When Thorgy Thor competed in RuPaul’s Drag Race, the long-running television show never revealed that she’s a violinist—much less that, outside her drag persona, she earned a violin degree from Purchase College’s Conservatory of Music. But on a reunion show, RuPaul turned to Thorgy and said: “I hear that you play the violin.”
“They whipped out a violin, and I got to play a little bit, just to showcase that I’m not a joke—I really can play,” Thorgy recalls. “I said to RuPaul, ‘I would love to bring my violin to every orchestra across the globe.’ ”
Symphony Nova Scotia was the first group to respond, and others followed. Last December, the Charlotte Symphony in North Carolina premiered “A Very Thorgy Christmas.” In June, Thorgy and the Seattle Symphony unveiled a Pride show that included the Seattle Men’s Chorus and other guests. Thorgy’s show typically begins with a violin solo, and from there she may tell stories, paint, do a 90-second costume change in front of the audience, take over the podium, and, in one number, switch temporarily from the violin to the cello.
Thorgy always asks the audience how many have come because of seeing her on RuPaul’s Drag Race. “It’s about half the audience,” she says. “Then I say, ‘How many of you have season tickets and have no idea what you’re in for?’ It’s the other half of the audience.” She lays out a goal for the evening: “I tell them, ‘Listen. For the drag lovers here, I hope you’ll say, ‘I love the symphony and I can’t wait to come back.’ And I hope the symphony lovers go, ‘My god, drag is so much fun!’ That’s my responsibility.”
Would orchestras have taken to Thorgy just a few years ago? This is just one example of how orchestras’ popular programming continues to expand.
The San Diego Symphony Orchestra and the Colorado Symphony last summer hosted the veteran funk group Tower of Power in its first appearances with orchestra. Also last summer, the San Diego Symphony and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra each shared their stages with composer/producer Flying Lotus and Australian jazz-funk band Hiatus Kaiyote. This season, the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. will host singer Yolanda Adams, known for her blend of gospel, jazz, and R&B, and singer-songwriter Ne-Yo. “We’re always attempting to find different audiences, different artists, different genres, different ways of doing concerts,” says Justin Ellis, the National Symphony Orchestra’s artistic administrator. “Hopefully, it’s helping a national movement of, ‘How do we change this thing?’ ”
By “this thing,” he means what has long been known as the pops series.
“Calling it pops is kind of a misnomer. That just puts it in a bucket,” says Stephen Cook, president and CEO of TCG Entertainment, which produces a variety of musical acts, movies-in-concert, cirque, and other shows, many of them for orchestras. “It’s really just non-classical programming. There are lots of different kinds of it, whether it’s film in concert or multimedia or hip hop or rock or traditional pops. There are 20 different kinds.” The issue goes deeper than labeling. Ellis thinks orchestras have to expand beyond old-school pops programming that, in his view, relied on the musical menus associated with big-name pops conductors—looking back, the likes of the National Symphony Orchestra’s Marvin Hamlisch, Cincinnati Pops’ Erich Kunzel, and The New York Pops’ Skitch Henderson—and targeted upper-middle class whites of mature years. “You’re basically hitting the same nail on the head the same way, over and over again,” Ellis says, “so you end up getting a very homogeneous audience.”
That’s the opposite of what today’s orchestras want. “Programming has to change if they want to get new audiences into the hall,” Cook says. “Certain orchestras get it. But not many.”
After Hamlisch’s death, the National Symphony’s pops subscribership gradually “crumbled,” Ellis says. That freed up the orchestra to look in new directions, and Ellis masterminded shows starring the likes of rappers Common and Kendrick Lamar—with other orchestras promptly following the lead. His search for possibilities continues. “It requires you to keep your ears to the ground. Listen to everyone and everything. Go to things you don’t think could ever work with orchestra,” Ellis says. He calls himself a “Google detective” scouring the Internet to discover “who’s making waves.”
“I’m half-ashamed to admit it: I spend a significant amount of time looking for artists on TikTok,” Ellis says. That led him to viral sensations such as Abigail Barlow and Emily Bear’s The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical, which the orchestra spotlighted last June, and singer-songwriter Cody Fry, whose love song I Hear a Symphony soared on viral charts worldwide, helping land him a spot with the National Symphony this coming January. Fry, Ellis says, is “going to be a superstar.”
Present-day stars who would be welcome newcomers on orchestras’ stages aren’t easy to nail down. The route to them passes through intermediaries. “You have to develop those networks,” Cook says. “It took me years to develop those relationships with managers and labels and agents.” He urges orchestras’ programmers to build those links by attending conferences that embrace the wider entertainment industry, such as those hosted by Billboard, Pollstar, and the Association of Performing Arts Professionals. More than 60 different companies—including many that represent pops artists—attend the League of American Orchestras’ annual National Conference. The League’s 2023 National Conference takes place in Pittsburgh, June 14-16.
