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Symphony season begins Oct. 1

Phil McKenzie, the new executive director of the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra, plans to use his passion for music and his knowledge of business to help grow the symphony and its role in the community as it enters its second century.

Phil McKenzie

Phil McKenzie, the new executive director of the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra, plans to use his passion for music and his knowledge of business to help grow the symphony and its role in the community as it enters its second century.

McKenzie, who first played with the symphony as a young man and returned to it in 2006, became executive director earlier this summer. The position has been salaried in the past, but McKenzie agreed to take it over as a volunteer for one year.

The symphony can use the help. Like many arts organizations, especially now, it's had money problems. Earlier this year, the symphony announced it was $30,000 in debt. Now, says McKenzie, it's back on budget, although a 30 percent smaller budget.

The 2011-2012 Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra season will feature five concerts, the first on Oct. 1. In the past, the symphony generally performed on Saturday night followed by a Sunday matinee. The upcoming season will be one performance per concert. That will help cut costs, McKenzie said.

"One of our goals to bring about immediately is financial stability," he said. "We want to run our expenses and our income very closely so that all of our vendors will be paid and they will trust doing business with us. We want to show that we're a tightly run small business."

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Then there's performance. In 2008-2009, the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra proudly marked its 100th anniversary. It may have struggled financially, but artistically it has flourished. In 2010, it hired as musical director Alexander Platt, a highly regarded conductor whose specialty has been the advancement and development of regional orchestras like the one in Grand Forks.

McKenzkie said the symphony wants to give audiences a unique and high-quality experience. And if you still think of classical music as stodgy and stuffy, think again. The Oct. 1 concert, for instance, will feature Big Band music.

"We want people to enjoy themselves and to feel they got an experience as if they were in Minneapolis or Chicago or Winnipeg, they would have been happy with that," he said. "That's not only based on the quality of the performers on stage, but because the music we play is both interesting and compelling. And when you're in the hall that you'll see what we're doing. It's not just about listening."

Phil McKenzie is an oboist. He first played for the GGFSO from 1974 to 1979, when he was a senior at Crookston High School through his years studying music at UND. He attended graduate school at Michigan State for oboe performance, working as a teaching assistant and earned a master's degree, then played for the Virginia Symphony.

He returned to school at Northwestern University in Chicago, and earned at MBA. His first day of business school, he said, he bought a subscription to the Chicago Symphony and has had one ever since, 21 years in all.

McKenzie worked as a consultant for several firms before moving to Thief River Falls in 2004 (where he still resides) to first manage Dakota Clinic and then became vice president of Digi-Key Electronics. He left Digi-Key in March and again is working as a private consultant. He re-joined the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra in 2006 and has served as president of its board of directors.

McKenzie said the symphony closed its fiscal year June 30 with a $12,000 surplus. It had also cut its total budget by about 30 percent, he said. It raised money to "clear the decks," he said. Also, Alexander Platt, who also is music director for the Wisconsin Philharmonic and the LaCrosse (Wis.) Symphony Orchestra, brought a benefactor from Wisconsin, Andrea Bryant, to the Grand Forks symphony's aid. She underwrote the first concert of the season to the tune of $17,000.

The symphony has a three-year contract with the Empire to present its concerts there and has taken office space at the Empire, McKenzie said. Its orchestra members are not salaried, but they are paid per performance and rehearsal. So, it's important to build audiences, attract benefactors and build the symphony's presence in the community, he said.

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The symphony is selling season subscriptions via its website, www.ggfso.org , for $60, which comes out to $12 per concert. Subscribers will have the option of using their tickets one concert at a time, or (for instance) using all five tickets at one concert by attending with four guests. That way, says McKenzie, if they aren't able to go to every concert, they'll still be able to use all their tickets. You can buy tickets at www.ggfso.org , or by calling (701) 732-0579.

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