Orchestras face the music. For many, it's pay the piper, or hear the sound of silence
AT the San Diego Symphony last season, you could enjoy films like ``Robin Hood'' with Douglas Fairbanks in the new Nickleodeon Series. Or a cinematic travelogue of Scandinavia in the new International Series. Or hors d'oeuvres and cash bar with classical music in the new Cocktail Concerts. In Colorado, Denver Symphony players donned orange NFL ``Bronco'' T-shirts and played fight songs while audience members stood and sat in a synchronized ``stadium wave.''
And in Ohio, the Columbus Symphony started presenting ``singles'' concerts, with open seating, a pre-performance mixer, and post-concert dance.
Welcome to the zealous world of classical-music marketing.
Many of America's nearly 1,600 symphony orchestras - facing growing financial and artistic challenges - are out to lure people into the concert hall as never before. The jazzed up come-ons appear to be working. The 25.5 million who heard orchestral concerts at the top 850 orchestras last year represent an increase of 2 million over the year before and make up the largest audience in history.
But the artistic and economic costs of attracting and performing for so large an audience have risen too high, say a growing chorus of critics.
``It's a quite terrible situation,'' laments Samuel Lipman, publisher and music editor of the New Criterion, a monthly on arts and ideas. He and others cite the grueling stretch many orchestras have made from the 24- and 34-week seasons of the '60s and '70s to 52-week seasons today; a lack of forward leadership by boards that haven't kept pace with the times; and a growing reliance on high-priced musical superstars as drawing cards.
``We're left with the irony that the cost of getting each new audience member into the hall turns out to be more than he pays at the box office,'' adds Lipman. The result, in a society of growing cultural alternatives, abundant classical recordings, and wavering arts funding, is a tightening economic pinch for some of them.
Costs at a modest-sized community orchestra, such as Columbus's, now can run about $6 million a season; at a large orchestra such as the Boston Symphony or the Los Angeles Philharmonic, $25 million.
Here in Los Angeles, an average winter concert rings in at $80,000. A celebrity such as Itzhak Perlman can add up to $250,000. At the Philharmonic, less than two-thirds of the costs are generated by ticket sales (63 percent). The rest comes from private contributions, endowments, and investments (27 percent); government support and ancillary activities (3.5 percent); recordings (1.5 percent); and operating income such as parking receipts (4 percent).
Earlier this year, three smaller orchestras ceased operations: New Orleans (Jan. 11), Vancouver (Jan. 26), and Nashville (Feb. 3). Labor disputes or first-ever deficits have hit orchestras in Honolulu, Houston, Colorado Springs, Colo., and Rochester, N.Y.
``These are very fragile institutions,'' says Howard Grant, executive director of the Honolulu Symphony, which has been chiseling away at accumulated debt for two years, since orchestra members struck. ``We can't afford one bad year.''
Catherine French, chief executive officer of the American Symphony Orchestra League, warns, ``It's wrong to generalize the problem across the country from a few failed orchestras,'' pointing out that symphonies in Houston, San Antonio, Oklahoma, and New Orleans were hurt by the region's oil economy. ``But the way our country values its classical orchestras needs a serious, serious look.''
Ms. French notes that more than 50 of the league's 80 largest symphonies ended their '86-'87 seasons in the red. The net deficit was $10 million, compared to a mere $500,000 six years ago, forcing emergency bailouts at some orchestras.
Last August, for instance, the Rochester Orchestra asked its community for urgent financial help and asked musicians to take an $8,400 pay cut, with a shorter season. And in San Antonio, musicians formed a dissenters' orchestra and tried to claim the symphony's endowment, rather than accept a proposed 30 percent pay cut. ``We got the community to sit up an take notice,'' says clarinetist Rod Wollam, one of the rebel leaders, ``and now things are back on solid ground.''
But the most dramatic turnaround occurred in Maryland, where the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was $2.3 million in debt and running deeper into the red by about $1 million a year. That was four years ago, and the white knight who charged to the rescue was Les Disharoon, an insurance company president who used his business savvy to help the orchestra build a $40 million endowment in 22 months. Now the Baltimore uses the endowment income to close the gap between box-office receipts and donations on one hand, and expenses on the other.
``Don't hire consultants,'' advises Mr. Disharoon, who defied studies commissioned by the orchestra that said only $14 million could be raised in five years. ``I knew that, if the orchestra had to be a viable cultural institution, we'd have to find out what it needed rather than say, `This is all we can get,''' Disharoon said in a phone interview.
But Disharoon wasn't interested in band-aid economics. For a year, he and a hand-picked team of eight business leaders pored over the orchestra's budgets, labor contracts, and organizational structure, asking: How much capital is needed to operate without debt? They compared their findings with data from successful orchestras.
