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ASO has ambitious plans for growth and a plan to get there

ASO has ambitious plans for growth and a plan to get there

By Rick Hutzell

When Edgar Herrera started as the new executive director of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, he asked longtime Music Director Josè-Luis Novo a simple question.

What do you want? What is your wish list?

From that exchange, the ASO launched a months-long process of creating a grand plan for the future. The goal is to transform the Annapolis cultural touchstone into a “modern 21st-century American orchestra” that resonates across the region, across cultures and even across the world.

The five-year Annapolis Symphony Orchestra Strategic Vision explains what that means and how ASO will get there. Underlying it all are the goals of more music, more people, and more places.

“I’m sure this is one of the most ambitious plans that the symphony has ever had,” Hererra said. “But I also think this is because the symphony is ready.”

The plan adopted in March 2021 builds on Novo’s 17-year tenure leading the orchestra as music director and conductor. It also reflects a Board of Directors willing to nudge the symphony out of its Annapolis bubble.

When the board went looking for a new executive director in 2019, it wanted a good match for Novo’s artistic vision and the potential to do more.

“During interviews,” Herrera said. “It was really clear to me that they were looking for someone to take the symphony to another level.”

Herrera started in March 2020, just as the pandemic was coming down hard on live music performances. Maryland Hall, the performance and rehearsal home for ASO, shut down.

Instead of following suit, the Annapolis Symphony kept going. That paid off as pandemic restrictions are ending.

“We did things that were pretty bold, whereas some orchestra shrunk and shut their doors and are just now coming out,” said Jill Kidwell, president of the board of directors.

What followed in the two worst years of COVID was an intense period of creativity, perhaps none better received than the addition of streaming music through Symphony+ and performances at The Music Center at Strathmore when it was open.

The time also gave Novo and Hererra a chance to mesh. They began to talk about where the orchestra could go and what it could accomplish. Many of the ideas they agreed on were ones Novo had been pursuing for years: more performances in more venues, more educational opportunities and greater diversity in both the audience and the orchestra.

There had been progress, but the right conditions were crucial for more.

“I felt he couldn’t push the gas to make things happen,” Herrera said.

Together, they started working with the board on a five-year plan. Most organizations have long-term plans, and ASO had a three-year artistic version.

Over five months, a series of surveys, questionnaires and Zoom meetings circulated ideas and possibilities. The result was approved in March 2021, setting sites on a modern 21st Century Orchestra.

“The collaboration between José-Luis and Edgar was phenomenal,” Kidwell said.

To Novo, it all hinges on the ideas of more and new music, more and new audiences and more opportunities to list. Achieving those goals would put Annapolis at the leading edge of orchestras trying to stay relevant.

“Orchestras in the business of symphonic music are very big machines that move very slowly,” Novo said. “And what we meant with being on the avant-garde of the movement of progressive orchestras, is we want to be among the first people to try things that have not been tried before, new types of concerts involving technology in the production of concerts, exploring different lengths of concerts, different formats, mixing things,” Novo said.

“I think that this is going to be a very important factor in attracting especially younger audiences that they are not necessarily ready to sit still through a two-hour concert and expect to enjoy that type of experience. So, we are going to be experimenting with lots of things.”

In music, ASO will be expanding to six Masterworks performances and add a three-concert pops series in the 2023-24 season. Over the next five years, the number of Masterwork concerts will bump up to eight, and more children’s concerts will be added. There also is a plan to offer new programming at the recently started Sunday concerts series at Strathmore and expand the use of Symphony+ to explore.

“We realize that we already are reaching out to audiences all around the world. I think that’s one of the most attractive things about our expansion is the fact that with our digital presence, we are really serving not only our community in Annapolis but a world community that we have to be aware of,” Novo said.

Audiences close to home can expect to hear favorites, but also music from modern and lesser-known composers. For its season finale in May, Novo commissioned a piece commissioned to celebrate the ASO 60th anniversary from a young woman composer, Jessica Hunt. That fit in with music featuring women composers in this season’s Masterworks series.

