Youngstown Symphony Orchestra Preps for the Future
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – As the 2023-24 season nears, the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra finds itself still searching for a leader while charting a course for its future.
The YSO has tried out nine guest conductors over the past three seasons while engaging in market research. In August, the symphony society and the musicians reached a deal on a new contract.
Filling the music director position – the quarterback of the ensemble – has been a time-consuming process, but the top candidates are finally coming into focus.
Matt Pagac, chief executive and operating officer of the YSO, put the importance of the task in perspective.
“Hiring a music director is not the end goal,” Pagac says. “It is the beginning of the future of your Youngstown Symphony Orchestra.”
Continuing to increase attendance goes hand in hand with a bright future, and the YSO aims for lively shows that will attract both longtime ticket buyers and new faces.
The season begins Sept. 21 with a concert featuring a most unusual guest artist: drag queen-classical musician Thorgy Thor.
It will be the first in a six-concert season that is heavy on the pops – because that is what sells.
The guest conductor for the first show will be Lawrence Loh, who is the music director of Symphoria, the symphony orchestra in Syracuse, N.Y.
Loh will become the 10th guest conductor to lead the YSO since the sudden death of the previous music director, Randall Craig Fleischer, in August of 2020. Loh will return on Jan. 21 to lead the YSO in a masterworks concert.
The YSO will soon get down to the business of picking a successor to Fleischer.
“We are at the point where we have a solid list of candidates and are in the process of assembling the search committee and determining the parameters that will be used to select the next music director,” Pagac says. “Not only are we filling the position of music director, but we are searching for the right candidate to help drive the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra into the future. Keeping it relatable and accessible to our community is at the forefront of this vision.”
Pagac says the YSO has been pleased with the guest conductors it has used to date.
“Not all of the nine guest conductors from 2021-22 and 2022-23 are candidates for the music director position, but many are,” Pagac says.
The search has faced some obstacles.
In the spring and summer of 2021, the immediate goal was getting the orchestra back on stage after the pandemic-related shutdown of music venues, and the death of Fleischer.
Once the orchestra was presenting concerts again, the focus shifted to determining the right strategy to move forward. Toward that end, the YSO analyzed ticket sales, conducted market research, surveyed attendees and explored programming opportunities.
The music director search committee will take these findings, and its musicians, into account when making its decision.
“We have an extremely talented and dedicated group of musicians,” Pagac says, “and it is important that we strengthen and expand this group that makes having a professional orchestra in Youngstown possible.”
The 29 members of the part-time orchestra voted unanimously to ratify their new two-year contract, with a few members abstaining, according to Bill Bevec, secretary of the American Federation of Musicians. Details of the contract were not available.
The YSO hires on additional members as the season progresses.
As far as ticket sales go, the YSO is on track to sell as many season subscriptions as last year, Pagac says.
The orchestra will attempt to boost single-ticket sales this season as a way of growing its audience.
“We want to introduce new audience members to symphony concerts,” Pagac says.
In the 2022-23 season, the YSO had an average attendance of 450 for pops concerts, and 250 for classical, or masterworks, concerts.
The most well-attended concert last season was “Marie Osmond’s Symphonic Christmas” in December, followed by “Ghostbusters in Concert” and “Blockbuster Broadway.”
The holiday concert featuring the perennially popular Osmond drew a crowd in the neighborhood of 2,000.
“We took this data into consideration when planning the current season,” Pagac says. The 2023-24 season will include four pops concerts, including “Home Alone” with orchestral accompaniment to the hit movie, which will be shown on a screen, on Dec. 22 and 23; and an April 26 concert in which the YSO will perform with popular local rock band The Vindys.
“The masterworks concerts are included in the season subscription fee for no additional charge,” Pagac notes.
The season opener with Thorgy Thor will be unlike any pops show the YSO has ever done.
The brash and funny drag queen takes command of the stage – singing, playing the cello and violin, making jokes and engaging with the audience.
The YSO – like most symphony orchestras – is looking to update its image and grow its audience, and Thorgy will help it check both of those boxes.
In a recent phone interview, Thorgy discussed her career and what attendees can expect from the show.
She’s been both a classical musician who plays violin and cello, and a drag artist for most of her life and blends the two when she performs with an orchestra.
A featured guest on season eight of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” Thorgy lays the groundwork with audiences at each show.
“I start by asking, ‘How many of you are here because you love drag and you saw me on TV? And how many of you have no idea who I am but just have season tickets?'” she says. The results are usually about half and half.
“Then I tell them, ‘Look to your left and look to your right. You might be sitting next to someone who you wouldn’t be sitting next to at any other show you go to.’”
The goal, she says, is to get the drag fans to fall in love with classical music, and the classical fans to fall in love with drag performance. Oftentimes, that is exactly what happens.
The concert, dubbed Thorgy Thor and the Thorchestra, is a variety show with a lot of comedy. There will be some violin solos and Thorgy sings a duet with vocalist Katy Williams, who is part of her touring show.
Thorgy also does some live painting onstage. “And Lawrence Loh will be nice enough to let me conduct,” she says.
The concert will mark the first time guest conductor Loh and Thorgy will work together, and both artists’ Youngstown debut.
There will also be some audience participation.
“Some unsuspecting volunteers will do a ‘walk-off’ competition,” she says, referring to the segment when drag performers leave the stage with aplomb.
“It’s a staple in the drag community,” she says. “We’ll play anything from Tchaikovsky to Lady Gaga, something with a beat, and they strut their stuff.”
Creating a drag show-classical music concert is a fresh idea and it’s no surprise that Thorgy was the one to do it.
She has no comedy background or theater training. “But I always got told I was funny and should have a mic in my hand,” she says. “I’ve always been a loud, brash and opinionated intellectual and I love to be a ham on stage.”
A lifelong member of an orchestra, Thorgy had also perfected an uproarious persona as a drag performer.
“I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be fun if this character was leading the concert?’ I’ve thought about this my whole life and have kind of been writing it my whole life,” she says.
The idea began to take shape during her stint on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” when she got to play the violin and the audience loved it.
She created her orchestra show with the help of Canadian conductor Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser and debuted it with Symphony Nova Scotia in 2017. It was such a hit that a second show had to be added.
The show blends traditional and modern classical repertoire with contemporary pop – everything from Brahms to Bruno Mars.
After each performance, Thorgy greets audience members and talks to them. “I get a lot of people who say it was the most fun they’ve ever had at the symphony,” she says. “Hearing that makes me feel my life’s work is worth doing.”
The Thorgy and the Thorchestra concert will start at 7:30 p.m. at Powers Auditorium. Tickets range from $63 to $20 (plus fees) and can be purchased in advance at YoungstownSymphony.com, and by phone at 330 259 9651.
Pictured at top: Thorgy Thor hams it up on stage during a concert.
Copyright 2023 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.