Among their conclusions: Of the 17 top US symphonies that perform year-round, the Baltimore Symphony had the smallest endowment: $8.5 million, compared with an average $28 million for the others and a top figure of $50 million. Disharoon computed the needed figure at $40 million. He told a dumbfounded board he would raise the sum in five years at most.
``Mouths literally dropped to the floor, and there was absolute silence,'' recalls the symphony's executive director, John Gidwitz.
``There is unlimited wealth in every American city,'' says Disharoon. ``It's only a matter of whether community support can be marshalled, whether they can be made to realize how important their symphony is.''
Disharoon organized a makeshift slide show. ``It cost $7.50,'' he recalls. And he personally began making presentations to the heads of banks, insurance companies, and law firms. He made 67 presentations in all; his colleagues made another 30.
The issue was more than music, more than cultural quality of life, more than community pride: It was community survival, he says. ``If you tell people you think it's nice to have a symphony, you aren't going to solve the problem. Like, it would be nice to have three Cadillacs, but no one does. You've got to dig in and find the facts that make people know a symphony is as critical as an airport or pro baseball team to the whole pattern of life-style that makes people want to come and live in a city.''
Disharoon and company laid out the facts for potential donors: that more people in Maryland (350,000) heard the orches- tra than attended Baltimore Colts games; that special programs for school children reached another 85,000; that teachers for the musically gifted were drawn from orchestra ranks. And that the symphony is the city's only cultural organization that is transportable - from Carnegie Hall to Europe.
``We didn't come up with the $40 million figure knowing that, if we raised it, we'd have an orchestra,'' recalls Disharoon. ``We raised it knowing that was the figure that would enable us to have a darn good one. ... Who wants to contribute to have an orchestra survive? You sacrifice to make something great.''
``His approach was certainly unique,'' says executive director Gidwitz. ``It was backed with very iron-clad statistics from his year of in-depth study and planning for the future. That gave donors a great deal of confidence.'' At the outset, Disharoon and colleagues demanded a restructuring of the symphony's 70-member board, to ensure more financial scrutiny.
The flip side of the surge of community support, adds Gidwitz, has been a renewed sense of commitment to artistic standards by players and management. Example: A six-year commitment by music director David Zinman to stay with the orchestra 22 weeks a year in an era when 10 or 15 weeks is common.
Not many boards at troubled orchestras, however, have proven as dynamic or farsighted as Baltimore's. And few of the newer institutions have found ways to tap in to solid community support.
Richard Contee, managing director of the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra, says their financial problems and those at Denver, San Diego, Oakland, and some other ensembles in the West are due partly to their short histories. ``When you are talking about Cincinnati, or Boston, or New York, you are talking about a century's worth of support structure. In the case of Phoenix, the state hasn't even been around that long.'' Short histories can also mean less-experienced management. ``Unlike Chicago, or Boston, or New York,'' says Mr. Contee, ``I do not have on my board a single second-generation member.''
Peter Howard, a specialist in orchestra management who teaches at Indiana University, notes, ``Symphonies are traditionally very poorly managed.'' Ernest Fleischmann, executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, says the American Symphony Orchestra League's fellowship program and some degree programs for business managers in the arts are the only bright spots in an dismal picture.
That problem of musical illiteracy reaches into the concert halls and board rooms of today's orchestras, according to Michael Steinberg, artistic director of the San Francisco Symphony. ``In the last couple of decades, we have seen the standing of pop music grow astronomically, which, for a certain class of education, used to be a phase that one grew out of before starting to the symphony. ... The really worrisome thing for all of us is who's going to be coming to our concerts in 20 years.''
``A lot of changes in society have taken place between 1930 and 1980,'' observes Seymore Rosen, former manager of the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia orchestras, as well as Carnegie Hall, and now dean of the College of Fine Arts at Arizona State University. ``Yet the orchestra essentially has the same set-up of board, manager, and music director.'' Mr. Rosen contends that orchestras must risk new formats, new structures, and new music, or ``stand still and fall behind.''
Robert Shaw, conductor of the Atlanta Symphony, says those formats should include a large pool of musicians - perhaps 200, rather than the usual 100 or so that make up a normal-sized orchestra - to serve community needs in drama, choral, oratorio, chamber music, and ballet. ``Then everyone would have varied performance outlets and responsibilities and could keep the stars in their eyes,'' says Mr. Shaw.
Building community support is vital, says Ms. French. ``Commitment is the key word,'' she adds, citing the Baltimore Symphony's success story. ``They did it because they had to - took a long look at where they were and where they wanted to be and stuck to it. It's a question of values. New Orleans can support the Mardi Gras. It could have its symphony back if it wanted.''