Posted by Bob Martin

Carolyn Nishon, Executive Director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, took us behind the scenes to share the work of the orchestra on the greater Portland community. She told us when she joined the orchestra in 2008, the organization had been experiencing year-over-year deficits, and had completely drawn down its line of credit. “We came to the realization,” she said, “that we could shut down or choose to live. We chose to live.” The enterprise implemented ten percent pay cuts, scaled back rehearsals, and eliminated some concerts. Watching their contributions and revenue efforts carefully, she said, “we decided on funding knowns with knowns,” and not take any risks. “We finished the 2009 to 2009 year in the black for the first time in years.” 

With their finances beginning to come under control, Nishon said their next order of business was to understand what the orchestra could do for its community. ”We asked the community to send us two words to describe the Portland Symphony Orchestra,” she said. “We got words like ‘stuck-up’ and ‘stodgy.’” Recognizing the PSO had a problem, Nishon said a task force was formed with members of the orchestra, trustees, and players who met to sort through piles of strips of paper with the words the community had submitted to describe the orchestra. The group’s work resulted in a new statement of mission for the PSO: “Serving community by enriching lives through music.” Nishon related that this statement created a shift in programs to meet community needs. “We created a series of Family Events,” she said, “including an instrument petting zoo where kids could come and touch the instruments.” This resulted in more kids taking lessons to learn how to play instruments. “We started PSO Explorers, a program to increase literacy after we found research that reported that kids who are on reading level in Grade 3 are more likely to graduate.” The program put musicians into the schools working with teachers to improve literacy. Special concerts were created to entice young people to learn about the PSO, including “Harry Potter & the Magic of Music,” and “John Williams & Star Wars.” 

As the finances of the PSO improved, their ability to attract musicians and guest conductors increased. One of the guest conductors was Eckard Preu, who so impressed one of the PSO musicians with his infectious energy: “There’s something special about him. How do we get him back?” Ironically, when the PSO searched for a new conductor, the result of their three-and-a-half-year search was the unanimous selection of Eckard Preu, who everyone expects to be a “transformative conductor.”

Now, Nishon said the orchestra’s endowment has increased; the PSO has operated ten consecutive seasons in the black; musicians come from all over the country to play; and kids from all over Maine come by the busloads to attend their first concert. And, for many, the musical event of the year is “The Magic of Christmas.” “This concert series,” she said, “is the biggest show of the year. And, the great thing about it; it was started by your own Russ Burleigh.”

(L-R: Carolyn Nishon (PSO), President John Curran, Charlotte Gill (PSO) and Justin Lamontagne.)