At 44, Melia Peters Tourangeau is the youngest and first female to be named president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Tourangeau spent the last seven years in Salt Lake City as president and CEO of the Utah Symphony/Utah Opera. While there, she brought the combined symphony/opera through the recession and increased performance revenues by $1 million. Before that, she was president and CEO of the Grand Rapids Symphony in Michigan.
Taking the helm a month ago, she talked with NEXTpittsburgh about artistic programming, changes to the board and filling the 2,661-seat Heinz Hall.
“We recognize that there are a lot of options out there so we have to give compelling reasons for people to choose us. As soon as they walk in the hall they have to have an incredible experience that they want to have again,” she says.
Plans for filling the house?
I am really focused on getting people in the house to attend the performances, obviously. I knew about the drop in subscribers, and so there are very specific strategies in place on how to build our subscriber base again. To me, that’s most critical. It’s a big house, and so there is lots of opportunity. I know we are already partnering with the major universities in the city, strengthening those partnerships. Getting more kids and students to attend and making it a priority is something that I am very focused on. Our subscribers like to see young faces in the audiences and there are so many universities in town that it seems like it’s a natural audience.
What are the biggest challenges the PSO faces to boost ticket sales?
Getting the attendance numbers up is certainly the most immediate challenge. Our demographics are changing, and we do need to be looking at how we are behaving with our audiences, how the relationships are being built, and that’s a lot of what our strategic plan is all about. But we also have a real fundamental base of support that I think has been a little bit neglected the past couple of years because there is just so much focus on this new younger audience. Since the beginning of orchestras our demographic has been older. I mean that’s a reality. You want the kids and younger generations to be exposed and feel ownership to the orchestra, but the reality is that when you’re my age, in your early 40s, you have families, you have careers, and you’re going 100 miles an hour. And it’s not until you’re an empty nester and you all of a sudden have disposable income again that you start going back to what does a date night look like. And we want to be on that horizon. It’s a progression.
While president and CEO for the Utah Symphony/Utah Opera, ticket revenues grew by a third. How did that happen, and will that same strategy work for the PSO?
One of the first things that happened when I came on board is we looked at Utah Symphony/Utah Opera as a holding company with different product lines underneath it. So the symphony, the opera, our Deer Valley Music Festival, our educational programs, our entertainment series – there was a real deliberate branding strategy for each product that we offered. The second piece of that is that when you come on as CEO you are able to develop the right team. So for me it was getting the right people on the bus. There was certainly a little bit of that needed in Utah on the marketing side of the equation. And so we were able to really get some great people on board, and it’s a high functioning team.
We have several vacancies (at the PSO). I’ve got to hire a new COO, a new VP of marketing, and a new VP of artistic planning. Over the course of the next six to eight months all of that will be happening. In the meantime, on the marketing side, it’s such an important part of the equation because of what’s happened the past couple of years. I’ve brought in an industry specialist on the marketing side of things who’s worked with a lot of major orchestras around the country just to help restructure the team and get things moving in the right direction. It’s going to take a little bit of time before we see that lift, but I’m hoping that in the next four to six weeks, there will be a shift in our attendance.
We want to thank whoever was responsible for bringing Steve Hackman (and FUSE) to town? Would that be you?
No, that was well on its course before I came. Actually it was one of our board members, Peter Greer, who knows Steve Hackman and brought him to Robert Moir who is VP of artistic planning. From what I understand it’s a really compelling idea. It’s branded under him, and so therefore it’s a little bit difficult to know what kind of shelf life it’s going to have or if it will transfer into other product lines or not. I think for what it is it seems to be really fun and a way to change the image of what a traditional orchestra is, and it’s certainly something that the organization is willing to experiment with. We want this institution to belong to the people of the community who support it, and this is one way to maybe change the perception of what an orchestra is and what it can be in that community. Is it the end-all be-all for our future audiences? I think that might be pushing it a bit. But it could be part of a broader pallette of what we are able to provide to the people of Pittsburgh and then I’m all for it.
Now that Richard P. Simmons has retired after 25 years on the board, what kind of changes do you expect there?
I think it’s very unusual to have a board chair who’s served that long. And for most professionals who are in a volunteer position, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect somebody to be in that kind of role for that period of time. So one of the things that (new board chair) Devin McGranahan and I have already talked about is putting a real succession plan in place for future board leadership . . . so putting those governance practices in place are really important. I think it’s healthy for the organization in the long run.
What was the first musical instrument you learned to play? Do you still practice?
I was a pianist. I started at age 7, and then when I was in 5th grade I started the clarinet and played that until about 8th grade. I got my degree in Piano Performance at Oberlin Conservatory. I don’t practice now because we don’t have a piano in our house right now, but we’re working on that.