to of­fer op­por­tu­ni­ties to peo­ple who are ex­tremely ta­lented but also very early in their ca­reers. The interlocking

tra­jec­to­ries of their ca­reers and the HPO seiz­ing on their tal­ent is a real win/win.”

New has put her dis­tinc­tive stamp on the HPO. She chooses mu­sic that’s both fa­mil­iar and chal­leng­ing to au­di­ence mem­bers, of­ten blend­ing well-known favourites with un­known pieces within the same pro­gram.

“We re­ally try to get a range of pieces that stretch the au­di­ence,” she said. “I want peo­ple to come know­ing what they’re get­ting into and know­ing what they’ll like, and I want to say, ‘Ok, you like this — you’ll prob­a­bly like th­ese pieces as well’ and build that trust.”

Con­nect­ing with the au­di­ence

The HPO’s most re­cent con­cert, the last of the 2016/2017 sea­son, was New’s brain­child. Called “In­ti­mate and Im­mer­sive,” the con­cert for­mat aimed to re­move the dis­tance be­tween au­di­ence mem­bers, New, and the HPO mu­si­cians.

Au­di­ence mem­bers were seated around a cham­ber-sized HPO for the hour-long pro­gram. The con­cert fea­tured cre­ative stage light­ing as well as two screens on ei­ther side of the stu­dio where vi­su­als sup­port­ing the mu­sic were pro­jected. At in­ter­mis­sion, the au­di­ence min­gled with the mu­si­cians and were en­cour­aged to ask ques­tions.

The pro­gram­ming is yet an­other ex­am­ple of the HPO’s will­ing­ness to in­no­vate — and as a re­sult, a good har­bin­ger of fu­ture suc­cess, said Wool­house.

“The HPO has got very good man­age­ment at the mo­ment, and an ex­cep­tional mu­sic di­rec­tor as well who wants to share rather than just cater to a nar­row and, shall I say ag­ing, au­di­ence,” Wool­house said.

“Mu­sic never was static. It was never meant to be a mu­seum piece. It al­ways was about in­no­va­tion and change.”

We want to be rel­e­vant to peo­ple — we want peo­ple to feel a sense of civic pride about us. HPO EX­EC­U­TIVE DI­REC­TOR DIANA WEIR

Right: Gemma New chooses mu­sic that’s both fa­mil­iar and chal­leng­ing to au­di­ence mem­bers.

Below right: “We’re very com­mit­ted to en­sur­ing that Hamil­ton feels like the HPO be­longs to them …,” says HPO Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Diana Weir.

Above: The HPO’s most re­cent con­cert, in re­hearsal here, was the brain­child of Gemma New, the HPO’s mu­sic di­rec­tor. Called “In­ti­mate and Im­mer­sive”, the con­cert for­mat aimed to re­move the dis­tance be­tween au­di­ence mem­bers, New, and the HPO mu­si­cians.


Gemma New has put her dis­tinc­tive stamp on the HPO.


Matthew Wool­house

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