He was a backup singer in a Barry Manilow tribute show and met his wife singing karaoke.
Along the way, Eric Marshall also amassed a vast knowledge and skill in orchestra management, and now he's bringing every bit of that experience to the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra.
Marshall, 35, was tapped this spring to be the orchestra's new executive director.
Already, his plate is full.
While helping the symphony achieve its goals in growth and diversity, Marshall will also have to find a replacement for Timothy Muffitt, who is stepping down at the end of this season after 21 years as the symphony's music director and conductor.
The Eerie, Pennsylvania, native is settling into his new home here with wife, Colleen, and their 2-year-old son, Finnean, while getting ready for the new season, which kicks off Sept. 26.
We caught up with the new executive director to talk about how he got here and his new job. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us about your background.
In the previous nine years, I was with the Austin Symphony. Before that I was with the Eerie Philharmonic, so for the last 12 or so years I was in orchestra management. I have worked in box office, development, marketing, guest artist management, education, IT — every facet of the business in preparation to come here.
What brought you to orchestra management?
My undergraduate degree is in opera, so I was an opera singer. I got hired to sing pop shows, and I was hired to be a backup singer in a show of the music of Barry Manilow, which featured Gary Mauer in the lead. Gary is known for playing the Phantom on Broadway. So, I went to the very first rehearsal, and it was me, the other singer and the producer of the show. The producer said, "We're just going to listen to the tapes and pick out some parts." And I said, "No, we're not going do to that. Give me the music, give me the tapes, and I'll go out and write the vocal parts." And he said, "Oh, OK." He saw that I had a skill set, and he said, "Are you looking for a full-time gig? I'm looking for a marketing and development director for the Eerie Philharmonic." I said, "I have no experience, but I'm willing to learn." And from that moment on, this is what I wanted to do.
Why didn't you choose a career singing opera?
… Once I'd gone to the other side and saw how important the work is, and when it's done well, makes all the difference in the world. The musicians on stage are world class and fantastic. But if no one's there to hear them, then it's pointless. So, you really need both halves at that point to be successful.
Do you still sing?
I sing in church, and I met my wife singing karaoke. So, yes. We met in Austin, and she's from New York. I was singing karaoke one night, and we wound up singing a duet. It was "Summer Nights" from "Grease."
How did you learn about the Baton Rouge job?
The executive director of the Austin Symphony told me. His name is Anthony Corroa, and this is important, because he was the second trumpet player in the Baton Rouge Symphony for 30 years. He saw the job was available, and he said, "Hey, I think you're ready for this opportunity." He's been a huge mentor of mine for a long time, and it's great to have that support there and from someone who knew the city. It's been a kind of relatively easy transition.
The Baton Rouge Symphony was plagued by financial problems in the last two years. Did that affect your decision?
It would have if it hadn't have been for the leadership they have in place. The job that (symphony board chair) Meredith Hathorn and the board has done, and the strategic contract, has been excellent. Jerrett Richter has been the CPA for the symphony for years, and he saw some of the problems that were happening, and he has taken over all the back end of the symphony. Our offices are in his building, so we don't have to worry about the building. He also does IT work for us. It's his box office, and it's his software. Anything that's not really symphony specific, his team has taken over all the operations of that, and all the overhead. With a man who's an incredibly savvy and smart businessman, we went from an $800,000 debt two years ago to debt free.
Music director and conductor Timothy Muffitt is retiring at the end of this season. Does the symphony have a plan in place to replace him?
It'll be Tim's 21st year here, and he's done such an amazing job with this organization. We're forever indebted to him and what he's done. Beyond that, he's signed a two-year contract as music director laureate, so we're going to have him for three more years total. He's going to be instrumental in helping us find the next person, and who better to help lead this search than someone who has been here and done the job so well? After this next season, he'll conduct two performances a year, so we'll still see him at least two performances a year.
Will the symphony be trying out prospective conductors?
We are in the planning phases of a search right now. We've also this last year hired Martin Sher as a consultant. He's the senior vice president for artistic planning and programs for the New World Symphony in Miami, and his father was once the dean of the School of Music at LSU. He's really well-connected, and he's helping us formulate how to make sure we attract the appropriate talent for this community. He's also lined up all the guest artists for next year.
What do you want to achieve as executive director?
The board and I had kind of a board retreat, where we did strategic planning. Bill Slaughter is on our board, and he is in consulting, and he helped spearhead this meeting. We came away with four three-year objectives: performance, education, community and corporate responsibility. Those boil down to two words, really: diversity and growth. That we're going to diversify our programming, our audience.
How will you go about doing that?
We're meeting now with leaders that will help with this planning. We have started community partnerships, (and) we'll continue doing those initiatives. Also, we've been out of the River Center, and we've performed at 10 different venues in the last year, and in the short term it's enabled us to go out there and introduce the symphony to the people.
How will you diversify your programming?
We've done some things like our Valentine's concert. It's still high quality, but it's not your typical symphony format. Tim's Bachtoberfest is in its fourth year. Again, a high-quality performance in a different setting. We'll have more of those initiatives, where we'll bring in more people of high artistic quality classical music but in different formats that are relevant to the age market.
Can you elaborate on the diversity and growth initiatives?
One of the things we asked in Austin is how do we grow our base? The No. 1 single ticket buyer in Austin was people ages 25 to 35, and that didn't happen by accident. That happened with a lot of strategy with social media, digital marketing, a lot of different marketing ideas and delivering a better concert experience.
We want a Baton Rouge Symphony concert that looks like the city, and we want to be profitable so we can grow and provide more services and programs. We also want to give more back to the community with more community and educational programming.
There are symphonies across the country that sell out all of their concerts. There's no reason that Baton Rouge can't do the same.