Arizona ArtBeat: Phoenix Symphony Season

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The Phoenix Symphony’s new season kicks off this month. It will include visits by movie maker Steven Spielberg and composer John Williams. Phoenix Symphony President and CEO Jim Ward will talk about the upcoming season.

Ted Simons: The Phoenix symphony's new season kicks off this month. It will include visits by movie maker Steven Spielberg and composer John Williams. Phoenix Symphony President and CEO Jim Ward joins us to talk about this upcoming season. It's good to see you. The title is "Big Names, Big Music." You have some pretty big names in here.

Jim Ward: We have a wonderful season, Ted, and it is big names and big music. You can't get any bigger than Steven Spielberg and John Williams.

Ted Simons: Talk about what John Williams and Steven Spielberg are doing here and how do they get here.

Jim Ward: In my previous lives I spent over a decade working with George Lucas at LucasFilm, and I was fortunate to meet a lot of great people including John Williams and Steven Spielberg. When I took over the Symphony, one of the goals I made was to somehow get John to come to Phoenix. I knew Michael Gorfay, his agent, and over a couple years of drip feed to make that happen, it happened. Not only do we have John but Steven is coming as well, doing a benefit concert for the Phoenix Symphony for education outreach. All of their services are for free and they are coming and donating all the dollars to the Phoenix Symphony.

Ted Simons: Williams will conduct music used in Spielberg's films? Is that how it works?

Jim Ward: The first half of the show John will come out and conduct non-Spielbergian music like my Alma Mater, "Star Wars." Then in the second half, Steven will come out and conduct a master class on filmmaking and scoring. He's going to sit on a stool and talk to the audience and we will play different scores from his music. But not only that, he'll talk about his collaboration with John. We'll also have a giant screen where we're going watch scenes from his movies, from Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example when Harrison Ford is riding horses and chasing the Nazis, and we will play that without the music. Steven will talk about what he thought the music should be for that, and then we'll play the scene with music, and people will have the opportunity to see how that scene comes to life with music.

Ted Simons: That sounds fascinating. Are they touring behind this? Are they making a couple stops here and there?

Jim Ward: No, no, we're very special. They have done this at the Kennedy Center and once in Atlanta. But it's a special event for us. As you know, Steven is from here originally, went to Arcadia High School.

Ted Simons: Indeed.

Jim Ward: So it's somewhat of a homecoming for him. We're very lucky to have both John and Steven come and benefit the Phoenix Symphony and our community.

Ted Simons: That sounds like great stuff. And again "Big Names, Big Music," a lot of pops in here, as well. Was that Otto McDonald doing show tunes? A Tony winner doing show tunes?

Jim Ward: We have a great pops season lined up. We have increased it by a couple of concerts due to popular demand. We're bringing in Audrey McDonald, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, the Indigo Girls. We just have a great season in pops as well.

Ted Simons: For those subscribers or those who go to the symphony expecting to hear Beethoven and Bach, and they are not all that crazy about the pop stuff, how do you explain that the cast of Jersey Boys singing The Beatles and The Beach Boys is not such a bad thing?

Jim Ward: It's not a bad thing at all. We were bringing in a group called The Midtown Men, who were the original Jersey Boys, to come in and rock the stage with 60s music. And we have a wonderful women's luncheon that day as well called Savor the Symphony. It's a great, great fun time. But you know, we have different audiences, too. We have people that love classic concerts and that's the music they like and they buy subscriptions and single tickets. We have people that buy pops concerts. Sometimes they overlap but people like different kinds of music. We have that, and we even have family programming for families, as well. It's an entirely different series.

Ted Simons: I noticed that Mary-Chapin carpenter will be here, she's a pop artist, as well, but backed by an orchestra. So a little bit of both.

Jim Ward: That's right. And that's a trend now, it's quite an honor great to do solo with her band but also wonderful to sit in front of a 70-piece symphonic orchestra, playing lush, beautiful music. It's a different experience for them and a lot of them are doing it. We brought in Idina Menzel and sold that out last season.

Ted Simons: How far do you veer from the "War Horses", the classics, the Beethovens? You're opening up with Beethoven's Ninth, correct?

Jim Ward: This weekend is our opening weekend, with just the masterful and joyous Beethoven's Ninth. Our Phoenix Symphony choir, 140 members of the choir on the stage, 70 members of the symphony on the stage, soloists. It's fantastic and amazing, and it ends with the Ode to Joy, which everyone's familiar with. We also have concerts that pair these more well-known pieces with pieces people might not be as familiar with, but they are going to be exposed to them. We often hear more often than not it's the pieces they hadn't heard before they enjoy the most, because it's a new experience.

Ted Simons: And you're going to have, in the classical world, a superstar in Lang Lang here, correct?

Jim Ward: We are. Lang Lang, who I kind of call the Elton John of the classical piano world. He's a young, dynamic, amazing young Chinese performer. Who has just taken the world by storm He wears tennis shoes when he plays but amazing facility, technique, emotion. We're bringing him in, and it's going to be a fantastic concert.

Ted Simons: Early response from patrons so far to a fairly diverse schedule? What are you hearing?

Jim Ward: Clearly we're almost sold out on opening night. That's going to be happening tomorrow, so if people want to come down there are still some tickets left. Get on the phone or go to our website: Clearly, Spielberg/Williams is sold out. But there's a long season all the way through May and June of next year that people can still get subscriptions and single tickets to, and we urge them to do that. And Ted, by the way, a subscription you can get for just three concerts with all the benefits of a subscriber. It's not that hard to become a subscriber of the Phoenix Symphony.

Ted Simons: Let's talk about how the Symphony's holding up in terms of finances. How's it going? Rough times here as of late, we've had you on in previous years and a rocky ship there, what are you seeing?

Jim Ward: We've had a great team down at the symphony on board, and the community rallied behind this symphony. Over the past almost three years we've been able to take it from a deficit situation to where we've just closed our books at the end of this past fiscal year and were in a surplus situation. We have paid down all of our debt and have increased capacity and utilization of our concerts by over 50%. So we have stabilized the organization and we have been used as a benchmark for the entire country in terms of a turn-around, and with our labor management relations, with our musicians. If you look across the country many orchestras are on strikes or walkouts. We have a great relationship with our musicians because they have truly sacrificed for this community.

Ted Simons: And I remember when that relationship wasn't always so great, are you turning it around with the same bunch of folks? Has there been turnover?

Jim Ward: It's the same folks. In any relationship it's about communication, it's about open and honest and transparent dialogue. It's sharing the financials, so everyone knows what's at stake and then working together to solve the problems. We have brilliant musicians who aren't just great as musicians, but have been with the symphony for 30 years and understand how it works inside and out. I've learned a lot from our musicians in how to solve these problems. Working with them together, rather than an us versus them situation completely has transformed this symphony and how we operate.

Ted Simons: Last question: in a social media world that's changing all the time, people don't even go to sporting events like they used to. How do adjust? How do you manage this?

Jim Ward: There's nothing really that can replace the magic of a live performance. There are ways people can digest entertainment on the internet, no doubt about it. But it doesn't replace a live performance. And we're finding that our patrons, by the fact that we're selling out, want to experience these kinds of activities live and see these kinds of people. It's one thing to watch John William and Steven Spielberg on TV. Rarely do you get an up close and personal experience with them live. So, to the degree we can create entertaining programming and create the magic around the live performance, I think it's very worthwhile for people to be involved.

Ted Simons: Thanks so much, good to have you. Good to see you.

Jim Ward: Appreciate it.

Jim Ward:President and CEO, Phoenix Symphony;

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