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  • Writer's pictureDenise Bishop

Spotlight Saturdays – Sponsored by the Sandler Center Foundation

Updated: Dec 5, 2020

Virginia Symphony Orchestra

Interview by Denise Bishop. Images courtesy of Virginia Symphony Orchestra.

This week, Spotlight Saturdays spoke with Karen Philion (President and CEO) and Monica Meyer (Vice President of Marketing, Sales and Public Relations) of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. On the cusp of its landmark 100th anniversary season, the Virginia Symphony Orchestra produces symphonic music concerts and offers a very wide array of educational and community programs that serve Hampton Roads.

What is your mission statement, and how do you decide on a program that fulfills your mission statement?  The Virginia Symphony Orchestra is a leading cultural asset that is the source of regional pride, connecting everyone in Hampton Roads through the transformative power of exceptional musical performances and educational activities. We are committed to providing civic value to our diverse community well beyond residents who attend concerts. We foster long-standing partnerships with audiences, artists, donors, volunteers, community and business partners that are based on the following values:

  1. Excellence and Quality

  2. Accessibility and Community Service

  3. Financial Integrity and Sustainability

  4. Diversity and Inclusiveness

  5. Cooperativeness and Flexibility

  6. Openness and Transparency

  7. Perseverance and Tenacity

It’s an interesting time for us at the VSO. We conducted a strategic planning study in 2016, and since then we’ve been revisiting who we are, who we want to be, and our role in the community. Yes, we play symphonic music at the highest level, but how in the next 10 years are we going to serve more people who don’t currently have involvement with us? We are looking to create more programs and build new partnerships with community and business partners. We’ve also been conducting a search for a new music director over the past few years. [Award-winning conductor JoAnn Falletta announced several years ago that she would be stepping down as music director after 30 years.] We designed a search process which is thorough and, unlike most other orchestras, involves our musicians at a very high level. Musicians make up half of the 14-person search committee- the rest of the committee is as representative of the community as possible- and the musicians really drove the search process from the beginning, narrowing the field of candidates. We’ve relied a lot on their expertise in the search, as arbiters of excellence. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to conclude that process as we hoped due to the timing of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What or who inspires/ influences your work? Our community is constantly inspiring to us. We are committed to providing the value of the VSO to the community.

Virginia Symphony Orchestra playing Beethoven and Mahler in 2014

What education programs are offered? In normal times, our education and community engagement programs include General Music Education, Artistic Instruction, Community Engagement, Community Engagement in coordination with Mainstage Programs, Wellness Arts, and our “Music for Everyone” Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Initiative.

Our General Music Education programs include Young People’s concerts where elementary-aged students learn repertoire and come together at orchestral concerts in our interactive Link Up program; interactive, themed Small Ensemble Presentations at schools, libraries and family organizations; Delta Arts in the Schools where performers introduce young children to unfamiliar orchestral instruments; and Lifelong Learning lecture-demonstrations and discussions of styles and eras of music, how instruments have evolved over time, and repertoire of upcoming concerts.

Our Artistic Instruction education programs include side-by-side concerts with youth orchestras and SOAR: School/Orchestra Artistic Residency program in local schools providing regular visits from symphony musicians, master classes, and private concerts. We also provide student Coachings both in and after school, coaching and mentoring students through the Heart Strings program in partnership with the Salvation Army’s Kroc Center, Professional Development for local music teachers, Master Classes and Workshops with special guest artists and select VSO musicians. Our Old Dominion University Partnership including the “Orchestra Week” side-by-side, chorus collaborations, masterclasses and workshops, VSO open rehearsals, and a “Class Pass” allowing ODU students access to VSO Classics and Pops concerts.

Our Community Engagement programs include Open Doors: Sensory-Friendly Concerts, an inclusive concert experience created with local autism and disability advocates to create a welcoming experience for all who attend, and the CommUNITY Play-In and Sing-Along, conceived in part as a healing response to the 2017 violence at the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, which welcomes community musicians and artists of all instruments and abilities to promote peace, inclusion, and unity. We also have the Harmony Project program with local African-American churches providing free performances and education events as well as collaborative concerts with church choirs; and Chamber Music community performances in intimate or non-traditional venues.

