Raise the money. Rent the hall. Hire the technicians. Take a breath.
This is the second in a six-part series taking a look behind the scenes at what it takes for the Plymouth Philharmonic Orchestra to work.
PLYMOUTH – Raise the money. Rent the hall. Rent the equipment. Hire the lighting and sound technicians. Rent the piano. Negotiate the guest artist’s contract. Arrange the soloist’s travel and accommodation. Get the liquor license for the bar. Set up rehearsal space and time. Coordinate the volunteer ushers. Schedule the set up of the orchestra chairs and the riser platform. Get the grand piano tuned. Rent a truck to transport the equipment. Get the piano tuned again. Find another grand piano because the soloist didn’t like the last one. Find rehearsal space for the pianist when there is no rehearsal space.
Oh, yeah: Don’t panic.
Plymouth Philharmonic Executive Director Kim Corben has been producing concerts for years, acting as the ringmaster for a popular orchestra that gains in popularity every year, drawing bigger and bigger crowds.
The success has everything to do with Phil Conductor Steven Karidoyanes and the world class Phil musicians.
And it has everything to do with Corben, who coordinates the multi-pronged performances and raises money to make them happen.
Many don’t realize that only about 40 percent of the Phil’s expenses are paid from tickets sales. The rest, Corben says, has to be raised through fundraisers like galas, silent auctions and events. And generous sponsors and donors keep the Phil on its feet so the gears of this artistic machine keep turning.
“When you see a full house, it doesn’t mean we’re making money,” Corben explained. “It cost $70,000 to produce that opening night concert. We still have to make up $35,000 from that concert just to break even."
Ticket prices, which range from $20 to $55, don’t begin to cover the cost of the concert, she added, so fundraising has to make up the difference. Increasing the ticket price is not an option because the Phil would rather fill the house than have half the seats filled at a higher price. Making this music accessible to all is important to the nonprofit’s mission.
So is producing a flawless concert.
“Every single concert is different,” Corben said. “You start from scratch every time.”
The first thing Corben tackles is putting together her team, which includes the stage manager, and lighting and sound technicians, and assembling the equipment involved.
“They have to have all the information to produce their piece of the concert,” she said. “My job is to make sure they know what they’re going to need. I’m the glue that holds the team together.”
Karidoyanes, who is also the orchestra's music director, plans the season, choosing the music and deciding what soloists should be included. These decisions determine the size of the orchestra, which, in turn, determines the sound and lighting. Some concerts include a chorus; others a pianist or other instrumentalist. Microphones must be tailored to the instrument, be it voice or string. Lighting has to be planned well in advance.
Pianos carry their own to-do list. The Phil must rent a grand piano for this type of performance, and it has to be the right piano.
Corben recalled an incident when a returning pianist requested the Phil rent a piano from a reputable company in New York City rather than use the Boston company. He was a Steinway artist, and said the last grand piano the Phil had rented wasn’t quite right for him or the piece he was playing. Yes, the piece of music determines the type of piano a rental company will recommend. Corben was fine with the request, and the piano was delivered, which highlights another aspect of planning many don’t know. Moving a piano wreaks havoc on tuning. The piano must be tuned when it arrives at its destination and tuned again before the performance.
The piano from New York City was tuned and tuned again. The soloist arrived and noted that it was the wrong piano. It wasn’t the one he had chosen; the company had made a mistake.
The show went on in spite of the mishap, but not without nervous sweat.
A soloist for another concert said she needed to warm up half an hour before the actual performance. This hurdle seemed impossible to clear since the concert would be well underway before the soloist appeared on stage. A Phil musician kindly offered the use of his grand piano in his home before the show. Corben had to arrange a speedy drop off and pick up of the soloist so she made her cue.
Negotiating artists’ contracts isn’t always a cake walk, either, Corben added, because every artist has different needs. The Phil has to take care of all travel arrangements. Renting a car for musicians arriving at Logan Airport is one thing; but some don’t drive and require chauffeur service.
“Then you have to find someone to take them places,” Corben added. “My basic strategy is you have to do everything you can possibly do before the week of rehearsals so you’re ready for anything.”
Plymouth Public Schools loans the Phil risers for the performances, which helps considerably, but the Phil has to rent a truck and crew to pick them up and deliver them to every concert. The rental of Memorial Hall is expensive, so the Phil can only rehearse once in the hall before the show. Corben coordinates additional rehearsals at Kingston Public Schools, which don’t charge for the use of the space.
“For a classical concert we have only three rehearsals for the whole orchestra and one rehearsal is a string rehearsal with the conductor,” Corben said. “For pops concerts we have only one.”
Flexibility is key for Corben, who has found herself driving soloists around town, and racing out at the last minute to buy a particular cord, which was missing for a multi-media concert that featured a film.
Now that Corben has a full-time office manager, Kara McEachern, with experience in production, she said she’s able to delegate some of these responsibilities. Corben said she’s so grateful to McEachern and part-time Development Manager Caroline Chapin, Marketing Manager Holly Wenger and Administrative Assistant Patty Cronin as well as the 50 volunteer ushers who assist in this exciting effort.
And exciting it is.
“When I see everyone applauding at the end, I get the instant gratification that we succeeded in what we wanted to do,” Corben said.
Her superlative success as a producer harks back to decades of experience doing most of the jobs she now coordinates, as well as several others.
She began her career as an usher at Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, a post she held for nine years, and worked for three years as a ticket manager for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. She served as a senior development associate for the New England Home for Little Wanderers, worked as a box officer manager of the North Shore Music Theatre, spent a year as an executive assistant to the plant manager and human resource assistant at Ocean Spray, worked as legal secretary and billing assistant part time at a local law firm, and worked as assistant director of development and later as the annual fund and management manager at Plimoth Plantation before working at the Cape Cod Symphony, where she worked in the development office and later as director of concert and event operations. She even ran her own billing services business.
She’s a master at pulling lots of disparate pieces of an operation together. She is also a master at problem solving when things go wrong, and not letting anyone see her sweat.
She recalled a particularly humorous incident when the Cape Cod Symphony was performing a concert in a Cape school and she made the mistake of relaxing backstage.
A singer was slated to burst through a stage door onto the stage singing at a particular point in the music and Corben said she was backstage at the time taking a breather.
“I’m back stage and I thought, ‘Oh, I hope he remembers to come out tonight.’ Then I thought, ‘Oh, no! I’m supposed to be cueing him.’”
Corben kicked off her shoes and bulleted to the other side of the building to roust the singer from his relaxed tea. He leapt from his seat and just barely made his cue.
“We had such a big laugh afterwards,” she said. “There are just so many pieces. You can never get too comfortable. You can never relax.”
But Corben doesn’t really want to relax. She said she loves the many aspects of her job and the tangible results she gets to witness when a concert goes according to plan: Everyone receives the support and things they need to do their job, and all that’s left to do is applaud.
“I say ‘good-bye’ to people as they leave and hear what they have to say – how many of them say what a great time they had,” Corben added. “That’s my favorite part of the job. Well, I also love the music.”
Follow Emily Clark on Twitter @emilyOCM.