The Phil at 55: The Reno Philharmonic adapts as Reno and its audiences continue to change

Since 1969, the Reno Philharmonic has entertained and educated Reno’s concertgoers and young musicians through a range of performances, outreach and educational initiatives, cementing its place as a cornerstone of the city’s artistic foundation.

The largest-performing arts organization in Northern Nevada, the Reno Phil is about to kick off its 55th season, with more than 60 professional musicians performing under the baton of conductor Laura Jackson.

As much as the Phil is part of the community, it’s also a reflection of it. As the city has undergone huge population and cultural shifts, over the past decade especially, the Reno Philharmonic has had to find new ways to adapt—serving its longtime patrons while also attracting the next generation of listeners.

Then and now

The Reno Philharmonic was founded in 1969, financed out-of-pocket by conductor Gregory Stone, a successful commercial musician and film composer who longed to make his mark on the wider world of music. From an initial rehearsal at the Reno Musicians’ Union Hall, Stone created a symphony orchestra from the large pool of musicians contracted to play at the city’s casinos. The early Reno Philharmonic performed on Tuesday nights, as it was the only night of the week when the casinos didn’t offer their own performances.

The Phil’s first concert featured Gershwin’s Concerto in F and took place in what has since become its iconic home venue: the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts. Stone’s focus in those early years favored more pop programming over classical music—an artistic dispute that eventually led to a schism, with affiliated musicians founding the Reno Chamber Orchestra in 1974 under the baton of Vahe Khochayan. (The Reno Chamber Orchestra still exists today as a separate organization.)

Stone retired in the late ’70s, and decades of growth and reorganization established the Reno Philharmonic in its modern form, including the additions of the annual Pops on the River concert, the Classix Series, and the holiday-centric Spirit of the Seasons concerts. Current CEO Ignacio Barrón Viela joined the operation last year, and Laura Jackson was named the orchestra’s fourth conductor after a nationwide search in 2009.

“I was one of five finalists that came that year, and for me, it was love at first sight with the orchestra musicians,” Jackson said. “I was so amazed at how much they cared about the music they make, how much they cared about excellence and playing well for their community and connecting with them.”

PHOTO/JIYANG CHEN: Laura Jackson emerged from a field of 200 applicants to become the fourth conductor of the Reno Philharmonic in 2009.

Jackson originally studied as a violinist, calling the instrument “the voice of her soul.” Her professional performances started to suffer, however, as she found herself too fascinated with the overall symbiosis of the orchestra instead of her own individual parts—even missing her cues and making mistakes. Eventually, a bout of tendonitis necessitated rest from her instrument, and she enrolled in a conducting class during her undergraduate studies at Indiana University.

“I got more and more fascinated with the organism that is all of the instruments put together that creates such a magnificent and beautiful sound, and how that particular collection of instruments can do anything in the world,” Jackson said. “I mean, it can create any human emotion; it can tell a story; it can depict an object in sound. It’s an incredible palette of colors for a composer.”

After studying conducting at the University of Michigan, Jackson eventually took on a role as assistant conductor with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, a position that gave her national exposure and notoriety in the world of orchestral musicians. She emerged from a field of 200 applicants to become the new conductor of the Reno Philharmonic.

While everyone is familiar with the image of a conductor onstage, the actual duties of the position can seem opaque to the layperson.

“When you look at Google Maps on your phone, it’s a very two-dimensional kind of map of how things work, but when you look at it in real space and time, it’s completely and utterly different—same thing with a piece of music,” Jackson said. “When you look at the music on the page, it might say ‘fast tempo’ and have lots of loud dynamics. But is that music aggressive and urgent? Or is it passionate and warm? Or is it joyful? I make all those decisions of what the essence of the music is and then give the orchestra technical information that they then translate into their instrumental sounds.”

Essentially, while the sheet music tells a musician what to play, the conductor’s onstage direction tells them how to play. While all orchestral music is a collaboration, the style and musical interpretations of the conductor have the greatest overall effects on the sound of the ensemble. But the conductor’s influence isn’t just limited to the stage.

