VC INTERVIEW | Simon Woods, CEO and President of the League of American Orchestras

(Photograph credit score: Mathew Imaging)


The Violin Channel had the pleasure of speaking with Simon Woods, President and CEO of the League of American Orchestras.

After the profitable 2022 Convention, entitled “Ahead Collectively,” wherein Woods gave the opening deal with, we mentioned the professionals and cons of an in-person convention, the most important themes mentioned this 12 months, his view on the state of the trade, and the methods wherein the sphere can enhance and diversify.


What went significantly effectively on the 2022 convention?

I might say the spotlight was not one specific factor, a lot as the general temper. As early as final 12 months, we had sensed that our discipline was determined to come back collectively once more. The league convention has all the time been a sociable event, however we had been blown away by how many individuals got here. We had over one thousand folks there, which was an excellent turnout.

The sector hasn’t gathered for 3 years and it was clear from the second that folks arrived, they had been simply thrilled to see one another. As we watched folks embracing and shaking palms, I began referring to it because the comeback convention.

The programming of the convention was additionally very sturdy, with the LA Philharmonic as an incredible accomplice. For these , session recordings on quite a lot of matters might be discovered right here. Moreover, Thomas Wilkins, Principal Conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, gave a implausible deal with on the convention’s closing part.


What had been the primary challenges of presenting the convention for the primary time in three years? What would you do in another way for subsequent 12 months’s convention?

There was a continued sense of uncertainty after we deliberate it. As June neared, there was a component of threat as a result of completely different COVID-19 surges. We thought of doing a hybrid convention, however with over 150 occasions, it was not potential. Whereas we offered a number of hybrid elements, we made the choice to go ‘all-in’ on the in-person convention.

I might say we obtained fortunate as a result of organizations that had deliberate in-person conferences in January and February had been canceled. In the long run, our convention was a calculated gamble that paid off.

I would not do so much in another way, however there have been plenty of issues I might do the identical. As an illustration, for the primary time this 12 months, we had a somewhat well-developed pupil monitor because of a partnership with the Orchestra Careers group.


What can be your principal piece of recommendation on planning conferences in right this moment’s unsure local weather? 

In planning conferences, my large phrase of recommendation is to by no means underestimate the facility of in-person. We have all turn out to be used to Zoom, and whereas Zoom is extraordinarily efficient in some ways, there isn’t any substitute for being within the room, asking questions, having conversations, and exchanging concepts.

What’s fascinating to me is that in case you look typically at world enterprise journey, persons are being extra conservative and cautious about the place they select to spend their money and time. They’re saying, ‘what is the level of me doing a visit throughout the nation for one, three-hour assembly?’

I believe the message from our convention is that this: in case you make it worthwhile sufficient and also you combination nice content material, you’ll give folks a cause to come back. When you give folks an incentive, they will wish to attend and share their concepts.


Does your recommendation differ when planning a live performance? 

Concert events are extremely rather more difficult and there are growing quantities of analysis being performed on the topic.

The large query that I believe persons are asking proper now could be this: What’s our viewers sample going to be like within the years to come back?

Moreover, have viewers patterns of attendance been interrupted by COVID and we’ll now snap again? Or have they been completely disrupted and we’ll settle in several patterns?

I occur to be a subscriber to the second view as a result of the info is pointing to the truth that there may be most likely a everlasting shift in the way in which folks take into consideration attendance and shopping for subscriptions.

Once you speak to orchestra managers, there may be uncertainty concerning the viewers and their patterns. It is a complete world of unknown.


What had been the most important themes or matters that stood out to you in the course of the convention? What did folks reply effectively to? 

The large one in our discipline is fairness, range, and inclusion. Our group is extremely invested on this and we imagine there must be environment friendly change.

I believe we now have to keep in mind that because the final time that we gathered as a discipline, not solely have we had COVID, however we have additionally seen the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Motion and the struggle for racial fairness improve, particularly after George Floyd. That has modified the dialogue.

I believe what many people seen on the convention was that we’re not attempting to make the case concerning the want for change. The dialogue is transferring extra into how will we do it? The extra actionable objects.

And there may be change occurring. We have now revealed stories — just like the 2022 Orchestra Repertoire Report— that had many promising findings:

    • Works by ladies composers and composers of shade (dwelling and deceased) rose by 400%, growing general from 4.5% in 2015 to 22.5% in 2022
    • Works by dwelling composers virtually doubled, growing general from 11.7% to 21.8%
    • Works by ladies composers of shade elevated by 1425%, from 0.4% in 2015 to six.1% in 2022.
    • Works by dwelling ladies composers of shade elevated by 1050%, from 0.4% in 2015 to 4.6% in 2022.
    • Modifications in various programming occurred throughout all measured orchestra finances teams and geographic areas.
    • Girls composers and composers of shade with the most programmed performances within the 2021-2022 season embody Lili Boulanger; Anna Clyne; Samuel Coleridge-Taylor; Duke Ellington; Gabriela Lena Frank; Jessie Montgomery; Florence Worth; Joseph Bologne, chevalier de Saint-Georges; and William Grant Nonetheless, amongst others

American orchestras are actually altering the repertoire now, whether or not that be within the gender or race of the composers.  We’re kind of constructing a brand new American repertoire, which I believe is de facto thrilling.

Then there are different areas wherein we now have much more work to do.