Achieving more places has started, but takes a major leap with a Spanish tour now in the final planning stages. Novo also wants to see new places within the community as well as outside it.

“These things take time to develop, but we are making steady progress, and we’re hoping that with more consistent effort, we’re going to be playing in the places where we’ll be able to reach all these new audiences, a much more diverse audience than we have right now,” Novo said.

And just as Novo has long been known for turning from the conductor’s podium to explain a new piece of music to the audience, he is now talking with soloists about their performances on interactive chats and recorded interviews on a variety of online and broadcast platforms.

The orchestra is scheduled to be featured in 10 radio broadcasts on WBJC and WETA and appearances on television. ASO also has a deal to produce three recordings over the next five years, with the first set to debut in 2023.

All of that will help bring the music to where people want to listen, not just the stage at Maryland Hall.

“As a growing organization, you want to be appealing to a new audience. In order to do that with the lifestyle we all have, we need to redevelop the concert format,” Novo said. “We’re trying to embrace a much wider audience.”

The Annapolis Symphony Academy started three years ago, and the first Orion Youth Symphony concert takes place in June. New opportunities include a Discovery Program for children starting this month to grow their music appreciation. Expanded children’s concerts will acknowledge the orchestra wasn’t playing enough music for younger audiences.

“We only perform five times, all within May, for kids in our community,” Herrera said. “That’s great, but that’s nothing compared to the number of kids we have in Annapolis or the number of kids we have an obligation to bring music to.”

Kidwell said the plans embodied in the new mission statement define what it means to be a modern 21st-century orchestra – “to inspire, educate and enrich lives near and far by creating extraordinary musical experiences with uncompromising musical excellence.”

The artistic responsibility will be Novo’s, whom Kidwell predicted would provide the magic needed to attract new listeners.

“He is a remarkable artistic director. He brings things that are unique, surprising and enjoyable,” she said. “That type of programming, instead of doing the big hits that everybody does … I think that taking an orchestra of our size and adding to the Masterworks series, a new pop series, a new community series is part of it.”

But it also must be practical, and that will fall to Herrera and the board..

“This plan is much more detailed and executable,” Kidwell said. “What we had before was a vision framework. This is more of a five-year plan, with things modeled out year-by-year what we will be doing.”

More ambitious programming and activities will cost more and create the opportunity to generate more revenue.

The ASO budget has been between $1.5 million and $1.7 million for several years. This current fiscal year, it rose to $2.5 million and next year it will reach $3.5,” Herrera said

At the end of the five-year plan, new programming and initiatives will push it to $5 million.

“How do you sustain that?” Herrera said. “We have very precise, very detailed financial projections. Where is the money going to come from?”

By adding more performances and locations, more ticket sales are possible. As programs expand, the orchestra can go to longtime donors and new ones with a success story to seek greater support. Corporate sponsorship is almost an untapped source, just something Herrera said the orchestra hasn’t focused on in the past.

All of it is dependent on achieving the goals in the plan.

“The most important thing for me is that we need to show results fast, quick,” Herrera said. “That is why we need to keep the five-year goals tangible.”

Some of that will mean additional personnel. This year, the orchestra added three new positions and plans to add two more in 2023. The increased number of performances should also attract a new level of talent among musicians attracted by what the orchestra is doing.

“As we invest in people, we expect them to bring to the symphony more revenue,” Hererra said.

All of these changes come with a risk. If ASO focuses too much on the audience beyond its home base or challenges its faithful audience too often, there is the possibility of alienation. Could it lose the identity of an orchestra based in Annapolis?

“If you don’t do it right, yeah,” Herrera said. “We thought about this a lot.”

There are successful examples of small orchestras that have done this and kept from becoming just smaller versions of the National or the Baltimore symphony orchestras of the world.

Herrera points to the Academy of St. Martins in the Field. The small English orchestra has balanced its identity with expansion to a new audience through new venues, new music and the digital world.

“Well, I think that in order to serve your community, you have to know your community very well,” Novo said. “And you have to understand what the community needs. I think we have done a pretty good job with parts of our community in Annapolis. But we have a long way to go with honor other segments of our community.”