Nervous and poor, a small symphony orchestra survives in Hastings, Neb.

Hastings Symphony in performance. (Photo by NET News)
Byron Jensen conducts at the symphony's February concert. (Photo by NET News)
The French Horn section of the Hastings Symphony. (Photo by NET News)
Cellist Emily Adams of the Hastings Symphony. (Photo by NET News)
Katlyn Grody plays French Horn for the Hastings Symphony. (Photo by NET News)
The syphony practices prior to the performance. (Photo by NET News)
Conductor Byron Jensen in rehersal. (Photo by NET News)
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April 18, 2013 - 6:30am

After 87 years of uninterrupted seasons of classical music performance, the Hastings Symphony Orchestra is at a crossroads.  Its musicians and fans are hoping community generosity and a love of music can keep alive one of the state’s longest running arts institutions.

The problem is money.  The total budget has remained roughly the same over the past few years even as expenses increase.  That means facing cutbacks on how much the symphony can do, like the number of rehearsals and performances.

Conductor Byron Jensen took a voluntary pay cut.  Even with the cutbacks, board members say they “need to get creative” to expand its audience and find additional financial support.

“There is a weight on my shoulders,” Jensen said.  “And I do go to bed at night thinking about this and worrying about it.” 

This is not to say Jensen is not hopeful.  He believes setting long-term goals will make it possible for Hastings to celebrate the symphony’s 90th anniversary in three years.  His symphony, he likes to remind people, has a very unique place in the American classical music scene.

“You’re not going to find a lot of communities with 26,000 people with a symphony attached to them that is of a semi-professional level,” Jensen said.

The annual budget for the entire symphony is about $85,000.  (Compare that to the salary for a single musician with the St. Louis Symphony, advertised at $81,892.50, in a recent job listing for a first chair violinist.) 

“Sometimes for a community this size it is difficult to meet that budget,” Jensen said.

Ticket sales cover only a fraction of expenses, according to Mary Olson, a member of the symphony’s board of directors.

“You know people aren’t giving the way they used to,” Olson said.  “It is always a struggle to make sure we pay the bills, and we put on the type of symphonies that we think the community deserves.”  Olson is the third generation of her family to serve on the symphony’s governing board.

Hastings is not alone.  The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation published a 2008 study of the top 50 symphonies in America. It revealed nearly all of them face declining ticket sales, increasing expenses and a drop in corporate and government support for the arts. 

The report concluded “even… comparatively healthy orchestras… encountered significant economic challenges, including a worsening of the performance income gap, declining attendance per concert that limits performance revenue growth, and a tendency of performance expenses to grow more rapidly than other costs.”

Finding the right balance between raising money and saving money is in the hands of the symphony’s board of directors. 

The Hastings Symphony is a semi-professional orchestra made up of between 60 and 65 musicians.  Players are recruited from Hastings College, area high schools and adults who play for the joy of playing.  About 40 of them receive some sort of cash stipend, to cover travel expenses, as a performance fee, or both. 

Attracting talented violin, cello, and bass players is especially important. Jensen often tells people that “without strings you have a band.” 

“The Hastings Symphony is not a band it is a symphony orchestra,” he continued.  “Finding competent, mature string players, within the region, has become a challenge, and when we do find them I have to provide them with a stipend to make sure they are part of the symphony.”

Symphony musicians practice prior to their February performance. (Photo by NET News)

Some players would not be able to participate without the pay and the orchestra, according to Jensen, would likely die if it had to rely entirely on volunteer musicians. 

With the stipends, each rehearsal becomes a budget item.  It’s why Jensen and the board have to make painful choices about what is affordable financially and the cost artistically if practice time gets cut. 

Rehearsal time as a group is already hard to come by for the musicians. There are usually three or four practices scheduled in the weeks prior to a concert.  Because musicians travel from as far as Lincoln to play, getting full attendance can be difficult.  Sometimes the entire orchestra doesn’t get a chance to rehearse together until the afternoon prior to a performance.

Renting the Masonic Hall, advertising and marketing, and maintaining a small staff add to the budget. 

Dwindling ticket sales for several years running compounds the problem.   50 years ago the group marketed itself as the “Dime Symphony.”  A ticket cost just ten cents.  2013 season tickets for all four performances cost 50 dollars.  That’s about the price of just one orchestra level ticket for a single performance of the Omaha Symphony. 

The French Horn section of the Hastings Symphony.  (Photo by NET News)

On a chilly, grey Sunday afternoon in February the casually-dressed audience arrived to hear the symphony perform a program of Tchaikovsky and Shubert in the art deco stage of the old Masonic Center in downtown Hastings.  Today about 350 tickets had been purchased.  That is an average crowd these days, but it is half the size of the audience that crowded the hall in the 1950s and 60s.  Some sold-out performances brought in 1,000 paying fans.   

Of equal concern is the average age of the concert patrons in the audience.  It was obvious attendance tilted towards the senior citizen set. 

“We need to start working on bringing those younger crowds in,” said Mary Hastings, a recent addition to the symphony’s board.”   She is also deeply involved with the Hastings Community Playhouse.  The theatre group faces some of the same challenges, and she agrees live performance is a tough sell in an era of Netflix and video games.  

“Teenagers don’t listen to that kind of music.  Unless they are exposed to it in their homes, they are not listening,” Hastings said.

One of the orchestra’s most important marketing tools is also one of its most costly.  Two free concerts a year often attract large and diverse crowds.   The most popular is an outdoor concert that’s part of the city’s Chautauqua series.

Hastings explained it is “an opportunity for families to bring all the kids because it doesn’t cost anything and they can listen to all that beautiful music.” 

The second free offering for area school children in the area provides the kids with early exposure to classical music.  Both concerts aim to attract new fans.

“That might prompt them to buy a season subscription or it might prompt them to come to another concert,” Hastings said. 

A free concert means no revenue to offset the cost of the musicians pay and other expenses. (Volunteers do pass around donation buckets at the free events.)  This year the symphony chose to cancel the children’s concert rather than go further over budget.

Balancing the marketing advantages of the free concerts with the expense is “a conundrum,” Hastings said, “and it’s difficult to figure out what to do.” 

Conductor Jensen supported the decision, but it makes him uncomfortable.  “It starts to send the wrong message,” he said, “that perhaps we are going down the tubes and that is not the case.”

The symphony performs in February 2013.  (Photo by NET News)

The symphony still takes comfort from the support of its sometimes unlikely fans.  Jim Webb makes the trip from Grand Island for every performance.  His son, playing the string bass, joined the orchestra at age 16 while still in junior high.  That was 26 years ago.  Today Webb is as much a fan of the music as he is a supportive parent.   

“I just like listening to it.  I close my eyes and listen to it,” Webb said standing in the lobby prior to the performance.  “I just like the different movements and stuff and how things blend in with the crescendos and stuff.  It’s enjoyable.”

For that reason, both Conductor Jensen and members of the board believe they can find a way to attract new money without making cuts that will undermine the amount or the quality of the music offered to the community.

When Mary Hastings was asked if she was worried about losing the symphony she was emphatic.  “No,” she replied, “but I am an eternal optimist.  I don’t know what we’ll have to do.  I have all the confidence in the world that we will.”


Listen to an excerpt of the Hastings Symphony Orchestra perform Tchaikovsky's Concerto in D major, with violin soloist Nadia Maudhoo.

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