On the subject of diversifying the nation’s orchestral repertoire, are you able to inform me concerning the Virginia B. Toulmin Orchestral Commissions Program?

The Toulmin program is the fertile outcomes of an important basis, which has a imaginative and prescient, and a corporation that’s poised to help that imaginative and prescient. The most recent incarnation of the Toulmin program is the thought of consortium commissioning. On this approach, we’re not simply commissioning a composer for one efficiency. Fairly, every composer will get 5 performances.

After all, it is essential to have the primary efficiency. However then, what number of items do audiences by no means hear once more? What will get misplaced? It is solely by repeat performances that basically fascinating works start to seek out their approach into the repertoire and turn out to be a everlasting fixture.


What different actionable objects within the struggle for extra fairness, range, and inclusion had been mentioned on the convention?

There may be much more to vary along with repertoire. It is about altering the demographics of organizations’ employees. It is about including extra range on boards. It is about altering the range of who’s acting on stage. All of those are essential.

We have now to be transferring ahead on all of these axes. I all the time say to orchestras, ‘There’s nothing stopping you from diversifying your board tomorrow. The one factor that is stopping you is you.’

There are some issues that we will do instantly, and others which are rather more generational in nature. That does not imply we should not be engaged on them with the identical depth. We have now to be working with the identical fervor on issues we will change now and issues that may take us a decade.


In your opinion, what’s the state of the classical music trade post-COVID-19 lockdowns?

There may be a lot of information about that. However broad broadly talking, what I am listening to from orchestras is that subscriptions are something between 10 and 25% down from the place they had been pre-COVID ranges. However that is now, and I do not suppose we actually know the place that is going to land.

We additionally hear that the audiences are being extra cautious in what they’re selecting to purchase tickets for, so familiarity turns into a advantage when it comes to gross sales. However in fact, familiarity will not be a advantage in the case of diversifying the repertoire.

I believe we’ll see a little bit of pressure between how desperately we have to diversify the music career and repertoire with the truth that audiences are taking part in it fairly protected. We’ll need to cope with that dichotomy over the approaching years.


When speaking with the orchestras which are members of your league, how do you encourage them in these powerful instances?

Our objective is to supply them with the data they want and one of the best sources to have the ability to create change.

Plus, I get anxious after I hear folks say that they are wanting ahead to issues getting again to regular.

The remark that I typically make is that I am probably not positive that ordinary was serving us, earlier than the pandemic. I believe the pandemic has offered us a chance to suppose in another way. It has offered us with this chance to say, ‘how can we be simpler as organizations? And the way can we be extra inclusive?’

What’s the new regular we wish to create with a imaginative and prescient that is applicable for the world we dwell in proper now?


What’s the league wanting ahead to within the subsequent 12 months? 

It is laborious to pinpoint one factor. We have now a small employees of round 26 folks and we do all the pieces from authorities advocacy {and professional} improvement to analysis and information.

One of many issues that I am receiving from the sphere, which I am comfortable about, is that I believe the league as a corporation, has by no means felt extra beneficial to orchestras as we’re on this interval of intense change.

I might hazard a guess that that is most likely related for many associations. I believe associations have type of come into their very own in instances of problem. I am enthusiastic about how we will help orchestras to go on being profitable as we navigate the time forward.

I do not suppose something’s going to be straightforward, however in a time wherein issues are laborious, the providers we offer are most likely extra beneficial than ever.

For instance, we’re emphasizing information so much this 12 months, particularly on the change in demographics in our discipline because it occurs in actual time. So as a substitute of wanting again at a five-year snapshot, which is extra typical, we’re change because it occurs.


Talking of modifications in demographics, what are some methods orchestras are attracting a youthful viewers?

Whereas that could possibly be a very separate interview, the subject is a continuing problem. The work to draw younger audiences is extremely complicated.

Partly, it is about creating live performance halls the place folks really feel welcome. And to me, we now have to consider a youthful individual coming to a live performance and looking out round them. In the event that they see a largely monolithic viewers, each when it comes to age and race, they are not essentially going to really feel at residence.

The music itself, in a approach, crosses generations. You do not should be previous or younger or center age to have the ability to respect Beethoven. However I do not suppose our areas are all the time multi-generational.

The opposite factor that is essential to note is that many youthful generations of audiences are rather more linked with the music and tradition of our time. So, this common transfer towards leveling the taking part in discipline between the previous and the current music is barely a very good factor.


Generally, do you’ve any recommendation for youthful musicians who’re scared to enter the classical music discipline? Any phrases of motivation?

I am not an professional on this, however I believe that my response can be this:

After all, we’re all the time going to wish one of the best graduates on the highest degree for nice American orchestras, BUT there are various methods of constructing a profession in music.

I am not an orchestral musician, however I’ve spent my whole time within the administration aspect of music and I really feel very fulfilled concerning the work I do.

What I believe is de facto fascinating right this moment is the notion of the entrepreneurial musician. We’re seeing folks construct portfolio careers, which embody instructing, composing, social advocacy, and industrial varieties of work.

We’re seeing one other era of musicians saying, ‘effectively, truly, which may be a greater match for me than taking part in in an orchestra.’

Whereas my colleagues who run conservatories would undoubtedly have so much to say on the topic, I hope the thought of the entrepreneurial musician thrives.