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Shelby Mack / The Bakersfield Californian

Violinists from the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra play the national anthem at the beginning of a concert at Bright House Networks Ampitheatre.

The Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra is hoping an organizational makeover will help bring in new concert-goers.

On the first of this month, Bryan Burrow, a BSO board member who had been serving as interim CEO on a part-time basis since June, became the full-time president and CEO of the orchestra. Kari Heilman, formerly of the Arts Council of Kern, was hired as the new business operations manager for the orchestra, replacing Oneida Rodenburg and Alice Oden.

This move allows conductor John Farrer, who had previously served as both CEO and artistic director, to focus on the orchestra.

"My job is strictly to rehearse the orchestra and conduct the orchestra," Farrer said. "The administration is a separate area."

"It's been a dual role for John," said BSO board chairman Jim Bell. "That's really, really hard to do."

"So far, all I can say is my job proceeds as it always has," Farrer said, adding that it was "too soon to tell" how the changes will ultimately flesh out.

The staff changes are part of a campaign to re-brand the orchestra and attract more patrons to the concerts, especially younger concert-goers.

"The board has launched several different things to make the symphony experience better for everyone," Bell said. "We want to continue to reach our core audience, while also reaching out to people between 35 and 55 years of age."

"We're trying to embrace the history that we have and bring some new energy to our organization," Burrow said.

Some of that new energy can be seen in the BSO's re-designed website, at, a part of the "re-branding" of the orchestra as it updates its image and, it is hoped, broadens its appeal. The new website, which is interactive, is still under construction, but is set up to include profiles of musicians, patrons, donors and other individuals, plus educational articles, videos and other elements.

Burrow said he is looking at all areas of the "symphony experience" for opportunities -- how people get information about concerts, ticketing, how the auditorium lobby is managed, and other activities. Bell said even concert programs could be affected.

Burrow said the day-to-day workings of the orchestra will still be run by long-term orchestra manager Mary Moore. Heilman will be responsible for the accounting functions, coordinating concert details, working with soloists and other administrative tasks.

"We have looked at everything, from how we bring musicians in, how do we structure the front office, how we interface with the Rabobank -- even if we stay at Rabobank," Bell said.

Bell and Burrow said they saw an opportunity when Heilman became available after resigning as a program manager with the Arts Council of Kern.

"We had the list of qualifications we needed and talked to a lot of people about who was available and her name came up several times," Burrow said.

"We liked her experience at the arts council," Bell said.

Bell pointed to two factors necessitating the re-organization: an aging, and shrinking audience; and shrinking revenues.

"Our audience attendance is at around 700 to 900 people per concert," Bell said. "That is down from where we had been before at around 900 to 1,000."

Bell agreed that even that number was considerably lower than historic concert attendance, which had been closer to 1,200 to 1,500 in years past. Bell noted that decline was in due in part to the orchestra's core audience getting older, and to the downturn in the economy, which makes the BSO's ticket prices -- which range from $34 to $50, a bit of a gamble for people unfamiliar with classical music concerts.

Economic pressures over the last several years have taken its toll on the orchestra's structural finances as well, especially to the donor base.

Bell said the BSO board responded to the decline in large donations by cutting back to the orchestra's budget by a third, and reducing the BSO's activities to its core -- its yearly subscription concerts and the semi-annual children's concerts.

"Actually the symphony is very healthy; it's doing well financially," Bell said. "But there's no money for 'extras.'"

"We now want to start the pendulum swinging back, especially in the youth programs," Bell said.

"What people may not realize is that a nonprofit organization has to comply with all the rules and regulations of a for-profit organization," Farrer said. "The difference is if there's a profit, there's no income tax."

Bell said Burrow had served on the board for three years, and made the decision to recruit Burrow based on their experience with him.

"We liked what he did, we liked how we worked with people, we liked his background," Bell said.

"It's going to be community relations, fundraising, (financial) development, finance and everything else that needs to be done," Burrow said.

Bell and Burrow both said expanding educational programs is a priority. Burrow said there are plans to expand the semi-annual Young People's Concerts, and he is talking to people about funding for after-school programs.

"I think it's important to reach out and help children learn that love and excitement for music," Burrow said.