“In terms of behind-the-scenes stuff, the music director (another name for the conductor) is really the artistic lead,” Jackson said. “I work with a committee, but largely, I’m in charge of designing the kinds of programs that we put on. So, you know, we will decide we want to do something for kids, and then I’m figuring out the best kinds of music and the flow of that concert, what pieces will appeal to them the most, and so on and so forth.”

For the coming season, Jackson and the Reno Phil board have decided on an ambitious schedule, spanning different genres, concert formats and physical locations.

This year’s roster started with the Summer Pops series featuring Disney in Concert on June 24. Next, the Phil will perform a series of patriotic tunes at the Greater Nevada Field on Monday, July 3, dubbed Patriotic POPS at the Field. Pops on the River will be held at the Reno Glow Plaza on Saturday, July 8, covering some of Motown’s greatest hits. On Monday, July 10, the Motown theme continues for Dancing in the Streets at Sand Harbor in Incline Village. Finally, the summer series comes to a close with a tribute to Rodgers and Hammerstein at Sand Harbor on Monday, Aug. 7.

The fall marks the start of the Phil’s Classix series, which Jackson considers the flagship performances. On Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 14 and 15, the Phil returns to the Pioneer Center for back-to-back performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 (chosen in honor of the 55th season). Friday, Nov. 3, marks the return of a new fan-favorite format, wherein the orchestra plays the live score of a classic movie alongside a theatrical screening. This year’s film is Back to the Future (another nod to the 55th anniversary, as Marty McFly famously travels back in time to 1955), screened at the Grand Sierra Resort.

PHOTO/DAVID CALVERT: The Reno Phil is kicking off its 55th season.

On Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 11 and 12, guest pianist Jon Nakamatsu joins the Phil to perform Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1. After the season’s holiday shows, the Classix series resumes with an ode to the music of Spain in the Spanish Nights concert (Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 27 and 28, 2024); a show centered around Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony (Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 24 and 25); and celebration of George Gershwin’s 125th birthday (Saturday and Sunday, March 23 and 24). For the season finale, the Reno Phil Chorus will join the orchestra for Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (Saturday and Sunday, April 20 and 21).

That’s a lot of music. But Jackson said each piece is chosen carefully, with feedback from musicians and audience members weighing heavily on her decision process.

“There are a lot of ways in which we take feedback from people in our community,” she said. “And those are our staff members, our board members, our musicians. Then the concertgoers—the subscribers—will write in after a concert and say, ‘I would love it if you would do this,’ or, ‘I don’t really like that so much.’ And that all helps us shape where we’re going next.”

Jackson and the board favor a balanced approach to programming, which includes a mix of classical and modern content—something she says is designed to not only appeal to a broader listener base, but also showcase the breadth of what a professionally trained orchestra can do. Jackson hopes this approach will bring listeners back every year—and make them lifelong fans.

“I hope that our concerts make people feel closer to their community, to other people in their community, and that they feel like they have a greater sense of community family,” Jackson said. “And then finally, the other thing is for kids to get hooked on it—how much fun it is to play music and meet friends in the orchestra, and come and hear the orchestra play and sing along with them and just have music in their lives. That is what I’m hoping for.”

From the classroom to the stage

The Reno Philharmonic’s youth-education initiatives are far-ranging, with the Education and Community Engagement Department serving “22,000 students and families” every year through a combination of in-school performances, workshops and special events. Performances under their “Discover Music” program prioritize children in grades K-5 in Title I at-risk schools, offering small-ensemble performances at no charge to the schools through grant funding.

Outreach like this is primarily meant to expose children to live music and the basics of orchestral organization, as are events like the fall’s Family Concert. Likewise, annual Young People’s Concerts take place at the Pioneer Center and are dedicated to familiarizing children in grades 3-5 with instruments that make up an orchestra, the cultural relevance of the chosen works, concert etiquette and more.

When it comes to directly training the next generation of orchestra players, the Phil provides access to more than 230 young musicians to take part in the Reno Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. The RPYO provides grant-assisted extracurricular tutoring and performance opportunities to students in grades 2-12 across Washoe County and beyond.

The Youth Orchestra is perhaps one of the most substantial contributors to the generational continuity of the Phil, with 10% of the professional orchestra onstage for any given concert estimated to be alumni of the Youth Orchestra.

