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Wednesday, December 29,2010

Timothy Muffitt

Despite the economy, the beat goes on for the Lansing Symphony maestro.

by James Sanford
Illustration by Vince Joy

How would you characterize the state of symphony orchestras in 2010?


Well, all the arts are generally very sensitive to the health of the economy because we rely largely on philanthropy for our survival. Only 30 percent of our operating expenses come from tickets sales, which means 70 percent has to be raised through sponsorships. It’s those organizations and businesses that make it possible for our audiences to come to performances at a reasonable rate. If we operated entirely on ticket revenues, no one could afford it.


The Honolulu Symphony just announced it’s going out of business, and I think we all know the situation the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (which is embroiled in a lengthy, acrimonious strike) is facing. We are very proud to say the Lansing Symphony Orchestra is fiscally healthy. We have superb executive leadership, and we are highly disciplined in our approach to the business side of the organization.


The health of orchestras across the country today is entirely reflective of specific communities and the value that community puts on the arts. Fortunately, here the community recognizes the arts are essential to the long-term economic health of the city.


Why do you think Lansing is so aware of the importance of the LSO?


The entire state of Michigan seems to have a heightened appreciation of the arts. There are longstanding traditions in the schools of excellence in music programs, not to mention the fact that Michigan has places like Interlochen (Center for the Arts) and Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp. And not only do our universities like Michigan State have outstanding programs, but our secondary and tertiary schools and universities also have excellent programs. In our city, the presence of a major university and a first-rate community college attracts people who have cultural awareness and a cultural curiosity, as well as an appetite to seek out new, enriching cultural experiences.


A common complaint among symphonies is that audiences only want to hear the tried and true pieces by familiar composers. What’s the attitude of LSO audiences?


We really are trying to broaden the orchestra’s interface with the community as much as possible. That’s why we’ll do a night of Elton John or the Cirque de la Symphonie: We want to be as viable to the community as possible. On the classical side, we’ve done a healthy amount of music by living composers that has been well received. Of course, I don’t hear from everybody. But I keep thinking back to when we played Stephen Paulus’ Concerto for Two Trumpets — we had to encore part of it because it was so well received.


What we try to do with the LSO is this: Every concert is going to have two components — a component of familiarity and an element of freshness to it, so that those people who’ve been ticket holders for 30 years will have a fresh experience. It might be a piece by a living composer. Or maybe it’s one of the 104 Haydn symphonies that doesn’t get performed often. Or maybe it will be a familiar piece presented in a different way. We’re always trying to heighten the experience.


What goals have you set for 2011?


Organizationally, our No. 1 goal is to continue to operate in a fiscally responsible manner. Secondly, it’s to bring great music that will enhance the quality of life in the greater Lansing area. We are always trying to reach new people, to whet appetites and stimulate curiosity. That’s one of the things I try to do on my Facebook page.


We have a great partner in WKAR, and I have great respect for them. Through both their programming and their on-air talent, they make you want more. We try to do the same: to remind people how important the arts are in day-to-day life and to stimulate curiosity for their own wellbeing.


How do you put social media to work for a symphony?


It’s great fun! The Lansing Symphony has a Twitter and a Facebook account, and I have my own Facebook page, which is kind of a guided journey through —hopefully — fascinating musical experiences that are already on the Internet. I try to give it some relevance to what’s happening, so if it’s Shakespeare’s birthday, I’ll try to find out who was the rock star of Shakespeare’s day.


For me, social media has been a great way of stimulating interest by putting up bite-size experiences that hopefully will make you want to find out more. It’s naturally connected in many ways. Music and art are not musty, dusty things you keep in the attic. It’s your tableware, the things you use every day.


Just as social media allows us all to stay in touch with the people in our lives, it can also allow us to find new interests and discover new topics.

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