Last summer, while I was (ironically) in Chicago, the Eugene Symphony announced that its excellent executive director, Paul Winberg (here’s a Q&A I did with Winberg a few years ago), was leaving the symphony for a spot as the executive directorof the Grant Park Music Festival.
Winberg left the symphony in good financial shape, still in the black after years of recession. As symphonies around the country go bankrupt or conduct punishing negotiations with their musicians, Eugene seems calm though the development team certainly works its (collective) butt off to raise the money necessary to stay in the black.
Last week, the symphony sent out a press release to announce that it had hired a new executive director: Scott Freck, currently the VP for artistic operations and the general manager of the North Carolina Symphony, based in Raleigh. Freck will move to Eugene in June, and his family (he has a wife and two kids) will follow in July.
But he won’t be new to Oregon; he grew up “outside of Portland.” When he was young, he was a cellist with the Portland Youth Philharmonic, and he worked as artistic administrator for the Oregon Symphony in Portland for years before he moved in 2000 to that other, hotter, more mosquito-ridden coast.
I had the opportunity to talk to Freck about his return to his home state, his feelings about the Eugene Symphony and his plans for the future – and how to fill Winberg’s shoes and keep the Eugene Symphony financially and musically successful.
Suzi Steffen: What appealed to you about the Eugene Symphony?
Scott Freck: From where I’m sitting, it looks like exactly the right fit. It’s the right job, in the right city, most importantly the right organization. The strong support the city has shown that orchestra year in and year out, it shows that the city and the surrounding areas, they care about music in their lives.
The Eugene Symphony has a great reputation for picking music directors, but also for the quality of connections with their community. That would appeal to anybody, to take a step up and become an executive director in such a place.
What about coming back to the Pacific Northwest?
Yeah, it’s a thrill. We’ve loved our time here in North Carolina, and of course our son was born here. It’s a thrill to be returning home. I grew up outside of Portland, but Eugene is an ancestral home for me. My mother was born in Eugene, and my mother’s mother’s family, the Scott family, moved to Coburg in the 1880s, believe it or not. We’ve got deep, deep roots.
And your kids?
I think they’re excited. The kids are curious more than anything. Although my daughter was born in Portland, we moved to North Carolina when she was three months old. The beautiful thing for us is that all of our immediate family are scattered up and down the West Coast, and they know they’ll get to see their cousins more than they have. They’re excited – and it’s a big change.
What are some directions you think the Eugene Symphony should take, considering the dire straits of many orchestras right now?
I think, to stay in the black, you start by making good choices. The choices have to support the art and the people that you’re serving. We have to draw upon that strong support, involve the people who make it happen – the board, the concertgoers, the Guild, the donors – and indeed, the musicians themselves. It really does take a village to have this success. We need to continue to have everybody working together.
What about new music, or new formats, to draw in new audiences?
The whole industry is grappling with it right now. I’ve had the great luck to deal with that [in North Carolina]. First and foremost, the primary driving force is that you have a program balance. You don’t want just things people already know, and you don’t want just things people don’t already know. You want to challenge the audience; you don’t want to drive them away, but you want to keep them hungry.
That goes for concert format as well. That time when you just come in and sit down and listen to a concert straight through might be over. I’m open to exploring what would be right for Eugene. I don’t have preconceived notions to say we’re going to do this or that. I hope to come in and learn about the community, learn what makes [attendance at the Eugene Symphony] stick, and do our best to stay ahead of that curve.
So, can we look forward to more cello solos?
Not from me! Nobody needs that from me. That’s a wonderful part of my past; I remember those years fondly. The further away from them I get, the more I appreciate what it provided for me in terms a foundation of what I do now. It does help the conversation when you speak with musicians, whether the Yo-Yo Mas of the world (who did, by the way, offer to let me play his cello one time … I foolishly refused) or in the conversations with the orchestral players. It’s they who are doing the work. It helps them know that I know where the work is happening.
