Regional Orchestras 1: After Covid, A Renewed Commitment To Music

Eric Garcia has been music director of the Boise Philharmonic since 2017. (Photos courtesy of the Boise Philharmonic)

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a two-part report on the post-pandemic outlook of regional orchestras in America’s Northwest.

PERSPECTIVE — The performing arts sector has been in crisis mode for nearly three years. Predictions of doom for classical music’s infrastructure, never in short supply to begin with, spiked to unprecedented levels with the arrival of the pandemic.

There’s even been speculation about how Covid’s long-term disruptions have taken a toll on our personalities, with negative effects hitting the younger generation particularly hard. If these concerns have any validity, how much more difficult will the goal of courting new audiences become?  

Yet encouraging signs of revitalization can be found across the spectrum of classical music institutions. The situation with regard to regional orchestras is especially noteworthy, since during the pandemic’s early stages smaller ensembles seemed even more vulnerable than bigger orchestras with sizable endowments.

But the drastic need to rethink priorities has also yielded renewed purpose. “In the midst of these seemingly endless obstacles that come our way, you have a group of musicians who play together with such a sense of community and empathy,” said Eric Garcia about his experience as music director of the Boise Philharmonic.

Pianist Fei-Fei performing ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ with the Boise Philharmonic.

Idaho’s oldest performing arts group, the Boise Phil (as they prefer to style themselves) can trace its roots back to 1885, predating statehood by five years, although its current incarnation was established in 1960.

But attention is firmly fixed on the future as the ensemble takes stock of the dramatic changes wrought by the last few years. According to U.S. Census Bureau figures, Idaho ranked among the top 10 states in numeric growth percentage from 2021 to 2022. A magnet for the tech exodus from California and attractive to startups, Boise has been heralded as the next Silicon Valley.

The Boise Phil operates on an annual budget of about $3 million and engages 77 contracted musicians. The organization also encompasses the Master Chorale, an auditioned chorus of about 80 volunteer singers, and a youth orchestra of about 160 emerging talents who are coached by the Boise Phil players.  

Garcia, 45, began his tenure in 2017, and he and the orchestra have since weathered not only the pandemic but major organizational changes including unionization. He’s a firm believer in cultivating ties with the community by venturing beyond the Boise Phil’s home base at the 1,994-seat hall in the Morrison Center for the Performing Arts, part of Boise State University.

“It’s important to celebrate the beauty of our community by performing in spaces outside the concert hall,” Garcia said during a conversation after a weekend matinee performance. “Local movie theaters, the famous train depot with magnificent views, for example, where people who might not be coming to our concerts can see us with pride as the hometown orchestra.”

And there’s a growing base of potential patrons, as Amy Granger, vice president of audience experience, pointed out, referring to the doubling in subscriptions since live performances have returned. According to Garcia, most of the musicians either teach privately or are faculty members at one of the universities or colleges close by Morrison Center. As a result, they are “plugged into the present generation and the next generation.”

Boise is a remarkably clean and pleasant city, its eye-catching and eclectic architecture complemented by an expansive green belt and relaxing scenery. A quirky activity center in the heart of downtown, JUMP (Jack’s Urban Meeting Place), pays homage to J.R. Simplot, the frozen French fry baron whose philanthropy has had a significant impact on the region. It’s the only reminder of Idaho’s old-time image as the land of potatoes, a short walk from the acoustically excellent orchestra hall in the Morrison Center.

Garcia, who hails from Texas, jumpstarted his career as an assistant conductor at Seattle Symphony — he still makes his home in Seattle — and was attracted to the Boise position because of the skill of the musicians and their desire to explore new music in addition to the canon. “As a former composer and percussionist, that was especially compelling,” he said. He is especially excited about this season’s offering of three co-commissioned works by American composers — Jennifer Higdon, Vijay Iyer, and Jimmy López Bellido — a record for the orchestra.

I visited in November to take in one of 11 programs comprising the current season, which includes family, pops, and community concerts alongside a classics series. Themed around American composers, the program offered a welcome blend tilted toward lesser-known fare and new discoveries, with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue as the sole chestnut.

The concert opened with a joint performance by the orchestra and Boise Phil Youth Orchestra Seniors of William Grant Still’s Festive Overture, followed by the newly commissioned Higdon piece, a suite from her opera Cold Mountain. The second half paired Florence Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement with the Gershwin.

The Boise Philharmonic’s home base is the 1,994-seat hall in the Morrison Center for the Performing Arts, part of Boise State University.

Not only the high performance standards but the obvious bond and easy communication between conductor and orchestra were impressive. If the new Higdon suite didn’t convey a particularly memorable sense of her opera score, it threw a gratifying spotlight on the Boise Phil’s terrific woodwind section. The Chinese pianist Fei-Fei proved to be an engaging guest artist, unearthing surprising patches of gentle poetry in Rhapsody.

Garcia is a charismatic personality, obviously well liked in the community and eager to share his enthusiasm with each constituency — whether it’s regular connoisseurs, families who bring their children to well-planned matinee concerts, or performances meant to appeal to a broader, first-time audience. The warmth of response to the program I attended was palpable.

Asked whether he sees a distinctive profile to regional orchestras in the Pacific Northwest, Garcia said it’s the similarities more than the differences that are most striking. “I also lived in Chicago for about seven years and heard many orchestras,” he said, “along with my time in Seattle and my experience with Boise. I think the similarities outweigh everything. They revolve around the fact that these are musicians who have a passion for doing what they’re doing. They have the resources or find ways to get the resources to do it. It’s a shared drive to come together and perform. And after being away from live music for so long, they want to appreciate every single grain of the music within.”

Next: The pulse of orchestra life in Washington and Oregon.