Did you know that Raleigh has a symphony? No, I’m not talking about the North Carolina Symphony. I’m talking about Raleigh. The city. It has a symphony, too. It’s a mostly volunteer affair, but from what I hear, it’s professionally done, and it’s been around my entire life. Literally. I was born in 1979, and so was it. And though it’s lasted 34 years, it – like me, sometimes – is feeling its age.
“Orchestras all over the country are struggling,” said Janet Shurtleff. “This is sort of a symptom of what’s going on all over the country.”
Shurtleff’s day job is as a lab manager at N.C. State University. But like many a great superhero, she has a separate identity at night. She is the president of the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra’s board of directors, and she has been second oboe in the group since its inception. She says the symphony is struggling, as many are, because the crowd who appreciates its kind of music is getting older.
“They’re either in nursing homes or they’re gone, which is what’s sad,” she said.
And the younger crowd seems disengaged from symphonic works. That’s why the symphony is taking a new direction. It has brought on some nonmusical thinkers to come up with new ways of spreading the message that the Raleigh Symphony exists. One of those thinkers is Bob Welborn. He says he’s trying to help the community partner with other local organizations. He’s also thinking a little more outside the box.
“We’ve talked about almost doing the flash mob things, where a cellist will come out and start playing, and then a violinist will come out and start playing,” he said.
It’s all part of a plan to help the symphony take the next step. For much of its life, it has depended on the generosity and grants to sustain itself. But Welborn says that’s no longer possible.
“One way or the other, they’re going to have to become self-supporting,” he said.
The symphony performs at Meredith College in Jones Auditorium. It used to pack the place with up to 700 people, according to Shurtleff. Now, it’s lucky to get 200.
And it’s a shame, she said, because tickets are relatively cheap. The most expensive adult ticket is $25. And you can bring kids for free, a move designed to help get the next generation interested in symphonic works.
The problem is that the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra is so often confused with its bigger brother, the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra.
“They think North Carolina Symphony. They think, God, a subscription must cost a fortune,” said Susan Ohmann, a North Raleigh resident.
Ohmann is one of those nonmusical thinkers I was telling you about. She came on board to help the symphony find a way to thrive and change. She thought it a shame when she learned the symphony was having so much trouble, especially since its members are mostly doing this for the love of the music.
“Most of them perform without pay,” Ohmann said. “They’re just looking for someplace to perform.”
When the symphony started in 1979, there really weren’t any community orchestras to speak of. Since then, the Raleigh public has had the privilege of having its very own group. It’s made up of people from all over the Triangle. And their next show is coming up Oct. 20. You can learn more about it at raleighsymphony.org.
But most of all, you can help by spreading the word. I’ve lived in Raleigh most of my life, and until I started working on this column, I didn’t know about the symphony. Maybe you didn’t either. But now you do. Remember, it’s a completely different orchestra from the N.C. Symphony Orchestra. It’s local. It’s cheaper. It’s good. And you can help keep it going for another 34 years. I’ll be 68 then, and I’ll probably want to listen to some local music. Help me out.
Alex Granados writes about people, places and traditions in North Raleigh and beyond. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.