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Twice a year, the VCU School of Business hosts “Investors Circle” events to recognize its lead donors, including alumni, recent graduates, faculty and community and business partners. On March 20, the school presented “An Evening with David J.L. Fisk,” executive director of the Richmond Symphony. Following a reception, Investors Circle members entered the Libby S. Gottwald Playhouse for a conversation between Dean Ed Grier and Fisk about the unique business aspects and challenges of Central Virginia’s largest performing arts organization.

A vibrant business community demands world-class arts 

At the beginning of the conversation, Fisk was quick to acknowledge the Investors Circle members who also have strong ties to the Richmond Symphony, including former RS Board President Josée Covington, as well as former board and staff member Frazier Armstrong and current board member Kelly O’Keefe, professor of Brand Strategy at the VCU Brandcenter.

“It was interesting to see the collaboration between musicians – the executive director of the Richmond Symphony – and VCU – the dean of the business school – finding common ground on how to communicate,” Covington said at the conclusion of the program. “When we hear the orchestra, it’s so wonderful to listen. The art of listening is the finest of the arts – it connects people and helps people understand each other.”

A business perspective on the symphony

On stage, Grier asked Fisk about business aspects unique to the symphony, including managing a nonprofit and working with a union. Fisk explained that “the symphony world has been unionized since the 1950s.” He asked Investors Circle members to raise their hands if they had experience working with unions. The response was sparse. “I see pros and cons of a union system,” Fisk continued, explaining that, in Richmond, the musicians’ contract is “all up for grabs every four years,” making it sometimes hard to manage on an ongoing basis.

The Richmond Symphony employs 72 musicians, 20 staff and others on payroll. Balancing the human factors, employee base and other stakeholders offers him “endless fascination and delight.” “You’ve got this collective, impersonal union balanced by excellent individual artists who want to flourish in a stressful environment,” he said.

Unique pressures of a symphony musician

Fisk described the challenges faced by musicians. “You would be surprised how many musicians struggle to manage that balance between the aspiration for excellence and the fear of failure. It’s an incredibly stressful environment. If you play the triangle, a single wrong note will stick out. The pressure to play perfectly is intense.”

Remaining relevant

Asked how the Symphony attracts new audiences while remaining relevant, Fisk explained that classical music, like that of Beethoven, is the symphony’s heritage. “Like the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts,” he explained, “we start with our collection and then curate visiting exhibitions. Our mission is to perform, teach and champion music to inspire and unite our communities. Our vision is to change lives through the power of our music.”

Some fun ways the symphony accomplishes this is through collaborations with Cirque de la Symphonie, performing live scores to popular movies like Star Wars and Harry Potter (both composed by the renowned John Williams), as well as appearing throughout the city in places like Hardywood Brewery and community festivals under the Richmond Symphony’s heralded “Big Tent.”

It was through outreach programs like these that the Symphony learned of the dire need for musical instruments in some Richmond Public Schools. With the Big Tent moving around the city, district by district, the Symphony has raised $320,000 since 2015 to purchase instructional instruments for our city’s youth. Fisk forecasts that by June 2020, every RPS elementary school will have sufficient funds for every child to have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument. That’s the Symphony’s goal.

VCU artist-in-residence program

Grier recapped the stirring occasion when the Richmond Symphony invited VCU School of Business faculty and staff to sit in on the orchestra’s first rehearsal of Beethoven’s fifth concerto. This “EPIC Afternoon with the Symphony” was just one way the Symphony helped the School of Business explore its creative side as the school’s artist-in-residence for the 2018-19 academic year. According to Fisk, a show of hands indicated that 85 to 90 percent of faculty in attendance had learned a musical instrument in their youth. Now in its third year, the artist-in-residence program is a vital part of the school’s “EPIC” strategic plan, driving the future of business through the power of creativity. The Richmond Symphony is the first musical arts as well as the first organization to serve as artist in residence.

Learn more

The next Investors Circle event is scheduled for November 2019. To support the school’s Artist- in-Residence program or to learn more about Investors Circle membership, please contact Shannon Duvall, Chief Development Officer, VCU School of Business.


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