Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra strikes note for brighter future

It's a time of transformation for the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra (TBSO).

TBSO focusing on eliminating debt, bringing in younger audiences

The TBSO is working to address its financial difficulties by focusing on eliminating debt and attracting a younger audience. (Thunderbay.ca)

It's a time of transformation for the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra (TBSO).

That's what the organization's executive director, Gerald McEachern​, is hoping as he and the rest of the TBSO work to not only eliminate the debt carried by the orchestra, but also attract new, younger fans to its performances.

"The orchestra has been suffering from financial pressure in the last five or six years," McEachern said. "This is a cyclical thing. Our debt has mounted to about $450,000 when I arrived, and it really needed attention. Part of my role here in Thunder Bay is to bring that debt down."

But part of the struggle, McEachern said, stems from the fact that the demographics of TBSO patrons are changing.

"The loyal patrons of orchestras are aging, right across the country," he said. "How to address that is difficult. That's part of the reason why the debt increases."

"Previous executive directors have tried to market past that, and marketing costs money," McEachern said. "So expenses go up, and yet revenues stay flat. And so what happens is, incrementally the debt goes up as you try to chase new audiences. So it's kind of a vicious cycle."

'It's really quite special'

McEachern said the TBSO has developed a multi-faceted strategy. Part of it is to increase education, and bring classical music to Thunder Bay schools.

"It's really quite special what we have, and we're taking into the classrooms, into the schools," McEachern said. "Last year, we directly reached 6,500 students. I expect there'll be more this year."

The symphony is focusing on schools partly because music education has declined as school budgets tightened, McEachern said.

"We see a real role for the TBSO in helping keep this alive," he said. "And so do the teachers."

McEachern said it also helps the TBSO build a younger audience, by assisting young people to develope an interest in classical music.

Programming changes

But there are other facets to the strategy, too, McEachern said.

Programming is changing, with the TBSO running a single main-stage series rather than dividing concerts into masterworks and pops.

"That's harder for long-term patrons to accept," he said. "And the challenge is, how do we get the word out on that to attract new people to look at these new ways of programming?"

There are also local works featured this season, and a women's concert — featuring works by female composers and programmed by the women of the orchestra — will take place as well.

New home hopes

There are other plans in the works too, such as finding a new home for the TBSO.

"The auditorium is a hard place to fill for our orchestra," McEachern said. "Our core audiences tend to be between 500-700 people. That doesn't actually pay the bills when we rent the auditorium."

"Is there a way of putting together a 600-seat theatre or auditorium for more community-oriented productions?" he said. "This might be a longer-term goal, so we're not ready to go into any kind of capital campaign."

But, McEachern said, it could tie into urban renewal, and said the former Eaton's building in the north core may be a suitable location for a convention centre that includes a 600-seat auditorium.

"That would integrate it with the new downtown businesses that are flourishing," he said. "The new art gallery on the waterfront, the new residential buildings, condos, that are being built in the area."