A Time of Transition for Rockford Symphony

As Rockford Symphony Orchestra’s music director, Steven Larsen, prepares to begin his next journey, he’s spending plenty of time reflecting on the many ways he’s impacted the orchestra over the past three decades.

Larsen says he only expected to stay in Rockford for five years, but as time went on, he appreciated more and more of the qualities that make RSO special.

For the past 30 years, Steven Larsen has revolutionized Rockford’s arts community by serving as the music director of the Rockford Symphony Orchestra (RSO). During his tenure, Larsen expanded the number of concerts that RSO presented each year, developed creative programming to introduce new listeners to classical music, and, maybe most impressively, increased the symphony’s annual budget from $250,000 to nearly $1.6 million. 

“Under his direction, the quality of the music improved dramatically,” says Julie Thomas, RSO executive director. “Steve has striven to make music accessible and has made great strides in breaking down the barriers of classical music so that a new concert-goer would get as much enjoyment out of listening to the orchestra as someone who had been attending concerts for years.”

With retirement soon on the horizon, Larsen’s legacy as a talented conductor and self-aware leader is reaching fulfillment. 

“In a couple of weeks, I’ll turn 70,” he says. “There comes a time when you just realize that you need to slow down a little bit. But the main thing I want to part with is that I’ve been here for 30 years, and I’ve loved it.”

When Larsen originally applied for his position at RSO, there were 175 other candidates who coveted the same job. Even though he wasn’t the most qualified, Larsen stood out from the crowd by educating himself about the Rockford community and the orchestra’s specific needs. 

“I know that what kept me going in the interview process was that I had researched Rockford and I knew the problems that the orchestra was facing, and I had an idea as to what I could do to help,” Larsen says. “That impressed the people who were interviewing me. So, when I finally made it to the final two, they chose me. It was pretty overwhelming. It felt good.”

Surprisingly, Larsen didn’t anticipate having a career in music when he was younger. Like many kids, he learned how to play an instrument – the trumpet – and found it to be an enjoyable hobby that he was good at. In high school, his appreciation for music deepened while playing in a James Brown cover band. But in college, Larsen started on a biology/pre-med track, thinking that would be his career path. 

Exposure to classical music changed everything.

“My family never went to concerts,” Larsen explains. “We were a middle-class family of second-generation parents who grew up during the Great Depression. They were just grateful that they had a house and a couple of cars and were able to live the American Dream. So, the classical music culture was not part of my upbringing. But finally, when I was about 20 or 21 years old, I really fell for classical music and I never looked back.”

Larsen changed course and began studying at the American Conservatory of Music, in Chicago. Still, he never anticipated becoming a conductor because the field was extremely competitive. 

But, thanks to a few good mentors, Larsen realized where his true talents lied. 

“It was a little bit like playing the trumpet in grade school,” he recalls. “When you find something you’re good at, you keep doing it because you know it makes you feel good and you get affirmation from others. Any music student is required to take a conducting course at some point in their education, and I just discovered that I was kind of naturally good at it. And my teacher at the time said, ‘You know, you really do have a talent for this; you should think about pursuing this.’”

Larsen earned a master’s degree in conducting from Northwestern University and soon after became the principal conductor and music administrator for the Chicago Opera Theatre. Opera and classical music are like apples and oranges, but the experience still prepared Larsen for his eventual position with RSO. 

Even though the physical act of conducting is “easy,” there are innate traits that someone needs in order to be a talented conductor, Larsen says.

“The No. 1 quality – and it might seem obvious – is leadership,” says Larsen. “You’re the person who has to convince up to 200 people to do something your way. And you have to be able to do that not necessarily by talking to them, but by gestures and eye contact and just your personality. There’s just a lot of charisma involved in being a conductor, and to some people that comes naturally, and to some people it doesn’t. Conducting itself can be boiled down very simply to a bunch of standard gestures that everybody can do. But beyond that, it’s your personality.” 

During his time in Chicago, Larsen also conducted a smaller community orchestra and taught at his alma mater – The American Conservatory of Music – while guest conducting in various cities from time to time. 

“As a matter of fact, I met my wife while guest conducting in Cleveland, Ohio, at the opera company there,” Larsen recalls. “She was their chorus director when I met her.”

When Larsen applied for his position for the RSO, he was understandably vetted for quite a while before getting the job.

“There are many, many people who want to be conductors,” Larsen explains. “And within 50 miles of Rockford, there are probably five or six people who have the title of mayor. But I’m the only one who gets called Maestro. It’s a prestigious position and it’s a position of authority. When there’s a concert going on, there might be a chorus, an orchestra or a band up on stage, but frankly, the whole audience is watching you and it can get a little intimidating. You’re the person who bows when it’s all over and receives the applause.”

So, when RSO selected Larsen to be the new music director in 1991, he immediately faced the pressure of winning an uphill battle.

 “The orchestra was just in disarray,” he says. “It didn’t have a strong administration. For five years, the board, the orchestra and the community had been fighting with the music director about various issues, and everyone was just very unhappy. And nobody really knew how an organization should run. I remember saying, ‘If you just do some things right, everything’s going to fall into place.’”

