Shaking up the repertoire: Part II

Jason E. Kaplan
Scott Showalter, president, Oregon Symphony

Scott Showalter, president and CEO of the Oregon Symphony, talks about revenue growth, the symphony as performance art and how he said no to Edward Snowden.

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The Oregon Symphony is having a banner season. Revenues clocked at nearly $20 million in 2017, up from  $14.7 million four years ago. Twenty percent of ticket buyers last year were first time purchasers. 

I caught up with Showalter in the Oregon Symphony’s downtown Portland offices. He talks about revenue growth, the symphony as performance art and how he said no to Edward Snowden.

Click HERE to read a companion interview with All Classical Portland president and CEO Suzanne Nance. She discusses live radio, launching a children’s channel and diversifying the classical canon.

The challenge

“I came here four years ago with the intent to fill a leadership void. Nobody had been in this position for years, and pulling back in finances meant less interesting work onstage and around the community — a kind of a death spiral, if you will. We envisioned how we could invest in great art that would excite more ticket buyers and donors.  You change that death spiral into a virtuous one.”



The strategy

“We’ve gone broad and we’ve gone deep.  By broad, we’re now playing music to the video game Final Fantasy. We have a popcorn package where you can subscribe to  Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, La La Land, Pirates of the Caribbean. You show the movie but scrub the movie of the score, so you have a live orchestra performance. We’ve done country-western music, brought in the National Acrobats of China, Lily Tomlin, John Cleese, Bill Murray.”

Going deep

“It’s not enough in this day and age to do a templated overture, a concerto with a guest artist. Then you have intermission and during the second half you do some big 19th-century symphony.  That’s a lovely experience, and we play at the top of the game. But even to our core audience that loves that, we want to give them sparks to anchor their seasons.” 


“A couple of seasons ago, we added visual elements — artisan glass, video mapping, puppetry — that help bring alive the music as was written by Bartok for the opera “Bluebeard’s Castle,” by Stravinsky for “Perséphone.”  That really excited our audience. When you sell out audiences to “Perséphone?” No one comes to that.”

Political notes

“We commissioned a play on immigration, performed at the same time as new music. We had an immigrant pianist, performing two concertos: one by Schoenberg, an immigrant himself, and Gershwin, the son of immigrants. Then we had the play. Conductor Carlos Kalmar is an immigrant, 23% of the orchestra are first generation and 9% are foreign born. So the idea wasn’t about the wall, or Syria; it was about the beauty musicians bring into our lives.”

Environmental programming

“We did a program at the World Forestry Center on the environment. We partnered with the Audubon Society and Friends of the Columbia Gorge, and commissioned four composers to write pieces based on bird songs of their choosing.  The suite of music was supplemented by songs by Samuel Barber and Stravinsky, Simultaneously we projected multimedia images on screens.”

So…it’s the symphony as performance art.

“I like that. Performance art. If all we are doing is performing the standard repertoire — Mozart, Brahms — we become arguably an outdated art form.  If we are commissioning new works and contributing to the orchestral canon, we are moving forward.”

Checks and balances

“We’re thinking about a speaker series and reaching out even further to connect to our audience. But there are limits. Edward Snowden’s people contacted us about a talk; it’s him, live, from whatever safe space he’s in around the world. From a business standpoint, it was a great opportunity; you can sell out at super low cost. But from a brand standpoint, what is this going to do for the Oregon Symphony, which wants to be that neutral party that invites people into a safe space regardless  of what side of the political aisle you are on? You start to inject, as he would inherently, partisan politics into the mix. So we backed away from it.”

[Showalter pulls out a brochure with picture of Garrison Keillor]

“Here’s one we just cancelled: Garrison Keillor. Traditionally you don’t have a morality clause in a weekend contract with a performer that’s going around the country.  Then you get into situations like this. We have to think beyond the numbers. We can’t harm the brand.” [Keillor was fired last year for sexual harassment.]

The state of corporate giving

“Corporate giving in general is on the wane; city resources are drying up, and even some of institutional funders are no longer choosing to support us on a general operating basis.  On the corporation front, there has been a movement to give more to institutions focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion, so some institutional funders are pivoting away from cultural institutions.”

Tapping into tech wealth

“When I came in it was: ‘Tech: they don’t give.’  Well we started having conversations with Intel; lo and behold we are a partner of note in developing technology that allows artists to create music without instruments.  And we were on stage with the Intel CEO at his keynote address, at CES in Las Vegas.” 

How to compete with streaming and social media.

“My hope is that as more people go online and are isolated at some point you’re going to seek out the live experience, not just because you’ve chosen this one over 20 million other options, but because you’re dying to get out of your hovel. I don’t worry for classical music lovers in the current generation, but I do worry for the next generation if public music education continues to be in the black. We can’t survive on Final Fantasy.” 

A version of this interview appears in the March 2018 issue of Oregon Business. 

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