It’s official: The River Concert Series at St. Mary’s College of Maryland will continue, and the Chesapeake Orchestra will likely take on an expanded role in the popular summer event.
College President Joseph Urgo last spring commissioned a 17-member task force to “to ensure the long-term sustainability of the College’s River Concert Series.” That task force released its final report recently, urging the college to continue the series and consider putting in place new ideas to bring in more revenue.
“There are a lot of intriguing suggestions,” Urgo said this week. He said he and college staff will consider all of the report, possibly implementing some changes next summer.
The free concerts, which draw thousands to the college on summer Friday evenings, feature the Chesapeake Orchestra, led by conductor Jeffrey Silberschlag.
Urgo said he is pleased that St. Mary’s College will continue to “be the place to be on Friday evenings” next summer.
The task force recommended that the current musical repertoire of orchestral performances should remain the same, and that the orchestra, which is now a nonprofit independent entity, should take on a larger role by overseeing the performances. The college would continue to handle the logistics of the concerts.
Chip Jackson, associate vice president for planning and facilities, said the orchestra provides great academic value. Jackson co-chaired the report with college trustee Glen Ives.
Over the course of the summer about 20 percent of the orchestra’s membership includes current St. Mary’s College students, graduates and faculty.
Silberschlag, who is also a professor at the college, said the orchestra has expanded its performance schedule throughout the region, and is looking forward to taking on the fundraising aspects of the college concert series.
The college and the orchestra still need to work out the details of the new arrangement. Any changes in fundraising may not go into effect until after next concert season, Urgo said.
“It has been a hard process,” Silberschlag said of the review by the task force. The outcome, he said, will be beneficial for the orchestra and create less financial risk for the college.
The report included five recommendations for the college’s consideration: continue the River Concert Series at St. Mary’s College of Maryland; explore an alternative business model with the Chesapeake Orchestra; create new ways to generate revenue; enhance organizational structure for the series; and address several issues of importance to the community, including the concert start time, which the task force recommended moving back to 7 p.m. after a later time was tried this summer.
The concert series annually costs about $400,000 to $460,000, offering between six and eight shows during a summer funded primarily through sponsorships, donations and grants provided by the community.
About half of that money is spent paying the musicians and performers, with another approximately $50,000 spent on music production.
In addition, the college this year kicked in $81,000 in direct expenses for labor and event support. Last year the college contributed $113,600 to the series.
The college also provides approximately 2,000 man-hours per year in overhead to support fundraising, event management and infrastructure.
Urgo said it is reasonable to spend $80,000 of the college’s money on the series, especially since it provides educational opportunities for students. He said that sponsorship has been steady during the last couple of years, but that the economic recession previously took a toll on giving amounts from earlier years.
Throughout its report the task force says the event should remain free. However, it also recommends one way to bring in more money would be to charge for parking. According to the report, the college could net $30,000 during a six-concert season with 1,000 cars per week charged $5 per car.
The Arts Alliance of St. Mary's College of Maryland would still oversee a “bucket brigade” to collect donations from the audience, according to the report, which also said donations should be able to be given through a text-message system.
The task force also recommended selling the concert program for a nominal $1 charge to help cover production costs.
Another revenue-generating idea is to essentially rent out the tent and stage when it is not in use for the Friday night concerts.
The largest fundraising event for the River Concert Series has been an annual gala, which has cost more than $30,000.
Revenue from the event has fallen from a peak of $20,000 to just $9,000 this year. The task force said the gala needs to be reconsidered and revitalized, and should be a “spectacular” event primarily as a perk for sponsors and high-end donors.
The report said an estimated 5,000 people come to the concert each week, although college officials in the past had estimated typical attendance at between 2,000 and 4,000.
Concerts that celebrate the Fourth of July, and included fireworks, in the past have drawn a crowd of as many as 10,000 visitors, according to the report, which compared attendance to Carnegie Hall in New York City, which has a seating capacity of 2,800.
“Everybody stayed on course. Everybody was dedicated,” Ives said of the task force’s work, adding that the diverse makeup of the group ensured that all approaches and ideas were heard.
Ives said the concert series is an emotional topic for many, and he is glad that it will continue as a cultural aspect of summers in St. Mary’s County.