THE COMMUNITY Bergauer has created is one of the more diverse in the orchestra world, carefully cultivated with a message of inclusiveness and better outreach. “Most orchestras, when they want to have a more diverse audience, do a Dia de Los Muertos concert or a Chinese New Year concert,” Bergauer says. “They draw crowds like a movie concert draws millennials, but then it goes back to the way it was.”
Latinos make up 25 percent of the California Symphony’s surrounding community but accounted for less than 3 percent of the symphony’s audience. So last season, Bergauer had the symphony’s digital ads translated into Spanish. That marketing tweak led to a 50 percent increase in the number of Latino households that make up the symphony audience.
Bergauer then received a grant to translate the symphony’s website and program notes into Spanish. Another grant allowed for a dual-language adult education program. Every little win has motivated Bergauer’s team to keep pushing. “One day, somebody messaged us on Facebook in Spanish wanting to buy tickets,” she says. “We’re in the office, calling the person who does translations for us to make sure to write the person back appropriately, and it was this little flurry of recognition, like, ‘Oh, this is working. We have to figure out how to sustain this.’”
The symphony has also committed to more diversity among the board, administrative staff, and musicians. “It’s important that audiences see people on stage and off who look like them—in terms of gender, ethnicity, orientation, and age,” Bergauer says. Whereas nationally only 2 percent of programming is by female composers or composers of color, 20 percent of the California Symphony’s programming each season is created by living composers, female composers, or composers of color.
And, for the first time in the orchestra’s history, the symphony’s composer-in-residence is a woman. Bergauer insisted on blind auditions to eliminate unconscious bias, and the selection committee picked 27-year-old Katherine Balch, a Yale-educated, experimental composer. The symphony also opened the 2018–19 season with a piece by Grammy Award–winning Latina composer Gabriela Lena Frank.
“There are so many little things we’ve done differently to address that problem or this need,” Bergauer says. “Altogether, we are defying the trends of this industry.”
The proof is in new concertgoers like Kelsey Blegen, a 31-year-old attorney. She and her husband attended two performances before becoming subscribers. And while Blegen typically prefers the more conventional concerts, a recent holiday performance ranked among her favorites. It included a mix of traditional carols, a singalong, and a live soundtrack of the animated movie The Snowman, which was projected over the stage.
“The conductor would give a small intro to certain pieces and ask you to listen for a specific sound or something that he found unique about the piece,” she says. “That was helpful and kept you engaged.” Other highlights included festive drinks, like mulled wine, and an “instrument petting zoo” for kids and kids at heart. “They’ve done a great job of creating an experience,” Blegen says.
Mike Elmore, a 43-year-old CEO of an engineering company, agrees. At one point, he didn’t realize there was a symphony in Walnut Creek, but now he never misses a concert when he’s in town. “They take the stuffy edge out of the symphony,” he says. “The marketing makes it look exciting and moving, and it’s fun, with Aubrey and Donato opening the symphony, excited to have people there.”
Elmore became a subscriber and donor, partly to be sure he got a good seat. “It’s getting to the point where they’re sold out fast.”
But it’s not just about filling seats. Bergauer and her team are building a future. “The most obvious difference in the audience between when Aubrey [started] and today is that we have one,” Cabrera says. “We’ve gone from meager attendance to being sold out, with people feeling engaged and part of this family we’ve created.”