Stefan Rosu
works in the music business for more than 25 years. He had leading positions, e.g. at the Schleswig Holstein Festival and the Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg. Since 2013 he serves as the South Netherlands Philharmonics first director general and artistic director. Rosu holds a PhD in philosophy and teaches orchestra management in Frankfurt/ Main.
Orchestra Development

A best practice example from the Netherlands

The South Netherlands Philharmonic (SNPh) is the result of severe cuts in Netherlands state subsidies for the arts. These cuts resulted in the merger of two former orchestras into the SNPh. The SNPh started in 2013 after extensive strategic financial and managerial approaches were made. At the beginning of its third season the new orchestra is now widely seen as a successful artistic body and a flourishing arts-institution with a close relationship to its region.
Most professional orchestras today are confronted with growing difficulties. The South Netherlands Philharmonic (SNPh) was founded in late 2013 as a result of the countries severe cuts in state subsidies for the arts. These cuts resulted in the merger of two former orchestras into the SNPh. In the past running an orchestra was first an artistic task, and to lead an orchestra meant to concentrate on artistic values. Today, it has become a complex management issue. At the beginning of its third season the new orchestra is widely seen as a successful artistic body and a flourishing arts-institution with a close relationship to its region. One key factor to this success lies in the strategic approach that the orchestra applied.
The South Netherlands Philharmonic (SNPh) has been created through a merger between two long existing orchestras in 2013: Het Brabants Orkest (based in Eindhoven) and Het Limburgs Symfonie Orkest (based in Maastricht).
The SNPh has become one of the largest orchestras in the entire country. In 2014 the orchestra produced a total of 391 artistic activities, including chamber music concerts and educational work. The SNPh operates from two different cities. It has offices, rehearsal rooms and storage rooms in Eindhoven and Maastricht. This makes the orchestra fairly unique worldwide. Due to the scale and extent of its activities the SNPh appears regularly simultaneously at different venues throughout the region.
The mission and the targets of the orchestra
Three plans developed over a period of 16 months provided the orchestra with an explicit view on its mission as well as a clear-cut view on the products, services and activities the orchestra would provide for its main stakeholders for the coming years.
In 2012, the year before the merger was actually carried out, a general plan was made to shape the outline of the setup of the orchestra. This plan was developed on behalf of the ministry of culture by Winnie Sorgdrager, a politician and former president of the ministries’ advice board ‘Raad voor Cultuur’. According to this ‘Plan Sorgdrager’ the new orchestra plays around 240 concerts a season in the three southern provinces of Noord-Brabant, Limburg and Zeeland. The orchestra performs in full size but also regularly splits up in smaller forces, which enables it to appear with smaller ensembles at different places at the same time. It was also said that the new orchestra contributes to the living and working conditions in the region and that it serves as an ambassador of the southern provinces.
Based on the Plan Sorgdrager the management and the board – with advice from the works council – developed a business plan for the years 2013 to 2016. According to that ,Beleidsplan 2013 – 2016’ (http://www.philharmoniezuidnederland.nl/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/ANBI-Beleidsplan-20132016-philharmoniezuidnederland.pdf) the orchestra serves as an interpreter of symphonic and chamber orchestra repertoire, and does also support societal productions, plays a role in the development of talents in the region as well as an important role in education. The orchestra has got the mission to ‘bring a versatile, varied and new repertoire close to the public, with plenty of education activities and other initiatives that are tailor-made for existing and new target groups. The organization’s set-up is flexible in order to adapt easily to requests from and developments in the society around. The orchestra connects on the local and regional level in a distinguished way. In order to achieve those targets substantial investments were made part of the plan especially as marketing-activities, the acquisition of sponsoring as well as the set-up of a proper human resources management is concerned. The business plan also included an financial scheme – which was not published.
In a third step the orchestra’s management asked the question what the main factors of success would be for this orchestra in the first years of its existence. With input from staff, works council and the orchestra’s artistic commission – a plan titled ,Ambities waarmaken’ was worked out, addressing the issue of how the objectives set out in the business plan would be practically achieved in the years to come. The management identified several factors of success for the orchestra. For each of those factors specific activities and targets were described in the plan. Those factors were (1) an eminent artistic level, (2) the development of audiences, (3) high quality education programs, (4) visible activities in talent development, (5) sufficient revenues, (6) innovation of the orchestra and (7) strong regional relations.
With these three plans in place the organization had a focus and a guideline to start working on its success. The organization aligned itself in order to score as much as possible on all factors of its success. Every activity the orchestra put into execution had to contribute to at least one of the factors of success. A project that would not score on at least one of those targets would not be done.
Stakeholder relations with public authorities
Public funding is a precondition for a professional orchestra’s existence in most countries worldwide. Public authorities are therefore one of the orchestra’s most important stakeholders. This is no different in the Netherlands. One of the most fundamental reasons for the SNPh’s authorities to fund the orchestra is its artistic achievement. To ensure a good quality of playing and programming is therefore not only one of the orchestras own ambition but at the same time part of the stakeholder management with the public authorities. In other words: A healthy artistic ambition and good quality of performance helps to establish a good relationship with the public authorities, because they want the orchestra to stick out on the artistic level.
