Steven Smith speaking to business class

Symphony speakers sound a creative note

Feb. 20, 2019 - Susan T. Burtch

David J.L Fisk is the Executive Director of the Richmond Symphony. Steven Smith is the Music Director/Conductor. And thanks to the Artist-in-Residence Program, they both have something in common with the Business School’s Creativity and Ideation students – a quest for inspiration and originality.

Although this is the third year of the Artist-in-Residence Program, it’s the first time an organization, not an individual, has served as the school’s creative mentor. The musicians made an impact from the very beginning. First, they placed a piano in the lobby of Snead Hall; next, they invited students to join the orchestra in rehearsal. Now, they are stepping into the classroom to share their personal experiences.

Director Fisk talked about the symphony’s goals and challenges with Joe Coombs’ class, while conductor Smith spoke to students of Joe Ruiz about choosing music and leading musicians.

Fisk thinks the orchestra is an ideal model for learning how a large organization can keep evolving to stay relevant, while remaining true to its mission. “The symphony has been adapting successfully since 1957,” he points out. “It’s the perfect intersection of arts and business.”

Classroom Inspiration

 Fisk asked the students in his classroom to throw out words they believed described the symphony, so they came up with “old,” “theatre,” and “classical.” Fisk discounted them one by one:

Old. The symphony is attracting younger audiences by offering the Lollipops series and  bringing younger musicians on stage.

Theater. It is performing off-stage at breweries and parks.

Classical. The symphony plays all kinds of music. In fact, their live performance for the fourth “Star Wars” movie in the Altria Theatre helped to generate more ticket sales than the entire Masterworks Series.

Meanwhile, in another classroom, Smith introduced students to a corollary of creativity:  the concept of being “re-creative.” “The conductor,” he explained, “brings to life what the composer wrote. It only becomes music when it’s played. Orchestral musicians don’t usually improvise, but a composer can give guidelines – and that’s where my creativity comes in.”

Naturally, the students had questions. 

Q:  What are you doing to make the symphony more relatable to our generation?
A:  Fisk: “We’re still wrestling with that. Did you know we use our listening sense least of all? So, we want people to put their phones away, to be swept up by the music. Sometimes they need a controlled environment where they have no choice. Right now, we’re trying to straddle old and new technology. In our upcoming season brochure, there’s a guide to an app you can download so you can actually hear what the symphony is selling before you buy.” 

Q: If ticket sales generate only 30% of the symphony’s revenue, how do you make money?
A:  Smith: “It takes lots of time and effort to find that missing 70%. We do generate income when we play for the ballet or the theater. We seek investments from local corporations and private donors. There are government programs we can apply to. And we’re a nonprofit, so we can take 5% of our endowment proceeds per year as part of our income stream.” 

Q:  What challenges require your creativity?
A:  Fisk: “Managing people. We have musicians, staff, volunteers, the board, a foundation with trustees, youth orchestra – lots of people. As executive director, my job is 80% leading and doing, 20% managing. I don’t direct, I enable.”

Big Picture Benefits

Yet perhaps nothing illustrates the benefits of creativity more clearly than Fisk’s big tent story. It begins with the symphony’s purchase of a giant tent to enable the musicians to perform outside. Soon these new outdoor concerts generated more money than it cost to stage them.  One day after playing in Chimborazo Park, Fisk learned that all five elementary schools in that district had a total of only seven musical instruments among them.

So now the symphony’s goal became greater than getting musicians out of the theater – it became buying instruments for children. Since 2015, it raised $350,000. By 2020, it expects Richmond public schools will be able to give every child a chance to learn music. 

 “And that,” grins Fisk, “is creativity at work.”