The bulk of Larsen’s responsibilities were administrative during his time with the Chicago Opera Theatre. So, he was prepared to deal with budgeting, staffing and other non-conducting responsibilities that the RSO needed help with. 

It took some time to earn the trust of RSO’s financial supporters, but Larsen had a plan in place. He knew he needed to raise money, and fast.

“In this country, we don’t get a whole lot of government support for the arts, unlike Europe, where there are huge subsidies from the federal and the local governments,” Larsen says. “We don’t get that here – we have to raise the money ourselves. The best any of us can really do is about 40% of our budget in ticket sales, and the rest of it is going to have to be raised.”

Ticket sales were one source of revenue, but individual contributions were the key to RSO’s revitalization, Larsen says. Early on, one of his most important tasks was to develop relationships with the citizens of Rockford. So, he made it a mission to talk to people after concerts, and even during concerts. He met people by joining the Rockford Rotary Club. And raising his family in town, as opposed to being an absentee conductor, made a large impact.

“Very few orchestras will have a conductor who actually lives in town,” Larsen explains. “Most of them just come in for the concerts and for special occasions. It’s very common for a conductor to have two, three, maybe even four orchestras that they shuttle between. I’ve had other orchestras, too, during my tenure here, but you know this whole time I’ve lived in Rockford.”

Whenever Larsen ran into friends (or friendly strangers) at a restaurant or at the grocery store, he’d have a chance to garner support for RSO. As it turned out, living in town and fostering relationships within the Rockford community proved to be invaluable. 

“I love classical music, and I want to tell you about it, and I want you to love it, too,” Larsen says. “You’ve got to be passionate about it, and you’ve got to be willing to talk to people about it to try to pass on your enthusiasm.”

Larsen admits that he was envious at first of orchestras that would receive large corporate donations. Obtaining individual support requires more time and effort.

But when the recession came in 2009, it was clear that donations from countless individuals were much more important than one-time corporate contributions. 

“In my first decade with the orchestra, I would get programs from my sister-in-law who lived in Shreveport, La.,” Larsen recalls. “She would go to their concerts and send me their programs. And the orchestra in Shreveport wasn’t much bigger than the orchestra in Rockford. But I’d look at their sponsors in their programs, and they’d list these corporations that would give $100,000 a year, and I said ‘Wow.’ The most anybody ever gives to the Rockford Symphony is $25,000. That’s our biggest gift, and it drops off very quickly after that.”

But after the recession, everything changed.

“Many companies went out of business, and many still dumped their orchestra funding,” Larsen continues. “So, orchestras like Shreveport went bankrupt because they counted on that big corporate support. Well, we never had that big corporate support, so we never were dependent on that level of giving. We were always looking for smaller, more-individual contributions. And that’s been our sustenance all along. And it’s worked out pretty well.”

While making individual connections, Larsen also looked for ways to overcome the idea that classical music was “elitist” or “exclusive.”

“It has just been amazing to me all my life,” Larsen says. “I’ve taught music appreciation courses at either Rock Valley College or Rockford University, and I’d always offer free tickets. And these kids were so afraid of it. For so long, they had this idea of what a symphony concert must be like, and they were intimidated by the idea of just coming. Some would ask, ‘What do I have to wear?’ and I would tell them, ‘Clothes.’ For our opening night concert, there are some people who wear tuxedos and gowns. But there are also people who wear blue jeans. Nobody’s going to care about what you’re wearing. Just come.”

During his second year, Larsen added a pops concert onto RSO’s calendar – a concert that focused on popular music in addition to well-known classical works. This helped to expand RSO’s audience. And as individual support for RSO grew, Larsen was able to add more and more concerts into RSO’s schedule.

“We added a pops concert, then two. And then we went from five subscription-based classical concerts to six,” Larsen recalls. “Every time you add a concert, you add money onto your budget, maybe another $75 to $100,000.” 

Initially, Larsen thought he would only stay in Rockford for five years. But things just kept getting better and better, and before he knew it, 30 years had passed. 

“I kept saying to myself: why should I go somewhere else? The orchestra keeps improving. We have a beautiful hall to play in [at the Coronado Performing Arts Center]. The musicians all care about each other, and this isn’t necessarily the case in a lot of places. So, why go somewhere where there are problems, where there are union difficulties and financial difficulties, and chance that? I made my home here.”

Of course, the ongoing pandemic has impacted the RSO. Larsen had chosen his bucket list of concerts for his final season, and obviously, they all had to be canceled. But Larsen is more concerned about the orchestra’s well-being than his own last hurrah. 

“The future of the orchestra is more important than whether I get my final concert,” he says. “We haven’t gotten there yet – maybe I’ll still be able to do my last concert. But right now, that’s not what we’re worried about. We want to get through the pandemic and look to the future of who’s going to be the next music director.” 
Going forward, Larsen wishes nothing but the best for the RSO. 

“The big growth has already happened,” he says “Now, it’s going to be about keeping it alive and vital.”
For now, he plans on staying rooted in Rockford. 

“I love this place,” he says. “I’ve spent most of my life here now. It can drive you nuts sometimes, but it’s a place I wouldn’t hesitate recommending to anybody who’s looking for a good quality of living – and a good arts community.”