No one has yet concocted a magic cure-all for the financial challenges facing opera and orchestral groups around the country. And the common question remains: Is there a way to convince audiences that "classical" music is not only relevant, but essential to modern life?
Now entering his third season with the venerable orchestra, Yates in his short NSO tenure has raised ticket sales by 50 percent, with the orchestra completing last season "in the black" -- an achievement for the professional orchestra, which had been financially strapped for several years.
As the cornerstone of his plan to rebuild the orchestra's popularity is one simple goal: to increase community involvement.
This Saturday's concert -- the opener of the orchestra's 74th season, "Mahler 1 Immersion," at the Norwalk Concert Hall -- is a prime example of that philosophy.
Participating in this mammoth production are members of the New Canaan High School Band (Scott Cranston, director); Norwalk Community College Choir (Christine Mangone, director); Staples High School Chorus (Luke Rosenberg, director); the Talent Education Suzuki School of Norwalk (Rebecca Christopherson, director); and the Fairfield County Children's Choir (Jon Noyes, director).
"Since Mahler was always pushing the envelope, we think it fits well with the opening of this season. Mahler was revolutionary, and in many ways the first of the modern composers. He changed the public's perspective on what is acceptable in the concert hall," introducing klezmer and band music, among other innovations, Yates explained.
The first half of the program will be a "creative explication" of Mahler's 1st Symphony, which has become one of the most popular in the orchestral repertoire. Yates, as narrator, will explain the workings of the piece in a non-academic program, aided by the visiting groups of performers. The second half will be devoted to a production "of the great work itself."
"The paradigm of 100 years ago" for every concert -- overture, concerto, symphony -- "doesn't work with audiences in today's world. All of us are faced with a close examination of what we do, and in what ways we can become more relevant to the community. The public has come to expect a direct form of engagement ... (all the while) still honoring the music," he said.
As the seventh music director since its founding in 1939, Yates expanded the orchestra's presence by inaugurating the NSO Chamber Concert Series, which provides free chamber concerts throughout Fairfield County. He also revived the orchestra's (Not) Just for Kids Educational Outreach.
A love of conducting came to Yates while still in his teens, growing up in Chicago. At a gala for the Chicago Youth Symphony (in which Yates played piano), his parents won an auction prize for their son -- to conduct the ensemble. His first turn on the podium was the Overture to Puccini's "Barber of Seville."
"I fell in love with conducting then ... fell in love with the idea of working with so many musicians, and of the incredible (orchestral) repertoire.
"As a conductor and music director, there's also another dimension: that of having a relationship with the community and the responsibility of keeping music vibrant and alive there.
"I love my time alone studying (a score) ... and I love having the opportunity to share my passions" with thousands of musicians and audience members every season in Norwalk.
Norwalk Concert Hall in Norwalk City Hall, 125 East Ave., at 8 p.m. Saturday; $40, $30, $20. Subscription tickets are discounted by 30 percent; those who purchase tickets to three concerts receive a 20 percent discount. 203-956-6771; www.norwalksymphony.org