When David W. Donovan founded the Lebanon Symphony Orchestra some 15 years ago, there were just a handful of community-based orchestras in the region.

These days, the greater metropolitan area is rapidly becoming a hotbed of smaller symphonies, fast changing the face of suburban arts culture and the business models of the Tristate's classical music industry. No less than two dozen orchestras have sprouted around and outside the I-275 beltway, mimicking the explosive spread of suburban sprawl.

The question poised at the conductor's podium is this: Can so many orchestras, so many maestros, thrive in one single market? Or is this"”to put it bluntly"”a baton death march?

"It seems like there might be," acknowledges maestro Donovan when asked if there are too many orchestras for a metro area the size of Greater Cincinnati. "It's certainly not as unusual now as it was."

That said, Donovan hastens to point out, it won't be his orchestra that falls on hard times; the conductor cites a variety of market and audience demographic factors that favor a flourishing future for mid-sized music organizations in the outer 'burbs and exurbs.
Indeed, the rise of the suburban symphony, the little orchestras that could, seems at its face a financial and cultural success story. Greater Cincinnati appears to have more mid-sized classical musical organizations per capita than any city in the country outside the Major Metros such as New York City and Los Angeles.

In fact, when confronted with the raw numbers, diverse sources such as the Fine Arts Fund, WGUC-FM classical radio and even the editors of the national Symphony magazine found this "more orchestras per capita" statement hard to dispute.

Greater Cincinnati is plain and simply blessed"”though some symphony business managers, marketing directors and ticket agents might characterize the abundance as more of a curse.

"It's really amazing we have 25 orchestras," observes Brandon VanWaeyenberghe. "Is 25 too many? From a manager's point of view, there's only so much money to go around, only so much market share. Managers must be pulling their hair out over 25 orchestras."

VanWaeyenberghe should know what he's talking about. While his day job is as development manager for the Cincinnati Ballet, he's also the author of "Musical Chairs: A Study of the Supply and Demand of Orchestra Musicians in the United States." Often quoted in national newspapers, VanWaeyenberghe"”a graduate of the Arts Administration program at U.C.'s College-Conservatory of Music"”suggests these organizations are niches, nimble and spry, that can "bleed the margins" of larger institutional orchestras.


The Lebanon Symphony's Donovan puts it another way. The lifelong classical music lover confides, "I don't go there [Music Hall] very often anymore."

Donovan and VanWaeyenberghe are by no means attempting to foreshadow the imminent demise of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and Steven Monder is here to adamantly squash any such notion. Monder, president of the downtown CSO, actually sees the growth spurt among suburban orchestras as a positive trend for all players.

"It has to be good news for the CSO," suggests Monder. "The more people listening to classical music, the better. I want them to fall in love with the music."

Even with an abundance of spending options, a marketplace full of music, "people will always find the time to do the things they love," he insists.

SOCCER, SUVs, NOW SYMPHONIES

That the suburbs are breeding their own homegrown culture is not news. That two dozen Tristate symphonies have sprouted up in recent years, well, that ought to be attention-grabbing. No other cultural medium"”not theater, not dance, not opera"”can lay claim to this explosive growth curve.

What accounts for the abundance of classical music here? Perhaps the very presence of the College-Conservatory of Music, the School for Creative and Performing Arts, the Institute of Fine Arts, the May Festival"”name your spark, pick your root cause.

The musical underpinnings of the region start early: Director Kris Torbush recently led the Anderson High School Symphony Orchestra during a performance at the National School Orchestra Association's 2006 National Orchestra Festival in Kansas City. Classical, choral and chamber music is everywhere, from high school auditoriums to cathedrals, to visiting troupes and touring professionals.

Does a suburban hotbed for classical music mean the next major performing arts center will be built in Sharonville or West Chester? Quite likely, given time.

But until that happens, suburban maestros are forced to make do with what they have, and collaboration is the name of the game. This explains why Donovan's Lebanon Symphony Orchestra is branching out to partner with the Arts Council in Mason. "It's not unusual for an orchestra to straddle two communities," the conductor explains.

Donovan and others suggest the movement is all tied up in community pride, though frankly, it's just as much about convenience: an orchestra around the corner instead of an hour's drive away through I-75 traffic. There's also a loyalty that develops between conductors and their audiences. Local patrons get to know a Paul Stanbery (Hamilton-Fairfield Symphony), a Susan Schirmer (West Chester Symphony), a Laurence Bonhaus (Cincinnati Civic Orchestra) or a Michael Chertock (Blue Ash-Montgomery Symphony).

"One of the other reasons that orchestras in the outlying areas are doing well is because of families," suggests Donovan. And the word "families" isn't a code word here for family values; it simply means some parents don't feel safe trotting their children to Music Hall. To repeat the maestr'™s words for emphasis: "I don't go there [Music Hall] very often anymore." If this isn't another wakeup call for that venerable institution, what is?

Parking and safety are the two biggest factors affecting attendance at downtown arts events, according to "The Value of the Performing Arts in Ten Communities," an Urban Institute report that included Cincinnati. Ticket costs were a third barrier cited. Many suburban concerts, it's relevant to note, are free.

MIND OVER MAHLER

So note by note, the face of orchestral music in Greater Cincinnati is changing. Where pastoral cornfields once thrived, soccer moms (and dads) now rule. Roll over, Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news.