Community Engagement in coordination with our mainstage programs includes the Peanut Butter and Jam Family Concert series to introduce children and their families to symphonic music; Student Showcase Performances give student performing ensembles an opportunity to perform in the lobby before a VSO Classics or Pops concert; and Total Quality Music (TQM), in a unique collaboration with Young Audiences of Virginia, provides many tickets for select concerts to Norfolk Public Schools groups at no cost.

Our Wellness Arts programs include Generations in Unison interactive performances for memory care residents of retirement communities or health care facilities, guided by a music therapist, and small ensemble lobby performances and NICU lullabies at CHKD. The Music and Medicine partnership with Sentara provides both music-therapy-inspired and public awareness programs. Next season, we had proposed to establish a new music performance and music therapy program in coordination with the new Sentara Cancer Center and a new partnership at the Portsmouth Navy Medical Center to serve our active duty and veteran community.

And finally, our “Music for Everyone” Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Initiative. In 2019-2020, an EDI steering committee was established, and consultants Susan Feit and Barbara Hamm Lee were hired to lead the initiative. Spanning May 2019 to February 2020, the initiative includes an organizational audit and educational programs for our Board, staff and musicians. The audit is based on data gathered from an organization-wide electronic survey, interviews with key leaders, focus groups with representative samples from different stakeholder groups, and a review of literature and organizational documents. The audit explored 3 major categories: readiness, representation, and access. The report identified 7 recommendations to advance EDI: solidify a multi-year plan to incorporate EDI in every level of the VSO; establish policies, statements, and practices that affirm our commitment to EDI; provide ongoing EDI education; cultivate staff/musicians/Board from underserved populations; engage the community in discussions about how to create relevant musical experiences; integrate diverse content into VSO’s core program; and celebrate successes.

Also, under the “Music for Everyone” Initiative, we created a new African American Fellowship Program for four early-career orchestral string musicians to advance the goal of increased diversity of orchestral musicians nationwide. Slated to begin in the 2020-2021 season, this initiative is a continuation of the VSO’s commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion. The Fellows will perform from September to May as part of the VSO in over 100 services throughout eastern Virginia and engage in public school residencies and educational performances. Professional development opportunities, including private lessons and mentorship, will better equip Fellows to achieve in their careers as performers and educators. Through these activities, Fellows will receive a graduate certificate from Old Dominion University.

Virginia Sypmhony Orchestra stands on stage before they take a bow

What makes your work unique to our community, and why is that important? Well, we’re the only full-time professional symphony orchestra in Hampton Roads. Part of what makes us unique among the arts organizations is that we bring artists into the community. Musicians come from all over to audition for us, and then they move to the area, they live & work here, playing music in the churches and teaching in the schools.

How have you/ your staff been handling COVID? What have you been doing since the shutdown? How are you helping your staff and artists during this time? Our staff was working like crazy in the spring. We had a lot of work to do cancelling all of our live performances and educational activities. Thankfully, we applied for and received a PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loan which allowed us to keep people employed through the end of our normal season [typically early June]. We had to cancel scheduled performances and in-person education activities beginning in mid-March.

What’s the biggest change to educational programs?  Our musicians and staff pivoted quickly and created virtual content in order to stay connected with our community by providing entertainment, education, and inspiration.  Some of these innovative projects included: 

VSO Music Learning Lab: The VSO created a free resource hub of approximately 50 videos featuring 35 VSO musicians. The Music Learning Lab is hosted on a page of the VSO website and has been accessed by teachers and students, from pre-K through college. Videos are embedded via our YouTube channel and promoted through social media, and they have been distributed through our contacts with Hampton Roads public school teachers and administrators and other partners. All content is also being linked from WHRO’s to better promote it to educators across Virginia. To date, we have received over 6,000 views of this important educational resource.

Virtual Masterclasses with Old Dominion University: This series of Zoom sessions brings Old Dominion University students closer to VSO musicians in live masterclasses covering playing technique, musicianship, and ensemble preparation. Each session ends with a Q&A session allowing students to get help with specific problem areas.

