Beloit Janesville Symphony forges new path

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By Nancy Raabe, Special to The Gazette
Sunday, April 13, 2014

What’s in a name?

Where the Beloit Janesville Symphony is concerned, everything.

In a bold move that might have repercussions far beyond the region, the former BJS has become the Rock River Philharmonic. What had been a respectable if staid organization, bound by geography and a modest schedule, soon will be a dynamic presence flowing in and through a wide variety of venues throughout the region, making waves and carving out new paths along which even greater creativity can be channeled.

Michael Krueger, executive director of the Rock River Philharmonic, will share this vision with concertgoers today at the orchestra’s 3 p.m. “American Voices” concert, which concludes its 60th anniversary Diamond Jubilee season.

The orchestra’s new website, RockRiverPhil.org, will go live in June.

In place of the customary slate of a few classical concerts supplemented by holiday pops and chamber music, the 2015 season, which begins in January, comprises three series with three concerts each—Classical, Family Pops and Exploration—along with two Independence Day programs and a silent film night, for 12 events.

The Classical series will feature traditional masterworks. The Family Pops concerts will be informal and family friendly. The Exploration series, which figures to become a signature of the philharmonic, offers participatory, multisensory encounters with art in various forms and installations. Full season details will be revealed this fall.

Nationally, it stands as a compelling paradigm for how arts organizations can not only survive, but thrive.

Like many smaller arts organizations, the orchestra struggled through the economic recession. To its credit, the board recognized the organization would benefit from new energy and a new direction. So Krueger, a career banker who is also a sculptor, poet and professional-caliber double bassist, was hired in March 2013 to engineer a turnaround, a process he had studied under “turnaround king” Michael Kaiser of the Kennedy Center.

After an initial 45-day assessment, Krueger pulled board members together and told them what he saw.

“One thing was negative equity in the brand,” he recalled. “The brand was actually worth less than zero because concerts had been canceled.”

Then he outlined four top priorities—diversification of revenue, solidifying the musician base, development of the staff and establishing a structure for the board.

All have been successfully addressed. Revenue is already 80 percent over what it was a year ago. Krueger and marketing/outreach director Britney McKay are the only full-time staff; the 65 musicians and conductor Robert Tomaro work on contract. The energized 12-member board includes several working committees that allow Krueger and McKay to focus on what they were hired to do.

Most important, Krueger urged the board to see the larger issue as one of culture, not economics.

“These smaller orchestras are doing what they did 50 years ago,” he said. “Yes, we do owe an homage to classical music, some of the greatest musical creations of mankind. But we also owe society something relevant.”

So what does relevance mean in this context?

“Relevance to us is not having people come to us on our terms but exploring how we go to them on their terms,” Krueger said. “Nobody owes the symphony anything. They don’t owe us attendance, donations, anything. So how do we provide services so we’re on the front end and we’re giving them what they want, so that they support us because of that, instead of the other way around?”

He emphasizes that this does not mean dumbing down the programming but instead providing different options for people of different interests. The new logo and tagline capture this sense of innovation.

“Every part of the logo is very specific,” Krueger said. “It’s global in one sense; it shows the water from the river, and it represents the violin or string instrument.”

And it conveys motion and direction.

“We are going from being a sage—an institution beyond reproach—to being explorers,” he said. “The Rock River is ambiguous. There is no more Beloit or Janesville; there is no more Rock County, Walworth County, any counties; there’s not even Wisconsin or Illinois. We’ve intentionally rubbed out all the geographic lines.”

Choosing the name “Philharmonic” was also strategic.

“The word ‘symphony’ is a noun, meaning a genre of music.” Krueger said. “The word ‘orchestra’ is also a noun, meaning a large group of musicians that gathers to perform symphonic music. But if you look up ‘philharmonic,’ it is an adjective which means ‘a passion for advocacy of and love of music.’ So if we’re going to be an action-based, exploring organization, we need our name to reflect that action.”

The logo’s tag line, “Exploring artistic boundaries,” invites all who join the venture to “explore wherever they are, and maybe go further.”

The new Classical series will include Holst’s “The Planets,” timed to coincide with a stellar event that concertgoers can view afterward through telescopes provided by three regional astronomy clubs.

The Family Pops series, McKay said, will be like “a family picnic, with a safe place for children to run and laugh and play.”

The Explorer series includes an “Ode to Industry” evoking industrial futurism that will feature a hip-hop artist and a drummer on opposite sides of the hall, an anvil player in the middle, a table saw behind the curtain, and interpretive dancers costumed in steampunk garb. Amid all this, audience members will be invited to paint on drywall mounted on one side of the hall and to create wire sculptures on the other.

“Some people might think we’re going off the deep end with this,” Krueger said with a smile, “and hopefully we are!”

Krueger believes the future looks bright for the Rock River Philharmonic.

“From my experience, this is one of the financially healthy orchestras of its size,” Krueger said. “We are always seeking to increase and diversify our sources of revenue, but we have also made prudent investments with the funds we do have. This allows us to cover a part of our operating costs from the earnings on our investments.

“Our organization is now over 60 years old, and we take the responsibility of our budget very seriously. At the same time, our goal is to provide better and better performance experiences for our region, as opposed to cutting back to save money. We can’t save our way to prosperity.”

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