The upstart conductors of community-based symphonies are stepping to the dias, feeling free to explore new avenues and accessible (read "user-friendly") programming. If you're a nimble, small-scale orchestra, why not experiment?

As Donovan of the Lebanon model explains, "We try to mix it up, so we are not all just one type of concert."

Attendance is fueled not just by safe and free parking, but by the novel, the unusual, even the outrageous in arts programming. Some conductors ditch the tie-and-tails; others disdain the "fetish of silence," processional bowing and stilted garnishes inflicted upon traditional symphony audiences.

Take the Lebanon's 2006-2007 season, which includes one concert with book by Dr. Seuss and another, the season finale, that's the Tristate premiere of Voices of Light by American composer Richard Einhorn. The event merges a live performance with the screening of a silent film masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Then there's the Cincinnati Metropolitan Orchestra's summer concert at Seton Performance Hall on the west side, which featured outtakes from Broadway's Wicked.

The Kentucky Symphony Orchestra and music director James Cassidy are the undisputed kings of saavy marketing and programming. At the symphony's "Beethoven 5-K Run" in Covington's Devou Park, for instance, runners pitted their time against Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (one participant showed up sporting a Beethoven wig).

ECONOMY OF SCALES

"Frankly, if you're programming against Paavo [Jarvi] and the CSO, you do well to steer clear of typical fare and create your own brand," notes one observer associated with Hyde Park's Institute of Fine Arts.

This same pundit notes that where Hyde Park arts lovers choose to point their BMWs"”south, north, east or west"”will largely determine the future of the arts in Greater Cincinnati.

The notion is somewhat provincial, given that Hyde Park and adjoining Indian Hill are no longer the single mover-and-shaker of arts underwriting in the region (West Chester just eclipsed Indian Hill as the second richest zip code in Ohio).

But, the philosophy"”and the philanthropy"”behind the notion still applies. Audiences and donation dollars remain intractably linked.
About 600 professional orchestras now operate in the United States, according to a recent study compiled at the University of Cincinnati. And in terms of bottom lines, the smaller and mid-size orchestras are typically more financially sound than the major orchestras, according to the American Symphony Orchestra League. The small orchestras are more flexible and can adjust to financial difficulties more quickly.

The Orchestra League designates professional orchestra tiers according to annual budget size, from Group 1, with budgets of $14 million or more, to Group 7, with budgets of $124,000 to $450,000. (Only the first group contains full-time orchestras.)

The CSO, of course, has a Group 1 budget. After years of running deficits, the orchestra now appears to be holding at about break-even, and is free of debt. The CS'™s most recent public tax form states the organization has net assets/endowment of $76 million, with annual revenue of nearly $34 million (including donations, support from the Fine Arts Fund, grants and other public monies), balanced against $34 million in annual expenses.

FOLLOW THE MONEY

As companies and their employees continue to move to the 'burbs, corporate sponsorship dollars and (obviously) the potential audiences go with them. It's a pure case of "follow the money."

"Where would Carnegie have chosen to lavish his foundation dollars in today's world?" asks one Cincinnati arts observer in a rhetoric mode. "In Over-the-Rhine? Or in Fairfield? It's a valid question."

It's all about corporate and philanthropic dollars, to be sure, but it's also about leisure dollars: the individual consumers and their disposable income.

Orchestra subscriber bases are built on median family household incomes, not on the availability or relative talent of tuba players. Arts consumers and corporate underwriting will always determine the future"”and the location"” of culture; nothing plays second fiddle to that stark reality (though taxpayer support, low crime rates and free parking certainly help).

Certainly even the revered Cincinnati Symphony recognized the trend years ago, opting to transplant itself each summer to the Hulbert Taft Jr. Center for the Performing Arts (otherwise known as RiverBend), which is strategically located outside the Donald H. Rolf Circle Freeway (otherwise known as I-275).

WHAT'S NEXT?

The smaller "outside the beltway" symphonies shouldn't be viewed simply as "loss leaders" to drive real estate values in their communities, nor as mere accidents of geography that benefit by convenient access, say those knowledgeable in both the urban and suburban cultures.
Consider the three words echoed by chambers of commerce everywhere: "Quality of life."

As emerging suburbs step up to building full identities and civic purposes, endowing suburban arts is certainly one arena to explore. By way of example, the Blue Ash/Montgomery Symphony Orchestra is funded by the cities of Blue Ash and Montgomery. Lebanon Symphony Orchestra gets money from Duke Energy and the city of Lebanon.

Mixed-use performing arts centers and economic development often go hand-in-hand. (Consider Anderson Township's intention to build a civic amphitheater in tandem with a luxury condo development next to the Anderson Towne Centre mall.)

What suburban leaders are quickly realizing: Not-for-profits are definitely not the same as no-profits. This is a pay-to-play arrangement. "We have a paid orchestra. I hire the players," Lebanon's Donovan explains. "We hope to build the endowment, but that takes a lot."
Will this explosive growth and risk-taking eventually cause financial doom for least some of these suburban orchestras?

"My answer is no, these orchestras all serve their communities," concludes VanWaeyenberghe. "People will go, and continue to go, because it's closer and it's not as much of an investment for them."

Score another win for price points.