Virtual Heartstrings & HeartValves: In the wake of school closures in response to COVID-19, the HeartStrings & HeartValves students that VSO musicians had been working with throughout this year are at home without instrumental instruction. This program is geared towards children who participate in the Salvation Army-Kroc Center’s after-school program. The VSO has stepped in to provide virtual private lessons to 4 violin students still able to participate in the program, at no cost.

Link-Up: The Orchestra Sings: This year’s Young People’s Concert, performed for 25,000 elementary school students annually, is available online to our school partners, allowing elementary school students across Hampton Roads to experience the music at home as a culmination of their school music class. The video consists of an audio recording of the concert, paired with the concert PowerPoint of play-along sheet music and visual aids.

Hospital Partnership: The VSO partnered with our local children’s hospital to stream two kinds of content throughout the hospital in lobby spaces and patient rooms, over the hospital’s closed circuit TV system. In addition, the hospital also received a special “pop-up” concert by two musicians in its butterfly garden following an annual memorial service for patients who had passed away in the last year.

The creative virtual programs were well-received by our community and showed the resiliency of the organization to quickly adjust and create new and relevant content for the benefit of our community in the midst of the pandemic crisis.

A picture from onstage at the Symphony, with percussion instruments on stands in the foreground, and harps and string players in the background.

What’s the most encouraging thing you’ve learned during this time? Our ticket buyers and supporters have been amazingly flexible. As trite as it sounds, they really understand “we’re in it together”. And the arts organizations have rallied together. Being under severe stress during the pandemic has been challenging, but my staff and I have found support, genuine concern, collaboration, and cooperation from our counterparts at the other local arts organizations. I talk to Tom Quaintance [Producing Artistic Director of Virginia Stage Company] and Russell [Allen, President and CEO of Virginia Opera] more now that I did before!

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced? Cancelling all the performances was a huge loss. Not just suddenly losing over a million dollars in revenue but also the live musical experiences that we were unable to provide to the community.

What are some passion projects that you hope to work on while we are “paused”? We’ve been so pleased at the creativity of our musicians during this time. Even in a time of fear and uncertainty, they have really energized and brought joy and passion into our new virtual programs.

What do you need during this time? We need people to stay engaged. Sure, we need financial contributions, but we also need people to not forget about us, to stick with us and come back when we are back.

In what ways are you being proactive for re-opening? We’re in listening and learning mode, staying abreast of all of the latest best practices. The League of American Orchestras [of which VSO is a member] held their annual conference virtually in May. Through the League, we are able to collaborate with other orchestras of similar size and also we’ll be able to see how the first big ensembles handle re-opening and how they are received. 

Where are you in your planning for next year? What’s your plan for subscribers or members if you know that already?  Our 2020-2021 season was already planned and announced, and we are particularly excited about it because it is our 100th season! Normally at this point in the summer, we would be mailing tickets to our subscribers. To our subscribers: we’re working on it. Please stay tuned while we wait for guidance from the state on safe venues and to ensure that the musicians’ health and safety can be accommodated. We plan to have an announcement by late summer.

What do you hope to return to? What do you hope the future of the arts looks like? Are there specific changes you would like to see when we come back? This crisis has shown us how critical the arts are. So many people are turning to the arts for solace right now. We’ve reminded people what a basic human connection means. Society is also recognizing lack of equality and access and I want to see this organization respond to that. I would like VSO and all of the arts feel a sense of urgency in our desire to be more relevant and inclusive, to recognize that we don’t have time to waste. We need to remove the barriers to access and equality now.

What conversations do we need to be having right now? Are you seeing those happening? I’m not seeing a lot of conversations right now, partly because we can’t gather, but I think we will need to move forward together. In this arts ecosystem, organizations of different genres and sizes who serve different populations, through more conversation and collaboration, can do more art and distribute it more widely.

What are you, personally, most looking forward to after the shutdown? Being together. Seeing the musicians play a live concert.

Is there a specific upcoming project you would like people to know about? We’re excited to celebrate our 100th anniversary season and announce our new music director, when we’re able! These are both such pivotal moments in the history of this organization–only a handful of orchestras have reached the milestone 100th anniversary. We can’t wait to celebrate with the community!

Where can people find you? For more information, please call 757.892.6366 or visit Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube.

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