Wheeling Symphony Orchestra plots plan for the organizations future

WHEELING — Wheeling Symphony Orchestra staff, board members and musicians gathered with community members Monday during the American Composers Orchestra Workshop to create a vision for the organization’s 2024-25, which will be its 95th.

The morning session opened up discussion to community members from local organizations, businesses and schools to share how they could collaborate and assist the WSO in achieving its future goals.

After the morning session, the WSO staff and board members regrouped for a closed meeting to discuss the morning’s feedback and how they could implement it.

“Since the symphony stewards art in the city, as we celebrate 95 years, I think we should reflect on what we stand for and also set the tone for this entire season,” said WSO Executive Director Sonja Thoms. “We want to utilize this anniversary as a moment to reflect that we might not have taken on the 91st or 92nd year of the organization.”

The workshop was conducted by President of the American Composers Orchestra Melissa Ngan, who began the meeting by having participants share “Bright Spots” of the symphony.

WSO Director of Foundation and Government Relations & Orchestra Librarian Gail Looney shared the symphony’s 2023 “Violins of Hope” concert as a highlight. During the show, WSO musicians played restored violins and string instruments of Holocaust victims.

Thoms then drew attention to the WSO’s Music in Our Schools month, during which five free tickets were given to local educators to encourage them to attend the symphony.

After focusing on the WSO’s current positives, Ngan had participants share their vision for its future.

Oglebay Institute’s Danielle McCracken said she would like the symphony to hold concerts in new “outside the box” locations outside of the typical concert hall.

WSO Board President-Elect Alicia Jordan then questioned whether community members in Wheeling and the Ohio Valley were aware when WSO concerts and unique other events were occurring.

The conversation then turned to how to drive interest in the orchestra from groups in Wheeling that had not yet been reached — another goal named for the organization. Ngan noted that this goal could be a “big task,” with symphonies “across the country” encountering difficulty engaging new groups with orchestral music.

Regarding engaging a new audience in Wheeling, WSO Board President Mary Hanley expressed her frustration with what she felt was a “dumbing down” of the types of entertainment city residents enjoy.

“We can struggle to fill the seats of a fabulous concert, and on the same night down the street the Tough Man Contest is sold out,” described Hanley. “We’re worried about going head-to-head with the truth that people who want to see a monster truck show don’t want to come to the symphony.”

Capitol Theatre Marketing Manager Kyle Knox chimed in with his perspective on local interest in concert events using Capitol Theatre attendance numbers. He noted that “when you look at geographic data, we cannot survive on Wheeling alone,” explaining that “8-10% of attendance” at Capitol Theatre events is Wheeling residents.

“Breaking down that barrier of bringing in more people from our community to events is a tremendous, tremendous challenge,” noted Knox. “Finding those ways to go out into the community and say, ‘This is your symphony, and we’re here for you’ is very important.”

The topic of discussion then became how to foster community involvement in the WSO. Attendees offered suggestions on getting youth involved in the symphony through after-school programs.

Participants also noted that misconceptions regarding what one has to wear to a concert could be eliminated by new marketing that emphasizes the symphony being for the Wheeling community.

While wrapping up the session, WSO Maestro John Devlin noted that some of the goals discussed during their meeting were “present or in the process of flowering.”

“This is helping me keep the next chapter in my mind,” said Devlin. “We have some ways to do it, but also, we need to make those steps the most effective so you can have everyone in the audience at a concert feel like the orchestra is here for them.”

Thoms added that having various community members in the room for the morning session, from Oglebay to Nail City Records, allowed new voices to be heard to “reconsider the way we’re doing things.” She noted that heading into its 95th year, the WSO was also incorporating many new voices on its staff in addition to adding new board members and a new board president.

“I’m excited for this new group,” said Thoms. “There are always challenges because you have to reorient to each other and establish a strong sense of teamwork, but I’m excited about the new perspectives, and I think it’s a good shot of energy.”

Thoms explained that WSO staff and board members would take the points discussed from the morning session into their afternoon session with Ngan to plan how to enact these goals. Interim Chair for West Liberty’s Department of Music & Theatre Matthew Harder also sat in on the afternoon session to begin work on a commissioned piece he will create for the WSO’s 95th anniversary.

“The piece will be informed by the stories of our community and will become the words that the community choir at the concert will sing,” described Thoms. “We want our anniversary celebrations to be rooted in our values and the community engagement we’ve been saying is important.”


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