The Boston Symphony Orchestra Balances Sounding Good with Doing Good

Sarah Scalia, Arts & Culture Editor

The lights dim and brighten as a bell dings, notifying us to take our seats or be left in the lobby. I jump a bit, head fuzzy from the beer(s) I’d nervously downed at the bar prior to arriving. I was hedging that I’d feel out of place at the orchestra, given my understanding of the symphony-goers: elderly, wealthy, erudite. As the crowd migrates inward, I’m surprised to see that the BSO clientele is more diverse than I’d anticipated, and that maybe I’m not quite as out of place as I’d assumed.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) was founded in 1881 with the mission of “fostering and maintaining an organization dedicated to the making of music consonant with the highest aspirations of the musical art, creating performances and providing educational and training programs at the highest level of excellence.” In doing so, however, the BSO has further challenged itself to not leave the average Bostonian behind. The BSO’s annual report boasts that it engages more people than any other symphonic organization in the world, which is not hard to believe once one begins to dig into the breadth and depth of programs and offerings provided. These efforts run the gamut, but three directives stand out as particularly impactful: BSO in Residence, a program of public collaborations with the BSO; Community Chamber, a program that offers free community concerts from BSO musicians; and Affordable Ticket Options programs directed at groups ranging from medical students to children to electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card holders.

BSO in Residence

BSO in Residence is an innovative community collaboration in which the BSO partners with a community organization for three years to celebrate, promote, and engage in the specific cultural aspects of the community, while providing educational opportunities as well as access to BSO resources and performances at Symphony Hall. The three-year engagements are co-designed by the BSO and their respective community partner to ensure that they fit the culture and needs of said partner community, beginning with a pilot program with Jamaica Plain. The program kicked off last October with a free concert in Franklin Park showcasing the BSO in conjunction with popular Jamaica Plain-native groups including Castle of our Skins: Celebrating Black Artistry through Music and Jorge Arce: The Afro-Caribbean Workshop. The event also looped in other Boston-based art and culture organizations including Artists for Humanity and the Boston Children’s Museum, further adding to the reciprocal benefits of these collaborations.

Community Chamber

BSO began offering free, in-community concerts in 1998 as a means by which to reach those with limited in access (either due to distance or economics), and the program has only grown since. For the 2017-2018 season, the BSO announced ten free concerts to take place in local communities, including a partnership with five new community organizations, in addition to four free concerts to be hosted by Northeastern University’s Fenway Center. These new opportunities will seamlessly integrate with BSO’s existing community education collaborations, as children from Kids 4 Harmony, youth string performers from Revolution of Hope, and students from the Josiah Quincy School and Worcester Public Schools will perform prior to the free BSO concerts in each of their communities. Furthermore, each performance will be followed by question-and-answer sessions with the musicians.

Affordable Ticket Options

Most striking of all, perhaps, is the BSO’s commitment to offering affordable tickets to performances in Symphony Hall for all members of the community. Typical discounts for high school and college-aged students exist, as well as day-of-performance rush tickets, but the BSO has taken action to further expand access. Teachers and members of the military enjoy a 30% discount on all tickets. Casual Friday performances include not only discounted tickets but also the promise of a relaxed atmosphere. Discounted tickets are available to students to sit in on rehearsal and ask questions of the performers. Furthermore, the BSO provides a number of complimentary tickets to EBT card holders.

Peering around mid-concert, I did see my fair share of the stereotypical elderly, wealthy, erudite, Harvard-professor-esque listeners. But, I also made tacit eye contact with millennials, dressed seemingly too casually, with parents silently praying their children’s attention was held by doodling on the program, and even with someone wearing what I can only assume was a motorcycle gang jacket—all of us snickering at the all-too-common sight of snoozing elderly patrons. And in that eye contact, I realized that, as a six-year resident of Boston (a Bostonian, I might even say), I felt that the BSO had achieved its mission and had not left me behind in the course of pursuing it.

Sarah Scalia (HBS ’19) is the Arts & Culture Editor for The Harbus. While she has spent the past 7 years begrudgingly calling Boston home, she remains a proud Texan. Prior to HBS, Sarah worked in consulting, focused on the healthcare and biotechnology spaces. In her free time, she enjoys distance running, taking photos with (and of) her dog, and watching RuPaul’s Drag Race.