Another important element are educational activities. To get children of all ages in contact with classical live music has become a major reason for all three authorities of the SNPh to fund the orchestra. With music lessons disappearing from the regular curriculum at schools the authorities in recent years expect all subsidized orchestras and ensembles to commit themselves to that task. The educational activities of the SNPh have therefore not only been extend but also been emphasized as one of the orchestra’s major activities. In 2014 the SNPh has performed 103 concerts in schools that were tailor-made to the different age-groups. Additionally it has carried out a great number of other educational activities in 2014, like f.e. workshops with individual musicians in schools. These activities bring the orchestra closer to the people in its region.
Another priority for especially the regional funding stakeholders is the encouragement of local amateur musicians. The SNPh therefore developed programs to cater to a part of the region’s population that is attached to amateur music. Thereby, the orchestra reached people who very often have never before seen a classical symphony orchestra performing live.
The importance of the audiences
The SNPh has invested largely in marketing and communication activities. The main task of the marketing crew with his 8 members of staff (6,25 FTE) was to introduce the new orchestra to their existing audiences and to make sure that the orchestra attracts sufficient and enthusiastic public for every project. The other task was to identify and attract new audiences.
However, the public opinion was prudent in the beginning and so were the audiences. Ticket sales were low. In order to win back former existing audiences the SNPh emphasized the optimization of the concert experience, the introduction of a sound CRM policy and the increased presence on social media. Easy access for customers to information as well as an excellent service and the presentation of an orchestra that is much more accessible were the key elements of the new approach. And it worked well. Research carried out by the orchestra in late 2014 showed, that the audiences in 2014 attached great importance to a personal and authentic way of communication, preferably with lots of stories from the orchestra.
The results of this approach were positive: The wider public had accepted the new orchestra. And the existing audience have attend concerts of the SNPh more often than in the seasons before. The orchestra even managed to increase the number of paying visitors to their concerts – which is an exception from the trend in the Netherlands.
Another aspect that the South Netherlands Philharmonic considers to be a vital factor of success is the work on the innovation of the orchestra. Next to the traditional approach to search innovation in the music itself, the SNPh also intends to work on innovation in respect to the presentation of the music. It seeks new ways to bring classical music in all its facets close to the people in their region. And among them also many who do not want to experience music sitting quietly on a chair with their smartphones switched off.
One of these approaches is the project ,Spicy Classics – grab a bite of music’. With an explosive mix of music in an informal setting outside the traditional concert-venue the SNPh wants to attract a young audience, especially students. The concept was developed in collaboration with members of the target-group. And it was a success. Similar approaches have been made to invent new formats for the age group 30 to 40.
Correlations with the economic world
Building strong relationships with companies and business-leaders are important for every professional arts-institution. The South Netherlands Philharmonic does also walk that path. And through a growing number of activities it starts to generate also financial benefits for the orchestra. In addition, the SNPh has started to search actively for new opportunities to collaborate with the economic sector. The southern region of the Netherlands has turned into a boom region for knowledge based, innovative technologies of all kinds, called ,Brainport’. The SNPh looks for opportunities to develop new products that are useful to players in the Brainport region. One example of such a product is the project ‘Leading the South’. It consists of two elements: A meeting of business leaders and a workshop that will provide the opportunity to experience the orchestra from the inside and to join a masterclass on leadership. The approach is an example for an activity to develop new and unique services for a strategic target group rather than trying to get them involved in an already existing line of products and services.
The new labour contract for musicians
A very important factor of the SNPh’s development is the internal organizational culture of the orchestra. A strong orchestral institution cannot evolve without the musicians and staff of the orchestra believing in their future and supporting the change, which is very often necessary to make success possible.
Orchestral organizations are very often split in two separate entities: the musicians who play and the administration who does all the rest. Between those groups there is a trench that makes it difficult to use the combined knowledge and capacities of all personnel for the evolution of their orchestra. The South Netherlands Philharmonic has started to bridge that trench and collaborate in a new way with a new collective bargaining contract for musicians. A new element in this contract called ,persoonlijke portefeuille’ (personal portfolio) makes it possible to collaborate in a different way: Musicians in the orchestra with a full time contract have to work a maximum of 1528 hours per season for the orchestra. The new contract allows to use the musicians hours not only in the collective service but also in a non collective podium services (chamber music, education in very small groups) or every kind of artistic, educational, administrative or other activity. This mix of expertise and new collaboration slowly leads to establish a new internal culture. The trench between musicians and staff has become more shallow. The interdependence of artistic and management approaches are slowly becoming part of the SNPh’s internal DNA.
The descriptions show that the South Netherlands Philharmonic has become an orchestra that is different from many others. The SNPh does not only concentrate on the traditional task of performing works of the classical repertoire on a podium (or an opera pit). Rather, this orchestra has a much broader approach. It uses its capacities, knowledge and budget in a way that enables a wider group of the society to get in regular contact with classical music performed live by musicians. For this orchestra it is equally important to host an evening with business leaders than to work with children or performing a Bruckner symphony. But of course it is up to the reader to judge whether this change is seen as a loss or whether the use of all capacities of the orchestras musicians and staff is considered to be a step into the right direction for the institution of a professional classical orchestra.

You can read the full article with examples of all new approaches and activities here.
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