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There’s no question that the social distancing required by the coronavirus has taken its toll on the performing arts – live music in particular. Like other orchestral groups, the Tampa Bay Symphony suspended rehearsals and performances for most of 2020, leaving a big gap in the lives of the more than 80 volunteer musicians who work under the baton of popular music director Mark Sforzini, who’s also the executive and artistic director of the St. Petersburg Opera Company.
“We’re a big family of people who love to make music together,” said Tampa Bay Symphony president Susan Rhein. “Most of us have been playing in ensembles our whole lives, even though our day jobs may be outside of music.” The professions of the player are indeed diverse, counting a firefighter, dentist and martial arts instructor among their ranks, to name just a few.
In a normal year, the symphony, which has been around for about 40 years, plays three concerts a year at three venues in Tampa Bay – the Palladium in St. Petersburg, the Straz Center in Tampa and the Arts Auditorium at St. Petersburg College. Tickets are an affordable $20, and popular with audiences who appreciate Sforzini’s educational set-ups of each piece, the high caliber of the musicianship and the relaxed vibe of the events.
The group also manages two musical competitions with cash prizes, one for young emerging artists and a second an annual call for original compositions, drawing scores of submissions from around the globe. The symphony performs the winning composition and also weaves occasional contemporary pieces through its mostly-traditional classical canon.
Community orchestras have a rich tradition in the United States with loyal followings in communities across the nation. Most are small-budget, volunteer-driven organizations, working hard to raise the funds they need for the music director, venue rentals and administration. A year and a half ago, the Tampa Bay Symphony took part in a new capacity-building program developed by the St. Petersburg Group and the Social Venture Partners, called Catalyst for Good (C4G). C4G is a one-stop consultancy with a deep bench of business and nonprofit talent on tap across the spectrum of business functions. It emphasizes concrete deliverables that build organizational capacity, with the goal of improving operations and increasing impact in the local nonprofit ecosystem.
Over several months the symphony board and musicians worked with the C4G team on a range of plans and projects to grown stronger as an organization. According to Rhein, “The C4G program was completely tailored to meet the needs of our organization, providing much needed expertise and guidance in areas like social media and fundraising, and providing our organization with an infrastructure that can be managed and maintained within the constraints of our very limited budget.”
With a new website, refreshed brand and a firmer handle on its unique value proposition and market niche, the symphony increased ticket sales along with public participation with the two competitions and “People’s Choice” awards. Digital marketing and social media helped introduce the symphony to an important growth market: those with smaller budgets and less experience with classical music. In a surprising twist, attendance tripled at free public rehearsals of the composition competition rehearsals, suggesting increased engagement and a potential for a new revenue source.
While it was disheartening to be sidelined during Covid, the investment in the organization and the promise of implementing some exciting plans when things open up helped people get through a challenging year. The orchestra’s goals for a post-pandemic future are similar to other classical performance groups: continue to share their love of orchestral music with broad audiences, striving for greater diversity by age, race and income.
Select performances begin at the Palladium April 11 and 13, with safety precautions and limited seating, assigned following social distancing guidelines. The symphony has organized a no-intermission program for a smaller string orchestra, with similar scaled down performances in the works.
For information, tickets or more about the Tampa Bay Symphony, visit tampabaysymphony.org. For a case study about the group’s work with Catalyst for Good, see https://stpete.foundation/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Case-Study-TBO.pdf
Karen Chassin is the executive director of the St. Petersburg Foundation. Catalyst for Good is a program of the foundation, the St. Petersburg Group and Social Venture Partners Tampa Bay.