New Binghamton Philharmonic director charts ambitious course

EDITOR’s NOTE: Last fall, BAMirror began an occasional series of chats with recently appointed leaders of local arts organizations. Today we talk with the new executive director of the Binghamton Philharmonic.

By George Basler

Heidi Kelley knows this is a tough time to be the executive director of a symphony orchestra. She worked for a symphony orchestra in southwest Florida that ran into financial difficulties. She’s read about other orchestras, such as Honolulu and Syracuse, that have gone belly up because of money.  “In this industry, finances are a constant concern,” said Kelley, who became the Binghamton Philharmonic’s new executive director March 1 after working as executive director of the Abilene (Texas) Philharmonic. She succeeds Stephen Wilson, who is now executive director of the Fresno (California) Philharmonic. A strong board and supportive patrons put Binghamton in better shape than many other orchestras, but it still faces some of the same issues, Kelley said. They include an aging audience and the need to attract new demographic groups to concerts.

What happened to other orchestras is “a constant reminder of the importance of what we do” but also a reminder of how symphonies need to change with the times and shake off an elitist image, Kelley said.  For this reason, the new executive director has put strengthening community outreach efforts, already underway when she arrived, at the top of her priority list.  As part of this effort, some Philharmonic musicians will perform at the start and finish of the Binghamton Bridge Run Half-Marathon and 5-K in May. Ensembles also will play at five First Friday Art Walks in Binghamton during the spring and summer.  “It gets the community to see who we are and gets our name out there as not just musicians who play in a big hall,” Kelley said.

Closely connected to this outreach is attracting new audiences, notably younger people. “Orchestras are aging quickly, and we’re not replenishing audiences as quickly,” Kelley cautioned.  But attracting a younger audience is challenging, she said. Today’s young people live in a much more visual culture where it’s harder to hold people’s attention. “They’re into multi-tasking and just sitting in a concert hall is not their first choice,” Kelley said.  In addition, young people are into downloading music and can perceive listening to music this way as equal to a live performance, she said. “But it’s not,” Kelly emphasized. “A live performance breathes life into the music. Being in a hall with other people and watching music be performed is a different experience.”   In Texas, Kelley worked in collaboration with the Abilene Independent School District to create a new education program for elementary students as a step toward building a younger audience.  Another technique to attract younger people is binding music and technology together, she said.  While in Abilene, Kelley pioneered what she calls “glow in the dark concerts.” The idea is to set aside a section in the concert hall where patrons can use laptop computers and other electronic devices to access program notes, information on the composer and historical information during the orchestra‘s performance. The “glow in the dark” refers to the glow of the computer screens.  Kelley is talking to José-Luis Novo, music director and conductor of the Binghamton Philharmonic, about trying that idea here. “The challenge lies in having to stay true to our mission but making classical music sexy to young people,” he said.

The 42-year-old Kelley is married with two children, ages 17 and 12. Her background is in commercial art and marketing, and she has degrees from Western Michigan and Texas Tech universities. Before her appointment in Abilene, she was marketing director of the Southwest Florida Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Fort Myers, Fla.
Kelley’s musical tastes run the gamut. “I listen to everything but country,” she with a laugh. Her favorite classical composer is Sergei Prokofiev, of Peter and the Wolf fame, while Aerosmith, sometimes known as “the Bad Boys of Boston,” is her favorite rock group.  As she begins her job here, Kelley also lists improving fund-raising as one of her concerns. The Philharmonic sells about 400 season tickets a year for its classical, pops and chamber concerts. But ticket sales represent only about 25 percent of the organization’s budget, with other support coming from grants, advertising and sponsors.

“Fund-raising is one of our top priorities. We haven’t been doing as well as we would like,” Kelley said.  With this in mind, she has started planning the Philharmonic’s first ever “Signature Event” — a masquerade party and ball. Preparations will take about a year, with the event scheduled for April 2014. Before that, the Philharmonic is planning an opening gala dinner for Oct. 5, and a pops concert for Valentine’s Day next year that will combine a ticket to the concert with a dinner package at a local restaurant, Kelley said.  Kelley is also hopeful that a concert of music from Walt Disney films, set for Mother’s Day weekend, will attract a large audience of families and children. The concert will be a multi-media event, with movie clips being shown along with the music. Youngsters can dress up as their favorite Disney character for a parade before the concert.

While the concert schedule for the 2013-14 season has not been finalized, Kelley is looking forward to working with Novo, who has been music director in Binghamton for the last decade. “The audience adores him, and musicians love playing for him,” she said.  One of her long-term goals, over the next five years or so, is to bring in bigger name musicians to play with Philharmonic. She mentioned performers on the level of cellist Yo-Yo Ma. That will require special fundraising efforts, however.  As she works to promote the orchestra, Kelley makes one thing clear: Although orchestras have to adapt to changing times and lifestyles, the Binghamton Philharmonic needs to stay committed to its core mission of performing great classical music. It’s a mission the orchestra has had for close to 60 years.  “We’re performing dead composers, not dead music,” she emphasized.

The Binghamton Philharmonic has three upcoming concerts:

  • This Sunday (March 24), a Chamber Concert featuring the Trio Cavatina at 3 p.m. at Binghamton University’s Anderson Center Chamber Hall.
  • Saturday, April 20, a Classical Concert, headlined by Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony, at 8 p.m. in the Anderson Center’s Osterhout Concert Theater.
  • Saturday, May 11, “Disney in Concert” at 7:30 p.m. at The Forum in downtown Binghamton.

For ticket information visit the Philharmonic’s website, www.binghamtonphilharmonic.org, or call the box office at 607-723-3931.

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