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San Diego Symphony Looks Past 100

When symphonies are in the news these days, it tends to be bad news. The San Diego Symphony broke that trend over the last year as they celebrated their centennial season as the oldest orchestra in California. We'll talk about the business of running an orchestra.

When symphonies are in the news these days, it tends to be bad news. The San Diego Symphony broke that trend over the last year as they celebrated their centennial season as the oldest orchestra in California. We'll talk about the business of running an orchestra.


Ward Gill is the executive director of the San Diego Symphony.

The final concert in the Jacobs Masterworks series begins Friday, May 26th. The concert will feature Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: The San Diego symphony orchestra's centennial season has been star-studded. World class concert stars like cellist Yo-yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax have performed as part of the symphony's year long birthday party. But stars aren't the only thick that makes a symphony survive a hundred years, it takes excellent core musicians, audience support, and a good business plan. Joining us to tell us what the symphony is doing right and what particular be doing better, is my guest, Ward Gill, executive director of the San Diego symphony. Good afternoon, Ward, thank you for coming in.

GILL: Good afternoon, Maureen. It's absolutely my pleasure to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Now, this week marks the end of your centennial season at the San Diego symphony. Was it a successful season from a business standpoint?

GILL: Maureen, this centennial season exceeded our expectations from a financial standpoint, an artistic standpoint, any way you could possibly look at it, it has been absolutely fabulous. Financially, our ticket sales were at all time highs, and this has been a very difficult time across the country for classical music, for pops, for everything. And from our perspective right now, and from the national numbers that came in, starting with our summer season, we had an eight percent increase in our summer pops, our over all classical was absolutely fabulous this year, and I think it was helped by our guest artists on a per concert bases. We were up almost 10†percent. Soap it was just a stunning year financially for us at the box office. And also the contributions of our great supporters.

CAVANAUGH: So in a sense, you're going against the tide at the San Diego symphony because there are an awful lot of other orchestras around the country that are really struggling right now.

GILL: Oh, you know we hear about it all the time. We hear the challenges that are going on right now with the bankruptcy in Philadelphia and the work stoppage in Detroit, but the exciting part I think that's been happening here in San Diego is we have been out in the community, I think collaborating with other organizations, really celebrating our centennial as being really something special for all of San Diego. We've welcomed everybody into our home at symphony hall, down at the embarcadero, we have gone up to the zoo on the deck of the midway. It's been great, and everybody's really embraced everything that we've been doing.

CAVANAUGH: The recession started around 2008, so when you look back the last couple of years, has that impacted ticket sales though at the symphony?

GILL: Well, you know, it's very interesting. We have not been impacted from a pure dollars and attendance standpoint. But it is because we, I think, are doing things better now. We brought in a new website, and people can purchase their tickets on line, they can see their seat right on the screen, we do different marketing strategies as far as, you know, how we package and price our events. So I think what we've done to counter that is the quality of our shows I think are better 94 than they have ever been. You mentioned Emanuel Ax, Yo-yo Ma, Lang Lang, it's been a great year for that, the pop, Marvin Hamlisch, we've had great summer artists. So I think what it is is the economy's been very, very tough, but I think it has forced us to think differently of how we do business. And we just work a lot harder and we've seen some great results.

CAVANAUGH: As we've been saying, the symphony is concluding its centennial celebration. One hundred years, the oldest orchestra in California. I think a lot of people are still somewhat surprised when they hear that. San Diego has the oldest orchestra in California.

GILL: Oh, Maureen, we love it. In fact, next year, the San Francisco symphony is celebrating there'll one hundredth, so I want to thank our forefathers for getting out of the blocks one year earlier. And we're so excited in the past year and a half. You may not be aware, but our orchestra has grown artistically. And we have now been elevated to what we call a group one status by the league of American orchestras. And this puts us in the same category as San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Boston. And so it was so special coming right during our centennial that we achieved this new height, that this community really has a world classicism no.

CAVANAUGH: Now, ward gill, as director of the San Diego symphony, you are of course a great booster for the symphony. But in reality, when the centennial is over, do you foresee any challenges for the symphony as it moves on to its one hundred first year? ?

GILL: There are a lot of challenges as you mentioned earlier. The symphony world is going through a changing put. I think our biggest challenge is to maintain the momentum. And I think that's what we really have to keep category, and we're looking at this from a classical standpoint. I think our programming and our guest artistry next year will be every bit as good as the current year. In fact, I think the program's actually gonna be better.

CAVANAUGH: Anything that you can tell us that's coming up?

GILL: Well, you know, I can right now. We're opening up -- in fact I'm gonna talk about our opus gala. It'll be a French theme that we're going to be having, a great pianist by the name of Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and we're gonna have Kathleen Battle that will be coming, we're gonna have Pinchas Zukerman who will be coming into town, and Horatio Gutierrez, and we just have some tremendous top rank players who will be coming. Steven Huff who's gonna be playing the piano also gonna be there. But that's what we're looking at is how to keep building the enthusiasm and the energy.

CAVANAUGH: Including the San Diego symphony has to keep a very clear eye on the bottom line These Days. And I'm wondering how -- what kind of tensions that creates. In other words, if you know a certain program's gonna be a really cash cow, so to speak.

GILL: Right.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: As opposed to something that's a little more out there, artistically. What kind of discussions go on within the symphony about where to take those chances and where to look at the bottom line and say this is what we must do?

GILL: Well, I think I always work very closely with Jahja Ling, our music director, and my background has been in business, and I've been in the arts business now for 20 years. But what you do as you try to layout awe sane is you say, what do we do to appeal to the community, and then it's in the packaging if you will of the programs. So you can have a mauler piece, and you just have to make sure when you do it that people understand what it's about, that they gain a greater knowledge of it, and we'll package it with something, let's say, the week before that may have a special piece that everybody knows, it could be even a Shostakovich piece, it may be Beethoven, it maybe Mozart. So we just always try to make sure that people get something special out of every one of the concerts.

CAVANAUGH: It won't be hard to get audiences to come along for this final weekend of the centennial. Tell us what's on the program.

GILL: It's always very interesting. We have, I think, the greatest violinist right now in the country that will be coming here with this repertoire, and that's Gil Shaham, and we'll be throwing the Beethoven violin concerto. And even though people all know this piece, it is rarely played in the orchestra world, and that's the Beethoven 5th symphony. So we're very excited about having everybody come and enjoy it. You will hear a performance that you will remember for years to come. And get your tickets, we're virtually sold out right now for all three performances, Friday, Saturday, and our Sunday afternoon matinee. So it'll be a wonderful experience. It'll be one of those times you say I'm so happy I went.

CAVANAUGH: It's your last chance to say happy one hundredth, right, to the San Diego symphony?

GILL: This is it, and the next 101, so the next hundred years, and onward and upward.

CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with ward gill, he is executive director of the San Diego symphony. Ward, thank you.

GILL: Absolutely, Maureen. Our pleasure.


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