Tuning in to Community

“Co-op” is quickly becoming a 21st century buzzword. From farmers markets to banks, member-owned cooperatives seem to be springing up in nearly every industry. However, as one of only two co-op orchestras in the United States, Syracuse’s Symphoria is making a unique name for itself through music and public outreach.

Symphoria was founded in December 2012 after the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra was dissolved due to financial difficulties. It was built under a co-op structure in order to maintain a more resilient business model and avoid challenges previously faced by the Symphony Orchestra. It is currently made up of 50 musicians who own a part of the orchestra and contribute to its development and operation.

Jon Garland is a member of the Symphoria horn section, on the board of trustees for the organization and an instructor of horn performance at Syracuse University’s Setnor School of Music. Previously serving as chair of the musicians committee for the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra, Garland was one of Symphoria’s founding members.

He believes that the cooperative model has allowed Symphoria to be more collaborative and open than a traditionally structured orchestra.

“Musicians are very involved in the governance of the organization and artistic decisions,” Garland said. “Sometimes, in a traditional orchestra, if there is not full transparency between different components of the organization, there can be distrust. When we arrived at this structure, we didn’t want to go back to that.”

Symphoria’s musicians are also strongly committed to youth arts education and community outreach. The orchestra regularly integrates performances focused on this mission into its schedule.

The reason we exist is to connect to as many people as we can with great music,” said Catherine Underhill, Managing Director of Symphoria. “It’s our job to demonstrate our value to the community because that’s where we get our support.”

Symphoria performs three to five concerts each month, including many sold-out shows. Their performances, usually held at the Crouse Hinds Theater on East Onondaga Street, include classical music, movie scores, Broadway tunes and jazz numbers. In March, Symphoria also had a show featuring popular Disney songs. The orchestra also has a Star Wars themed show planned for late May.

“We’ve experienced tremendous growth since opening in 2012,” Garland said. “We’ve added more concerts, dramatically improved the quality of our music and seen double digit increases in attendance in the last year.”

In just over three years, the orchestra has not only united the music community, but become a thriving contributor to Central New York’s cultural heritage.

“We try to encourage people to come downtown and experience some of the cool stuff that’s going on, and certainly Symphoria is part of that opportunity,” Underhill said.

While the orchestra has had a successful start in Syracuse, its musicians are focused on maintaining a strong and diverse audience to ensure Symphoria’s longevity. Garland said that the group is working to revitalize their following by considering people who may be new to orchestral performance.

“There are people for whom the concept of coming downtown to a concert hall, getting dressed up and listening to a classical piece may be completely foreign,” Garland said. “They might not know what to wear, or when to clap if it’s a multi-movement piece. The idea of sitting still and listening to music for a few hours might not be appealing.”

Symphoria developed a concert series called “Spark” in an effort to make the orchestra accessible to these diverse audiences. “Spark” combines musical performance with the unique venue and an atmosphere that Underhill said is “intentionally informal and social.” A recent concert in the series was held at the Museum of Science and Technology in Armory Square.

“The orchestra performs in short sets with multiple breaks so people can move through the museum, have a bite to eat and talk with people,” Underhill said.

Another one of the orchestra’s main objectives is to encourage more young people to attend concerts and participate in musical education programs. Symphoria’s concerts are free for children under 18 and college students can attend any event for just $5. Symphoria also offers opportunities for younger students to foster their musical skills by performing with the orchestra’s musicians at a larger and more professional venue.

“We have a number of high school and middle school orchestras and music ensembles that perform before we perform on the main stage of the Civic Center,” Underhill said. “We have been in 25 schools in the last six months, and more than 4,000 kids have attended something of ours for free.”

Many of the Symphoria concerts also involve collaborative work with students at SU’s Setnor School of Music, particularly those in the Syracuse Oratorio Society, a vocal ensemble made up of students and community members. A number of Setnor professors are musicians in the orchestra and regularly encourage their classes to attend and participate in events.

“We did a special concert called ‘Credo’ with the Syracuse Oratorio Society and several other choruses in the area, which was performed at the cathedral downtown,” Underhill said.

The orchestra also hosts a program called “Healing Harmonies” intended to give back to the Syracuse community. By teaming up with healthcare institutions in the CNY region, Symphoria is able to bring live music with therapeutic benefits directly to hospital patients undergoing treatment.

In these settings, live music has been shown to have positive effects on the overall well-being of patients by reducing blood pressure and easing anxiety. Working closely with healthcare providers to meet the individual needs of patients, the orchestra performs for patients and their families free of charge before and during treatment.

“We are working hard to be innovative and collaborative,” Underhill said. “This is an orchestra that’s very passionate about what they’re doing and the experience of hearing them live is quite inspiring.”

-Laura Superina