June 26, 2019
Credited by Southwest Magazine with “redefining the classical concert experience as we know it,” departing Executive Director Aubrey Bergauer has catapulted the California Symphony onto the national stage. Outlets ranging from the Wall Street Journal and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to San Francisco Chronicle, Symphony Magazine, and NPR have turned their attention to Walnut Creek and the industry-leading efforts of the California Symphony team. The orchestra, which had been contemplating closure before Bergauer came aboard, has experienced a remarkable turn of fortunes during her five-year tenure.
That change in the bottom line is due to the deliberate and adventuresome partnership between Bergauer, Music Director Donato Cabrera, and Symphony Board President Bill Armstrong, who have collectively embraced a data-driven mission. Taking a cue from neighboring tech hotbeds, this approach has focused on user experience research, iterative design, and perhaps most daringly, transparency with audiences and the public. In an industry with a tendency to bemoan the state of audience attendance and demographics, California Symphony has punched through with actual solutions.
“As a person on a mission to change the narrative for orchestras, I have been exceedingly lucky to be able to partner with Donato and Bill, along with our fantastic staff and board,” said Bergauer. “Fueled by our dogmatic focus on patron retention, the California Symphony is now nationally known for a concert experience that welcomes newcomers and loyalists alike. I’m confident I am leaving the organization in a position of strength.”
Hailed as “the most forward-looking music organization around” by the San Jose Mercury News, the symphony’s accomplishments over the past few years read like an orchestra board’s wish list:
• doubled the audience, increasing annual tickets sold by 97%
• achieved a first-time audience retention rate triple the industry average
• increased subscribers by 42%, with 19/20 subscriptions tracking up 21% year over year
• grew donor households by 180%
• more than doubled the number of performances offered per year
• increased operating budget by 50%
• expanded performances beyond Walnut Creek to Napa Valley, Concord, Oakland, and Berkeley
• balanced or surplus budgets in 4 of 5 years, while eliminating a portion of past accumulated debt
• secured $1 million gift for endowment, the largest in the orchestra’s history
In a recent profile, the San Francisco Chronicle described Bergauer as “a quick-talking dynamo [who] bristles with statistics, ideas, and sharp new perspectives on the challenges facing symphony orchestras in the 21st century.” Indeed, California Symphony has been at the forefront of many industry trends, spearheading initiatives that inspire other orchestras to follow suit:
• first professional orchestra to make a public commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion across staff and board members, in addition to musicians and programming
• committed to 20% of programming by women, people of color, living composers (vs. 2% nationwide average)
• achieved 46% programming by women, POC, and living composers in upcoming 19/20 season
• first orchestra to collaborate with the band Postmodern Jukebox
• created “Symphony Surround” benefit, placing audience members among the orchestra
• moved to anonymous review process (inspired by blind auditions) for acclaimed Young American Composer-in-Residence program, which led to selection of current resident composer Katherine Balch
• 50% increase in Latinx audiences, driven by bilingual education and advertising
Music Director Donato Cabrera noted, “Aubrey’s groundbreaking leadership has transformed the California Symphony, dramatically increasing our audience through enriching concert experiences of inclusive and diverse programming. Our work to honor Aubrey’s legacy here will continue to set the standard of how an orchestra can be an integral, meaningful, and contemporary facet of our cultural landscape.”
Board President Bill Armstrong agreed, “As much as we’d love to keep Aubrey, we understand that change-makers thrive on new challenges, and we are grateful for the extraordinary growth we’ve experienced under her leadership. She has made an indelible impact on the California Symphony, and I’m confident she will have great success as she brings her expertise to a broader array of arts organizations.”
Bergauer began devising strategies in the realms of audience development, revenue generation, and the creation of inclusive cultures over a decade of work at Seattle cultural institutions, including the Seattle Symphony, Seattle Opera, and the Bumbershoot Festival. The California Symphony’s openness to collaborative experimentation proved the ideal incubator for these approaches, including Bergauer’s signature Long Haul Method, which will now be shared with an array of arts institutions via consultancy.
“What we’ve done at California Symphony is extraordinary,” said Bergauer. “It is also replicable. Nothing is limited to this market or this community, and the proof of concept has been authenticated. I’m looking forward to deploying the strategies tested here to empower arts organizations from a variety of regions and budgets. While I certainly intend to return to running an orchestra one day, I’m eager to make an impact beyond one organization in this critical moment for our industry.”
Bergauer’s tenure concludes on August 15; the California Symphony’s 2019/20 season will open on September 14 with an “Iconic Beethoven” program. The wide-ranging season will also include Lyric for Strings by George Walker, the first African-American composer to win a Pulitzer Prize, a flute concerto by Kevin Puts, the commissioned world premiere of Katherine Balch’s Cantata for Orchestra and 3 Voices, and a Gabriela Lena Frank vocal work that imagines Frida Kahlo returning from the dead during the Día de los Muertos festival. The recruitment and selection committee for the new executive director has been formed, and the search is underway.