What about the use of new media – podcasts, tweet seats, photos at the shows, etc.? How do you think you might need to negotiate with the musicians’ union to adapt to this era?
There are so many creative ways to use electronic media. [In North Carolina], we’re looking at incorporating, not to get all American Federation of Musicians on you, but the Integrative Media Agreement we’re looking at expands the promotional use language that we currently have. We’re absolutely wanting to talk about that kind of thing. You want to use whatever tools you can to share the story of why great orchestral music belongs in people’s lives. I think we all ought to consider it, and I would bet the musicians [in Eugene] would agree with that.
Can you comment on the state of music education in the schools?
Obviously that’s going to be an area I’m going to get to know quickly. Eugene is going to feel like a new place to me. I will say that I believe very strongly in the power and necessity of music education. In my current job, there’s a strong and proud tradition of providing a range of educational activities for a range of ages. We’re famous [in North Carolina] for having a really comprehensive music ed program for students, and we do concerts for about 60,000 school kids every year. It matters, it’s part of who we are. It’s part of the greatest audience development tool ever invented. They remember hearing that first time, you know, when they were 9 – it’s the first time you feel the power of a symphony orchestra itself.
Do you remember your first time?
Oh yes, I remember it. I was in second grade, and I got on a little yellow school bus, and we went down to the Civic Auditorium that’s now the Keller Auditorium. I remember where I was sitting. They played Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, and I remember how I felt. It changed me. It made me want to have that experience more often. It made me want to know about the world.
It’s a moral imperative that we pass that on to the generations after us. I do know to my very core it’s absolutely essential that the Eugene Symphony be part of the educational life in the area. What that means in terms of specific programs, I don’t know yet. I know they’re proud of the programs they’ve initiated in the last year or two, and I look forward to find out how they’re connecting
What’s on your iPod?
I have an iPhone 3GS, 32G, and I will say I’ve used most of the 32 gigs with storage for music. I like to organize by playlist, so I’ve got about 15 different playlists. I’ve got a Bach-only playlist; I’ve got a jazz playlist; a, not country really, but a roots and blues playlist; an alt.rock playlist; um, and … well … honestly, stuff from my youth, stuff from the ’80s.
Yes, I have an ’80s playlist too. No worries.
Obviously I have some classical music on my iPod. I don’t tend to listen to that, however. I don’t put classical music on as background music. I think it’s foreground music. I listen to it as a live experience and for repertoire research, but for instance, when I go for a run, I choose one of my other playlists.
What are your thoughts on Eugene Symphony Artistic Director Danail Rachev?
I’m looking forward to working with him. I’ve met with him a few times, once [for a long period of time], and he seems to be a deep soul, if you will. I have a feeling we’re going to have a great working relationship. We’ll push each other to achieve great heights.
As you become an executive director, which is different from what you’re doing now and what you’ve been doing at North Carolina, what will you have to learn? What will you have to just rip into that you’re not doing now?
Mostly what I do now in overseeing the operational side is, in a way, spending money, and while I’ve collaborated with my colleagues down the hall in selling tickets and getting donors to support our programs, the big change for me is going to be doing all of it – the expense and the income side. I’ve seen a lot of incredible concerts and met a lot of incredible people, but that’s going to be the specific change. I really do, as I shared with Mary Ann Hanson, the president of the board, I look forward to rolling up my sleeves and working alongside the staff and the musicians. It’s a collaborative effort.
I’m excited about being part of the community, going to theatre, being able to go down to Ashland and see the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I have a good friend from Chapel Hill who is directing a play there this summer, so I’m excited about that. I had no idea when he told me he’d be directing that I might get to see it.
And what about the Eugene Symphony?
I’m excited about the next season, and I look forward to working on that. I know the concert at Alton Baker has now become a bit of a tradition – that’s exciting.
I look forward to the opportunity to work with Tomas Svoboda again – I took composition lessons from him when I was in high school.
I’m excited to get out there and get going and meet everybody.
Thanks, Scott. We’ll see you in June and July!