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Not so downbeat as community supports music

Kishwaukee Symphony Orchestra director Linc Smelser leans toward the group while conducting a quieter portion of a song Feb. 4 in the NIU music building in DeKalb.
Kishwaukee Symphony Orchestra director Linc Smelser leans toward the group while conducting a quieter portion of a song Feb. 4 in the NIU music building in DeKalb.

DeKALB – Art programs are often among the first casualties in a struggling economy, but DeKalb County’s premier music organizations have continued to thrive.

Despite many local orchestras struggling throughout the state and country, leaders of the Kishwaukee Symphony Orchestra and DeKalb Municipal Band say their groups are financially strong and still attracting musicians and audiences thanks to local resources most communities do not enjoy.

Tamara Farrell, publicist and music librarian for the Kishwaukee Symphony Orchestra, said Northern Illinois University has been a blessing for the group, particularly during recent economic struggles. NIU provides rehearsal space, performance space at the Boutell Concert Hall, percussion instruments and world-class musicians in the music department who often perform with or assist the group.

Every discount the group receives helps make the most of its roughly $60,000 annual budget generated through ticket sales, grants, donations and fundraising from Kishwaukee Symphony Associates, Farrell said.

“We are so lucky to have the orchestra in our town because people from other areas have to leave and go into a more populated city to find the kind of talent we have right here in our town,” Farrell said. “We’re lucky to benefit from all we have here.”

The university is not the orchestra’s only major supporter. Farrell said DeKalb and Sycamore high schools produce some of the best young musicians in the state, with both schools receiving top honors the past few years. Even the youngest musicians have ample opportunities to excel early, Farrell said, through the NIU Community School of the Arts.

Ann Tucker, board president for the orchestra, said each concert – sometimes up to eight in a season – can cost anywhere from $6,000 to $8,000 in royalties, publicity, music rights and personnel such as conductors and stage managers. Some musicians, such as the chairs of each section, are paid; others receive class credit.

An increase in community support has helped to make up for a decrease in grant funding, Tucker said.

“People have not closed their wallets to us,” Tucker said. “I think there is that community support, but we need to make sure we get that next age level to become interested in the orchestra.”

To reach the younger generation, Tucker said the orchestra has implemented shows such as the free Halloween concerts, which have been standing-room-only the past two years, and the upcoming KSO Goes to the Movies concert.

That concert, scheduled for March 8 at the NIU concert hall, features popular music from “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter,” “Lord of the Rings” and “Batman” as well movie clips, raffles and a silent auction.

“We have to make sure we keep introducing ourselves to new people,” Tucker said.

The DeKalb Municipal Band has experienced similar success through the slumping economy.

Conductor Kirk Lundbeck, who replaced longtime leader Dee Palmer after his death last year, said the band is grateful to receive consistent financial support from the city and sponsors. The city dedicated $59,200 to the band this fiscal year, up from $58,050 in fiscal 2012.

That support has helped make all of the band’s summer performances free to the public, which has helped boost attendance, Lundbeck said.

Lundbeck said the group was looking to partner with another radio station or a TV station to reach those who cannot make the performances.

The band’s previous broadcast deal with a radio station was scrapped in favor of more profitable programming, Lundbeck said.

“We have to watch our dollars just like a homeowner does, but it’s nice to know the city supports us and sees the value in the band, especially for what it brings people during the summer time,”
Lundbeck said. “Where else can you get a free concert of an hour and a half with the wide variety of music we play?”

The DeKalb Municipal Band begins its season June 18.

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