“When you look at Google Maps on your phone, it’s a very two-dimensional kind of map of how things work, but when you look at it in real space and time, it’s completely and utterly different— same thing with a piece of music.”

Reno Phil conductor laura jackson

“In the sixth grade, I had put on my goals, ‘Where do you see yourself in 10 years?’ I had put playing with the Reno Philharmonic,” said Jessica Escobar, a section violinist with the Phil since 1999. “I had actually auditioned to be in the very first arena Philharmonic Youth Orchestra when that started up in 1995. And from there, I guess my name must have gotten passed along to our personnel manager at the Reno Phil. So I’ve been playing with the Reno Phil since I graduated from high school.”

Escobar first heard orchestral music when the Reno Phil woodwind section performed for her sixth-grade class. Her childhood exposure introduced her to the group setting of the orchestra—a specific experience she credits as her primary passion in pursuing a music career.

“I’m a big orchestra person,” Escobar said. “I like being like a drop in the sea and becoming part of that larger ‘me’ with all of my friends. It’s just like heaven; it is absolute euphoria. It’s one of the things that most give me joy in this life, without exaggeration.”

Heather Gage, another section violinist, was first exposed to her instrument when the Phil came to her school in Quincy, Calif. While she had some basic tutelage from a player in Quincy, her interest in orchestral music led her to make the 90-minute trip to Reno once a week to learn and play in the Youth Orchestra.

“Reno was the closest town to Quincy that would have an orchestra of this level,” Gage said. “After I talked to the conductor one of the times that they came out to play, he set me up with a teacher in Reno.”

Gage’s childhood interest in classical music brought her to Reno for her undergraduate studies, before she pursued higher education in Cambridge, England, where she found her instrument opened more doors than just those to a classroom or stage.

“That’s a great thing about our instruments: It’s immediate community anywhere you go,” Gage said. “And we have all made friends at different festivals in different parts of the country or world that we then run into in later years.”

The cumulative effect of these youth-outreach efforts goes beyond producing talented musicians.

“The other day, I went to an eye exam at Costco, and the optician and the lady at the desk and someone just sitting there waiting—they had all been to a Young People’s Concert,” said David Haskins, a section violinist since 2017. “Just all these different generations of people had all been to that concert. And I just thought that was really interesting.”

The Philharmonic’s investment in youth education is just one part of its overall strategy to embed a fundamental appreciation for live music in the community—a feat that can’t be accomplished by simply filling the Pioneer Center once a month. It’s these sustained efforts to reach listeners of all ages where they live that make the Reno Philharmonic perhaps the city’s most widely known musical institution.

“There are times when things feel separate and divided and, like, it’s difficult to be together,” said Gage. “When we’re in the concert hall, whether that’s 80 of us on the stage or 1,400 of us with the audience as well, I find we have more in common than we have differences. … It doesn’t matter what color on the political spectrum they’re on; we can all be together in that live experience that will only happen in that way that one time.”

“In the sixth grade, I had put on my goals, ‘Where do you see yourself in 10 years?’ I had put playing with the Reno Philharmonic.”

Jessica Escobar, section violinist with the Phil since 1999

To Ruth Lenz, first chair violinist and concertmaster for the Phil, generational connection to and through music is part of her DNA. She began playing violin at 2 years old thanks to her parents’ instruction, and she earned her first contracted position at the Phil at age 15.

“My parents were actually in the Philharmonic before I was born,” Lenz said. “I had to ask myself when I was a teenager, ‘Do I actually like this? Am I doing this because I like it or because I’m expected to?’ … It’s in my blood, and I love it.”

To Lenz and the other musicians, playing music satisfies a personal artistic calling, and they value the camaraderie they find with like-minded performers. But to professional musicians, the full effect of their craft is only felt when they’re performing for an audience. In those moments, live music can be as much a form of community service as it is entertainment.

“My grandpa was a medical doctor; he was a surgeon,” Lenz said. “He was telling me he was proud of me for getting my doctorate, and I said, ‘Oh, Grandpa, I’m not a real doctor.’ And he kind of laughed, and he said, ‘Music saves just as many lives, and more, than medical doctors.’ And he goes, ‘You know what I do when I get home after a hard day? I put on a record, and that’s how I cope.’ Everyone needs that.”

