The HPO is thinking beyond the concert hall
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.”
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.