Tulsa Symphony Orchestra Marks New Musical Era

Contributing Writer

CULTURAL REDUX: The Festive Overture of Shostakovich on Nov. 3 will herald the beginning of a new era in Tulsa classical music concerts. It will be the first concert of the recently formed Tulsa Symphony Orchestra.

When guest conductor Jose-Luis Novo brings down his baton to begin the Festive Overture of Shostakovich Nov. 3, he will herald not only the beginning of a new era in Tulsa classical music concerts but possibly a movement that will be watched throughout the nation.

It will be the first concert of the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra, the brainchild of Dr. Frank Letcher and possibly the salvation of live classical music in smaller markets.

Says Tim McFadden, trumpet player and orchestra manager of Tulsa Symphony, “Frank’s approach to marketing has changed the question from whether or not Tulsa can afford an orchestra to how Tulsa could structure an orchestra it could afford.”

Dr. Letcher says the idea evolved while he was serving on the Tulsa Opera board and Opera director Carol Crawford was trying to come up with an orchestra that could serve the opera, Tulsa Ballet, and as a stand-alone musical ensemble.

“I studied the financial failure of the Tulsa Philharmonic and came to the conclusion that middle-sized cities couldn’t finance their orchestras on the old model of ticket sales combined with corporate and individual contributions. The Philharmonic wasn’t alone in its problems; the year it failed (2002) nine other orchestras closed their doors. When times became hard in an area as they did in Oklahoma when oil prices struggled it became difficult if not impossible to make the budget.

“Over the years we didn’t rebuild our audience. When the Philharmonic stopped providing school concerts, generations of students grew up with no exposure to the arts and we were no longer providing the seeds of future audiences. Then there is the electronic age. Kids are bombarded with MTV, iPods, cellular phones and other devices that allow them hear music that is well reproduced.

“Across the country there has been not only a drop in concert attendance but greater competition for audiences in performance halls.”

So how is the Tulsa Symphony different?

“With the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra, the musicians are a part of management. As long as that arrangement is maintained, we don’t need a collective bargaining agreement.”

McFadden is one of only four full-time members of the orchestra signed to date, although looking down the road he hopes to find 50 musicians under contract with others being hired on a per-service basis as needed.

“By making musicians executive employees,” says Dr. Letcher, “we give them additional responsibilities. First, of course, is that they play the music, but beyond that they will have a part in the administrative, audience development, fund-raising and education programs. They are integrated into every part of the organization.”

“It works like this,” says McFadden. “I am a full-time member of the orchestra and am paid a wage that is expected to allow me to live throughout the year. Unlike previous contracts where I’d be paid only during the season, I am paid year-round.

“This is my income. If I play elsewhere, the money generated goes back to the Tulsa Symphony. I’m paid my salary. That’s it.”

The orchestra runs by formal consensus but is very structured. While everyone is encouraged to voice concerns, there are no all-orchestra votes taken on, say, the music to be played. The appropriate committee takes care of that.

The beginning has been auspicious. Barbie Reif, the operations manager and only non-musician on the payroll, says the orchestra on little more than a promise and a prayer has managed to raise over $500,000 in a little under a year.

“We will be adding musicians as we can,” she says, “with the rest being added on a per-service (a performance or a rehearsal) basis. Our current budget calls for $1 million to be spent in the first year and a half. After that we hope to go up $1 million a year until we get to a $5-$7 million budget. By contrast the Tulsa Philharmonic budget was about $3.2 million a year.

“We want a well-rounded board of directors that is committed to the orchestra as well as Tulsa.”

And why would musicians like McFadden potentially limit their income, even if it were enough to get along on?

“I do it because I love doing it. It has a very deep value for me. If I don’t turn over my money earned in outside performances, that’s money I’ll have to raise some other way.”

Tulsa Symphony Orchestra has already performed for Tulsa Ballet’s “Carmina Burana,” and the result has been encouraging.
In November they’ll take flight on their own.

The 2006/2007 schedule includes:
Nov. 3: Shostakovich, Festive Overture; Mascagni, Intermezzo from “Cavalleria Rusticana;” Bernstein, Dances from “West Side Story,” Beethoven, Symphony No. 5.
Jan. 6: Holst, “The Planets” with visuals supplied by NASA; John Williams, music from “Star Wars,”
Jan. 27: Smetana, “The Moldau”; Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 2; Rimsky-Korsakov, “Scheherazade.”
Mar. 24: Music from the movies: Herriman, “North by Northwest,” “Vertigo Suite,” “Psycho Suite”; Korngold “Robin Hood Suite”; Thompson, “The Plow that Broke the Plains”; Copland, “The Red Pony.”

May 19: Bach/Stokowski, Passacaglia; Barber, Adagio for Strings; Respighi, Church Windows; Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 5.

Season tickets are $80, $120, $140, $180 and $240. For information, call Barbie Reif at (918) 584-3645.

Updated 10-26-2006

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