An intricate arrangement

The Reno Philharmonic’s formal mission statement is “to produce inspirational symphonic performances of the highest quality for diverse audiences and support exceptional education, outreach, and engagement programs.” While its commitment to the highest ideals of live performance is noble, the actual business of getting the musicians onstage requires a concerted effort.

“I think people don’t consider that, you know, these musicians are paid, and what it costs to put an orchestra onstage just in salaries alone is almost $80,000 (for a show),” said Evelyn Klatt, chief development and marketing officer for the Reno Phil. “When you want to think about, like, how to balance that out with 1,500 seats in the hall, that can be a little challenging.”

The Reno Phil operates as a “per service” orchestra, meaning that the musicians are paid per every three-hour block of time they are rehearsing or performing, as opposed to a full-time orchestra, where musicians are paid a yearly salary. Because most of the musicians are union workers, they perform under contract with the Phil, and the number of players required depends on the specific arrangements chosen by Jackson.

PHOTO/DAVID CALVERT: The Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts has been the Reno Phil’s home since the beginning.

To make their music as accessible as possible, via both performances and educational initiatives, the Phil relies heavily on community donations. With a combined fundraising total of $3,386,800 in 2022, only about 34% came from ticket sales, sponsorships/advertising and other “earned revenue” streams. The vast majority comes from individual contributions and some public grants.

“People often find that surprising, that when they’re paying for a ticket—you know, $35, $40, whatever it is to come see the orchestra—that is just a very small amount of revenue for the organization,” Klatt said. “If you look at any concert that we do, on average, most of (the funding) is coming from individual support. There are several sponsors … that are paying thousands of dollars so that we can keep those ticket prices low.”

Public donations also fund what Klatt considers to be one of the most unique aspects of the Phil’s artistic priorities: commissioning new music.

“In the classical-music world, when a new piece of music comes out, people are like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, that’s not Tchaikovsky. That’s not Beethoven. That’s not Brahms. I’m not going to like that,’” Klatt said. “Laura Jackson is really adamant that she introduce our audience to new works and modern works that are coming out, and that she help these young composers be able to have a vehicle to write their work, because we’re paying them to write it.”

Klatt estimates that the Phil’s budget has doubled over the past almost decade. However, existential challenges in that same period have forced the organization to find ways to adapt.

The COVID-19 pandemic had a dampening effect on the Phil’s audience and revenue, but Klatt said the Phil found itself in a better financial position than many other, similarly sized orchestras across the country. Even as the Phil returns to a regular programming schedule, Klatt believes that the greater challenge facing the future of the organization lies in appealing to Reno’s changing population.

“The demographics of our community are changing really rapidly,” Klatt said. “It’s much younger, and classical music is something that tends to be for an older demographic. Just the bulk of our audience, I would say 80%, is probably 70-plus.”

Klatt said that traditions like the Phil’s Classix series almost always cost more to produce than they make in revenue. And while they have no plans to abandon classical performances, the future of the Phil’s financial growth may be more closely tied to events like the Disney in Concert performance and other, more contemporary approaches.

“We’re trying to dive into this new market, which is films,” she said. “We started last year with Ghostbusters. This is something that’s very popular across the nation; orchestras will play the score live accompanying the actual film.”

Other examples of more innovative works by the Reno Philharmonic in recent years include a commission by composer Zhou Tian in 2019, which commemorated the 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad with a piece that was performed by 14 additional orchestras in cities along the historic route. Another recent performance paired John Williams’ music for the Star Wars movies with the music of classical composer Gustav Holst, someone Williams said heavily inspired his music for the films.

These examples and many others, Klatt said, showcase the Reno Philharmonic’s dedication to fulfilling the role of a modern orchestra—one that values diversity, tradition and innovation in equal measure.

“We’re battling the issue that orchestras all have, that (people say), ‘It’s not for me,’” Klatt said. “Orchestra is kind of like going to church. There are a lot of protocols where you can feel uncomfortable if you don’t know what you’re doing. It’s sort of like, ‘I don’t know if I should be there.’ But we’re here for everybody. We want the whole community to feel welcome and to be in the hall.”