The San Diego Symphony connected with Tower of Power through another funk band. The orchestra was interested in the Boston-based group Lettuce, says Lea Slusher, the symphony’s vice president of artistic administration, but “we needed a co-bill. Lettuce’s agent said, ‘What about Tower of Power?’ We said, ‘That would be great, but do they have charts?’ They said yes. They worked on the charts. They did it all themselves.
“A lot of orchestras called me about it,” Slusher adds. “They were fascinated by Tower of Power with orchestra.” When the concert came around, the orchestra’s brass section got a special charge out of it. “That was a really big deal for them—to play with Tower of Power.”
Planning a concert with singer-songwriter Jason Mraz involved a more active role for the orchestra, Slusher says. Mraz, who lives near San Diego, took part in a virtual Christmas concert with the orchestra during the pandemic. After in-person performances resumed, the orchestra invited him to join it in a concert in its new waterfront Rady Shell. This time, the orchestra hired an arranger to prepare charts. “We really wanted a relationship with Jason Mraz,” Slusher says. “He was terrific, and everybody enjoyed working with him.”
Paying for orchestrations and other needs for a new show can be a heavy load for a single group. The San Diego Symphony and Hollywood Bowl chipped in together on the charts for Flying Lotus and Hiatus Kaiyote, Slusher notes. “If there’s a popular artist who’s coming out and wants to play with orchestra, it might be that one orchestra can’t afford to do it on their own,” she says. “They might need co-commissioners to help. There are plenty of orchestras who will say, ‘Yeah, we’ll pitch in some money so we can have that show.’ That’s one of the great things about American orchestras: they’re talking to each other.”
Bottom Lines and Beyond
Costs aren’t the only issue to be resolved. As for-profit companies buy stakes in artists’ catalogs, orchestras have to make sure that they obtain the rights to perform whatever music they program. “It’s something that everyone is trying to figure out,” says TCG Entertainment’s Cook. “It has really affected the pops, because orchestras want to do the right thing.”
Cook’s answer is to deal directly with artists, publishers, and estates. Ditto for industry veteran Randy Chaplin, whose Chaplin Entertainment includes a variety of classic-rock tributes among its offerings. After negotiating with the likes of Sony Music and the Rolling Stones’ Abkco Music, Chaplin’s company adds a licensing surcharge to shows’ fees. “Everybody’s now used to that—a licensing fee for the artists, at least for the rock shows,” Chaplin says. For all that orchestras are going into fresh programming areas, he adds, “they still want the classic rock.”
Indeed, the National Symphony’s Ellis thinks some orchestras treat the new options warily. “I’d say pops series have been risk-averse,” he comments. “A lot of orchestras are afraid of producing new shows because you have marketing people who typically are using only the marketing data of the past shows you’ve done.”
Ellis recommends looking at box-office reports from sources such as Pollstar and Celebrity Access, which show how a given act has done at clubs, popular-music venues, or other settings in a region. The San Diego Symphony’s Slusher says she, too, sometimes has to do research. “If there’s an artist I’m not quite sure about, I ask for the sales (figures) from their agent,” she says. “I’ll say, ‘I saw they just played here. What were the ticket prices and how did they sell?’ ”
“We’re always attempting to find different audiences, different artists, different genres, different ways of doing concerts,” says Justin Ellis, the National Symphony Orchestra’s artistic administrator.
Bringing in new genres and artists means thinking about their fans’ expectations, Ellis says. When audiences expect a warmup act or two to precede their favorite artists, they don’t feel compelled to get into their seats by a concert’s advertised start time. To allow for that, the National Symphony sometimes starts with a “community opener,” Ellis explains. The Mellow Tones, a student group from Washington’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts, performed before Kendrick Lamar. “We feature people from the community, typically students, doing a warmup act for 20 or 30 minutes,” Ellis said. “We take about a five-minute break, then have the orchestra come out, typically at 8:45. That way, people who expect one, two, or three openers are able to see something that is meaningful to them, and [it] gives them a chance to get into the hall at a pace they’re used to at a popular venue.”
Setups like that, Ellis adds, also help orchestras satisfy newcomers as well as longtime audiences trained to be punctual. “There used to be a pretty rigid format for how pops concerts went,” he says. “When you bring in artists that don’t fit that mold, sometimes it’s hard to have your core audience meet their core audience. We try to find a happy medium.”
To Thorgy Thor, bringing together disparate people is part of her mission. After she discovers how an audience divides up between drag lovers and subscribers, she invites everyone to pry their eyes away from her. “I say, ‘Good. I want you all to look around. This is a magnificent opportunity for one group of people to meet another group of people they would never [otherwise] get to meet.’ ”