June 25, 2018
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Bangor Symphony Orchestra prepares to open 115th season on high note

Maestro Xiao-Lu Li conducts the Bangor Symphony Orchestra during Saturday evening's world premiere of "The Penobscot River." (BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY GABOR DEGRE)
By Emily Burnham, BDN Staff

As accustomed as we are to nothing but doom and gloom when talking of anything financial, it’s easy to do a double take when you hear good news. It’s even more bewildering when it comes from an arts organization.

And yet, that’s the bulk of what the Bangor Symphony Orchestra has to share with its audience nowadays: good news. After all, its 115th season will kick off at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Collins Center for the Arts in Orono with a new music director, a surplus budget, a streamlined staff and operating system, and ticket sales already on track to outsell the previous year. So how did they do it?

“We worked very, very hard and took a look at every single aspect of this organization to figure out exactly what we could afford,” said Samuel Lanham, president of the BSO board and a local lawyer. “We really took a fine-toothed comb to the entire thing, with the idea in mind that we never wanted to spend outside of our means. And I think we’ve accomplished that.”

To that end, administrative staff was reduced in 2008 from six to two, the offices were moved from Main Street in downtown Bangor to Husson University’s Quirk House on Broadway, the box office was handed over to the Collins Center for the Arts at the University of Maine, rehearsals were reduced from two weekends to one, and new partnerships with local businesses and organizations were formed.

Meanwhile, creative new ways of growing the BSO audience were started, such as offering half-off subscriptions to new subscribers, special deals for families, and new programming such as last year’s sell-out pops concert featuring the music of the Beatles.

At the close of the 2009-10 season and fiscal year last summer, the results came in: The Bangor Symphony Orchestra, unlike multiple other orchestras of its size and larger across the country, actually had made money. To get a sense of how unusual this is, BSO Executive Director David Whitehill points to the example of many other orchestras in the United States.

“It’s been hard for everyone, everywhere,” said Whitehill. “The Detroit Symphony, always one of the best in the nation, has really struggled. I think we have been successful because we’ve been able to streamline everything and make it very efficient.”

All of this new emphasis on efficiency and cost-effectiveness, however, comes only with the renewed commitment to why people come to the Collins Center five Sundays a year in the first place: the music.

“We’ve got to do right by our audience and give them great performances,” said Lanham. “Not only do we want to play the best music that we can, we want to be able to expose as many people as possible in the community to what we do. The pops concerts have really helped with that, as well.”

On the horizon for the 2010-2011 season is a continued striving toward financial security and musical excellence, and a renewed focus on the Bangor Symphony Youth Orchestra. Both Whitehill and Lanham hope to see young musicians play an even stronger role in the musical community the BSO has built over the past century.

“We’ve got to celebrate the resources we have right in our community,” said Whitehill. “I think it speaks to this community that we’ve been able to have these successes.”

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