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On a good note

Symphony’s executive director brings energy and ideas to new post
By Maggie Heyn Richardson

Austin, Texas, is known for lots of things. It’s chock-full of young people who crave edgy food and entertainment. It’s got electric scooters, bike sharing and bus lanes. It has a robust music scene girded by the live PBS show, Austin City Limits. It’s the playground of tech start-ups and venture capitalists.

BR Symphony Orchestra Executive Director Eric Marshall / Photo by Tim Mueller
BR Symphony Orchestra Executive Director Eric Marshall / Photo by Tim Mueller

It’s also the kind of place, figured Eric Marshall, that would embrace side-by-side performances of a chamber music quartet and dance club mashups engineered by four of Austin’s most popular DJs. The DJs, in fact, would be asked to mix tunes that featured the very pieces of music the musicians played live. Held at The Parish, a 300-seat music venue in downtown Austin, and organized under Marshall’s direction, Bach n’ Beats was the Austin Symphony Orchestra’s answer to roping in distracted young people to the timeless world of classical music.

“It was a big success,” says Marshall, 35, “What look like challenges with younger audiences can really be seen as opportunities.”

Now Marshall is bringing his passion for classical music— and his millennial sensibilities—to his new role as executive director of the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra. Marshall comes to the Capital Region from an eight-year stint in Austin, where he worked in various management capacities for ASO, most recently as director of information systems.

Marshall was charged with beefing up the organization’s social media plat-forms and creating programs, like Bach N’ Beats and others, that would appeal to younger audiences. His efforts were successful. ASO’s top selling age bracket for purchasing single concert tickets is 25-to-35-year-olds.

Expanding the appeal of BRSO’s programs to a broader audience is a big part of what Marshall plans to do in Baton Rouge, just as the symphony enters a period of reinvention.

BRSO’s artistic heft has never been in question. Its musicians are widely respected, as is its conductor and music director, Timothy Muffitt. But in recent years, BRSO had become financially overextended. Its board of directors, led by Meredith Hathorn, worked diligently to reorganize the arts nonprofit and bring it into the black. They held the BRSO executive director post open for a two-year period until the organization was on solid footing.

“I can’t say enough about the BRSO board of directors,” says Marshall. “They have done so much to prime everything for the future. We’ve been profitable the last two years, scaled back to re-engage the community and now plan to grow our footprint to reach new audiences.”

That includes a plan to accomplish four pillars of work over the next three to five years, says Marshall. The symphony wants to cultivate an audience that is a more accurate reflection of Baton Rouge; sell out every performance; achieve sustained profitability; and expand community outreach and education.

Marshall says each of the four pillars go hand-in-hand.

“When we expand our audience through community outreach, we increase interest in the symphony and we sell more tickets,” he says. “That, of course, increases our chances of selling out performances and sustaining profitability.”

Marshall takes the helm just as the organization is navigating two major changes. First, the symphony’s home stage, the River Center Performing Arts Theater, is under renovation and won’t reopen until 2021. The new and improved facility will include improved seating, lighting and sound, but until then, the symphony is performing in alternative locations around the community, including First Baptist Church, Istrouma Baptist Church, Houmas House, the Capitol Park Museum, St. Joseph Cathedral and First Presbyterian Church. Marshall says these community-based performances have been effective at increasing the symphony’s exposure.

“These present new opportunities to get out into the community and attract new patrons,” says Marshall.

The second big change includes the anticipated departure of BRSO’s beloved music director, Muffitt, who has announced the 2019-2020 season will be his last as conductor. Muffitt will serve as music director laureate through two more seasons, during which the symphony will host guest conductors and search for Muffitt’s replacement. In April, BRSO will hold “A Tribute to Tim” following the symphony’s performance of Beethoven’s Ninth, Muffitt’s final show.

Marshall earned a degree in voice performance with a concentration in opera from Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania, his hometown. After college, he was performing in a traveling Barry Manilow tribute show and sang with the Erie Philharmonic when he was offered a job on staff. “I was 24 and there were only five us, so I got to learn all aspects of the business,” Marshall says. “I loved it, and I decided that arts administration was what I wanted to do.”

Marshall isn’t sure yet if a chamber music-DJ mashup is right for Baton Rouge, but he’s sure there are yet-to-be explored programs that will do more to reach a cross-section of the community, especially young professionals. After all, he says, we’re living in a time when Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony just played to a packed house in early September at the Chase Center, home of the Golden State Warriors. It was the second time the two had played together, the first being in 1999, and is one of numerous band-orchestra collaborations that have happened throughout the country.

As for attracting the youngest of listeners, Marshall says BRSO will connect with school-age children through 14 school-based music education programs, for which the organization was recently awarded a grant from the Louisiana Decentralized Arts Funding program. The school workshops will bring music awareness to children through lessons that integrate math, science, English and other subjects. Marshall also likes the idea of holding an instrument “petting zoo” in the community, during which children can hold and play musical instruments.

Competing for the attention of new listeners isn’t easy today, but Marshall says he believes there’s never been a better time to showcase a community asset like BRSO.

“I’m excited about classical music and where it’s going, and the level of musicianship we have here in Baton Rouge is incredible,” Marshall says. “There’s no replacement for experiencing something like that, live.”