Macon’s Symphony Orchestra gets second life thanks to new grant

In 2017, Macon received some devastating news for the city’s cultural landscape: the Macon Symphony Orchestra was closing its doors after 40 years of playing in the city.

David Keith, dean of the Mercer University Townsend School of Music, was on the board of the orchestra when they originally shut down.

“While it was a difficult thing for us to say that this is no longer going to be in existence, the expenses for the symphony were tremendously great,” Keith said.

The majority of the players who composed the symphony were not locals. This meant that the orchestra had to pay higher union rates and cover travel expenses, Keith said. These additional costs simply outpaced the revenue the orchestra was earning with tickets.  

But while Macon has been without a symphony for the past four years, hope is on the horizon for Macon’s classical music lovers.

Lars Lonnroth

Mercer University received a $300,000 grant from the Peyton Anderson Foundation to revive the orchestra. And, because of that, Macon will see an orchestra return to the city next fall when the Macon-Mercer Symphony Orchestra is set to make its debut.

Stakeholders at Mercer and in the local arts scene recognize that this is welcome news to arts and classical music lovers. But they also suggest the impacts reach into various other parts of the city. 

For instance, the strings musicians for the symphony are going to be students at Mercer University’s Robert McDuffie Center for Strings. 

Ward Stare, a visiting conductor at the center and the conductor for the Macon-Mercer Symphony Orchestra, said the revival of the orchestra gives their students real-world symphonic experiences. That’s because the wind musicians will be players from the Atlanta Symphony. 

“It gives our students the ability to make music at the very highest level,” Stare said. “The musicians from the Atlanta Symphony are first-rate — they are of the highest caliber — so now we can play Beethoven symphonies that we never have been able to do quite like this before.”

With the McDuffie Center for Strings training musicians that sometimes go on to play or conduct symphonies themselves, the symphony will provide valuable, real-world experiences for their students, Keith said. 

“We’re able to do a lot more larger-scale works,” McDuffie Center for Strings student Constantine Janello said. “I am really excited to be able to work with such high-level musicians. It is such an amazing opportunity.”

But there may be other benefits, too.

Executive Director of the Macon Arts Alliance Julie Wilkerson thinks there are economic implications to having an orchestra in town. She thinks the orchestra might also make the city a more appealing place to live and do business since it shows that Macon values arts and culture as a community.

“It establishes Macon as a creative city that appreciates culture,” Wilkerson said. “That is important to people outside looking in.”

This is because — beyond simply benefiting people who enjoy the arts — Wilkerson thinks having vibrant arts and cultural environment helps draw in new residents into town, which then in turn brings in more tax dollars. That applies to businesses as well, she said.

 “Any study that you do (on what businesses look at when deciding where to expand)…business list quality of life, access to arts and culture and entertainment in the top three,” Wilkerson said. “How’s the school system and what are there for people to do after work?”

Keith, of Mercer’s Townsend School of Music, agrees on that.

“Businesses, when they are looking at places to relocated, often want to know what are the cultural opportunities for their employees,” Keith said. 

But beyond the indirect impacts of having a robust arts environment, Wilkerson thinks there is an equally important direct impact on having institutions like the Macon-Mercer Symphony Orchestra in town.

“It is definitely a driver as far as bringing in business and industry,” Wilkerson said. “But arts and culture is also an industry in-and-of its self.”

Arts and culture is the third-largest industry in the state of Georgia, Wilkerson said. 

While this also includes the film industry, the arts and culture sector raked in $18 million to the Macon economy in 2015, according to data gathered by the Macon Arts Alliance. This supports 3,000 full-time jobs in Macon alone and brings in $7 million in sales taxes, Wilkerson said.

“For Macon and Bibb county, creative industry is an opportunity we need to capitalize on,” Wilkerson said.

But while having the orchestra may help add to the Macon arts scene, the orchestra still has to tackle the issue that caused it to shut its doors back in 2017: sustainability.

The $300,000 grant from the Peyton Anderson Foundation will allow the Macon-Mercer Symphony Orchestra to put on four symphony concerts a year, Keith said. But the grant only lasts five years. 

After that, they’ll have to either be able to fund the orchestra with tickets and donations, have the grant renewed, or find other avenues for funding the symphony.

Keith said that, despite questions over sustainability, they can only figure out if Macan can support an orchestra if the city has one. But Keith notes they are thinking about how to make the Macon-Mercer Symphony Orchestra relevant to new audiences.

“It’s not just going to the normal, traditional classical composers like a Beethoven,” Keith said. “I think you’ll find some 21st-century composers. I think you’ll be finding some composers of different ethnicities to try and create as broad of a diversified spectrum and experiences of music that can be done.”

The Macon-Mercer Symphony Orchestra will be up and running next fall. The symphony will perform at the Grand Opera House on Mulberry Street.