By Teya Vitu –
The Tucson Symphony Orchestra’s future is in the hands of a new executive director whose very recent past put the Kansas City Symphony into a brand new performing arts center in September.
Andrew Birgensmith, who took the TSO administrative reins on July 25, worked closely with the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts team for five years to make sure the backstage fit the unique needs of a symphony orchestra.
“This is the square footage we need for the percussionists. This room needs to be humidified. This room does not need to be humidified,” recalled Birgensmith, who was general manager at the Kansas City Symphony for eight years. “What we would have gotten (without Birgensmith’s direct involvement) was not enough space and not enough specific space for specific needs.”
Prior to his Kansas City Symphony tenure, Birgensmith oversaw the construction of a Theater District in the basement of the city’s restored Union Station with a four-story-high extreme screen large-format movie theater, a planetarium and the City Stage Theatre.
Andrew Birgensmith has just the CV to lead the Tucson Symphony to the long-whispered-about new symphony hall for Tucson. TSO Music Director George Hanson and Barbara Levy, president of the TSO Board of Trustees, tread cautiously when discussing visions of a new symphony hall.
“I have to say the hall is the vision. It’s out there. Andrew is the right person to lead us in that direction,” Levy said. “I don’t think you find one of us saying we don’t need a symphony hall. From our perspective right now, the most important thing is growing our financial stability and paying our musicians a reasonable, fair wage. I can’t say there is going to be a focus on the hall.”
Hanson said, “We at the symphony have to be careful how forward we are in pushing a new symphony hall. This city has the same performing arts space that it had in the 1970s when the population was 300,000. We’ve tripled the population but have not budged on performance space. We simply don’t have enough space. There is enough pressure on performing arts space to warrant building more.”
Birgensmith said a new hall “certainly came up” during his interview process for the job.
“Everybody that comes in this office talks about the importance of a new hall. I completely understand,” Birgensmith said, then taking the hall talk in an unexpected direction. “Is it a new hall the area needs or is it something different? Is it a climate-controlled amphitheater in the Oro Valley area and the Foothills? But acoustically it’s challenging.”
Birgensmith may also lead the search for a new music director, as Hanson has announced he will step down after his current contract expires in 2015-16 after 20 years at the TSO’s helm.
Tucson is learning that Birgensmith does not follow the standard symphonic model. Birgensmith sees ripe potential on the Pops side, though he assures any Pops additions would not come at the expense of the Classics side.
Levy said, “Andrew has a remarkable energy and creativity that was perfect for us. He has absolutely the right breadth of experience. He has done many different types of performances in the symphony world. He brings a lot of out-of-the-box thinking to us.”
Hanson speaks economic development as fluently as Shostakovich.
“Andrew understands the business model for a symphony orchestra,” Hanson said. “He understands the importance of its place in any community. What people are going to recognize in Andrew immediately is that he understands the business community. In Kansas City he was the main guy on the ground who had to take care of the nitty-gritty. He was the intermediary with the business community.”
Right out of the gate, Birgensmith was toying with the idea of a Symphony Rocks concert at the AVA Amphitheater at Casino del Sol.
“We need to reinvent ourselves. We need to do what’s right for the community. Status quo is not an option for us,” Birgensmith said.
He wants TSO programming to reflect what a wide range of the population might want to experience with a symphony orchestra.
“First and foremost, I’m getting to know the community,” Birgensmith said. “I’ve met with Arizona Public Media, the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and downtown businesses, including the Fox and Rialto theaters. I’m sitting down with the musicians. We have monthly breakfasts with the leaders of the musician committees. It’s an opportunity for them to vent, ask questions, and talk about rumors. The open forum works better instead of the office setting.”
He received his bachelor’s degree in music education and trombone performance from Shenandoah University and Conservatory of Music in Winchester, Va., and studied arts administration at Florida State University.
He served as the executive producer of the Kansas City Symphony’s Celebration at the Station, staged in a natural amphitheater linking Union Station and a World War I museum. The Celebration evolved from 12,000 people to 75,000, making it the largest Memorial Day event in the Midwest and the largest Kansas City event each year.
“It was, in my opinion, the single most important event the Kansas City Symphony put on every year because it reached so many people,” he said. “It reached people who would never go to the symphony.”
Birgensmith moved to Tucson with his fiancée, fiber artist Holly Swangstu. They plan to marry in April 2012.