Traverse City News and Events

Traverse Symphony Set To Start New Movement

By Craig Manning | Aug. 9, 2019

This weekend marks the start of a new chapter for the Traverse Symphony Orchestra (TSO) in more ways than one.

While the official start of the 2019-2020 TSO season is still a month away, the orchestra will host its annual fundraiser Saturday evening with a concert at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa. The program, which will focus on the music of Oscar-winning film composer John Williams (Star Wars, Jaws, Harry Potter), marks the first time in years the TSO will perform at the Resort, the first time its yearly fundraiser will include the entire orchestra, and is a rare summertime performance for the symphony. And beyond the music, the organization has a new leader with a new vision.

Dr. Kedrik Merwin, who has been director of music at Interlochen Center for the Arts for 10 years (and actually plays trombone in the TSO), takes over as the new executive director of the TSO on September 1.

Merwin brings a goal of evolving the orchestra, with the hopes of reaching more people in more creative ways -- a goal many of the roughly 1,200 U.S. symphony orchestras share amidst tough times. In July, the National Philharmonic, based in North Bethesda, Maryland, announced plans to close due to financial difficulties. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra locked out its musicians in June in the midst of contentious contract negotiations.

Merwin looks at the landscape and believes a new strategy is needed.

“One of the main things that I am thinking about for the symphony going forward is to really embed the orchestra more deeply in the life of the community of the Grand Traverse region,” Merwin tells The Ticker. “I would like for it to be an important piece of the social and artistic life of the community. That would involve the symphony playing more concerts in the summer and more concerts where the venues are places that would be attractive to more types of audiences. Playing in places where people don’t necessarily have to dress up and sit in a quiet concert hall, but someplace where the community can really realize that this is their symphony and feel ownership because the symphony is accessible and really meeting the needs of the people in the area.”

Merwin’s vision also involves collaborations with other arts organizations, strategies to harness the summer tourist traffic, and concert experiences that are more approachable to more people.

Despite some financial struggles about a decade ago, outgoing Interim Executive Director Gary Gatzke says the symphony has actually retained a steady subscribership and a “loyal patron base.” Forty to 45 percent of the TSO’s earned income each year comes from season ticket subscriptions, notably higher than the national average of 33 percent. And the TSO saw a 2.5 percent increase in ticket sales from the 2017-18 season to this past season.

The challenge is that subscriptions and ticket sales don’t cover the costs of performances.

“The TSO requires a collection of a minimum of 55 highly-educated, skilled professionals, who for the most part have to travel to Traverse City to play,” says TSO Maestro Kevin Rhodes. “All of that is a very, very expensive enterprise, and it always has been. This particular art form has always been the product of, or been able to exist by, the virtue of patrons.”

Rhodes adds that the orchestras struggling most today are those with extremely high fixed costs, usually in the form of full-time salaries for musicians. The TSO, he says, is more flexible, as musicians are paid on a per-concert basis.
So Saturday’s fundraiser is crucial, and especially so to Rhodes, who will conduct the orchestra: It will serve as a sort of test run for what could become the orchestra’s new summertime home. Typically, TSO’s season runs from early September through the end of May, with the orchestra taking the summertime off. Summers are where the people and (and money) are most available, but the TSO’s usual home, Corson Auditorium in Interlochen, is booked all season.

"If [Governor’s Hall at the Resort] turns out to be the kind of space that I imagine it is going to be," says Rhodes, "then we may have found a place that we can do bigger events in the summer, and where we know that we can do them with great parking, high-quality food, a cash bar, and a space where people can enjoy a concert in a sort of Las Vegas-type showroom environment."

Tickets - ranging from $50 to $125 - for Saturday night are available for purchase here.

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