It’s been 16 months since the Oregon Symphony’s last president, Elaine Calder, left the organization. In recent years, the Symphony has won accolades for its performances, even as the organization has searched for new leadership.
The Symphony has played some shows recently that Jason Schooler says he won’t forget. “There’s been so many concerts recently,” Schooler says, “where it’s been like, ‘Wow! This is just amazing.’”
Schooler plays bass for the Symphony, and chairs a committee of musicians that works with the Symphony’s management. From a recent performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem to the Brahms double concerto last month, Schooler says the musicians, under music director Carlos Kalmar, are really excited, and feeding off audience reaction.
“Musically we’re at a very awesome place,” he says.
But the Symphony’s inability to close the deal with a new executive indicates it’s still in a challenging period — even after surviving the recession and raising the level of musicianship.
Walter Weyler is vice chair of the Symphony’s board, and a former board President. He says after a careful, nine-month search to replace Calder, the search committee narrowed down its short list to three finalists last May. But he says some things needed to be attended to before the board could finish the process.
“There were a number of items this institution needs to deal with,” Weyler says, “in order to strengthen its community position, in order to strengthen its financial position.”
Weyler would not specify exactly what needs to be done, to get the house in order, beyond saying the discussions must involve musicians and their union, staff, the board, and Symphony donors. “This institution needs to break even every year. This year it was really difficult to close. There were things we felt had to be done before we could elect to bring in a new person, a new leader, and take up from here.”
So the search was suspended.
Public tax filings tell the story of what the Symphony has been through financially over the past few years.
After the recession hit in 2008, subscription sales and philanthropic gifts plunged. Painful cuts were made, including the suspension of the Symphony’s popular outreach program that built bridges with several small towns all over Oregon.
And, in 2008, then-President Elaine Calder and the board made the decision to spend more then $10 million of the Symphony’s endowment - a nest egg meant to provide investment income in good times and bad. They used it to pay down millions of dollars in accumulated debt. The Symphony had been running deficits for years. Weyler says, given what the debt was doing to operations, he doesn’t think there was any choice.
“At one point,” Weyler recalls, “it cost almost $400,000 in a single year for interest costs. And that was something the institution didn’t feel it could bear any longer.”
Over a three-year period, between the drawdown and losses from the stock market crash, the Symphony’s endowment plummeted from $27 million to $10 million.
In this kind of fiscal climate, leaders who can steer performing arts groups are in high demand.
Jesse Rosen heads the League of American Orchestras. He says the industry is facing the kind of external problems that can’t just be solved with better marketing. The times demand adaptation.
“Orchestras are expensive,” he says, “compared with other art forms. They need a lot of people, you need to have them on a pretty regular basis. They need a big place to play because they take up a lot of room. That drives you to a certain volume of performance revenue, needing to seek significant numbers of tickets to make a model work.”
For decades, subscriptions were a reliable source of cash up front.
Rosen says around the year 2000, things began to change. Audiences now are less predictable in their tastes, and less certain to buy 12-concert subscriptions.
Behind the scenes, the contracts for orchestral musicians can be complicated. The more concerts musicians play over each season, the more chances an organization has to take in revenue. But depending on what symphonic works are played, musicians may be paid more than their standard compensation.
Jack Siegal is a consultant who’s written extensively about non-profit governance issues.
“It’s a well-known fact that when you’re talking theater, classical music and so forth,” Siegal says, “the ticket sales do not cover the full cost. Organizations naturally have to look to endowment, and investment income from the endowment, or annual contributions from ticket subscribers and others.”
But, as in the case of the Oregon Symphony, those sources aren’t delivering as they used to.
Jesse Rosen, with the League of American Orchestras, says the kind of administrators who have excelled in recent years are those who have rallied musicians, donors and others around new programming, different sorts of subscription series.
“There’s got to be a comfort level with uncertainty and risk, a readiness to innovate and try new things,” Rosen says. “That means some of those things aren’t going to work. That’s a very different mindset and outlook than might typically have been 15 or 20 years ago.”
Walter Weyler, with the Symphony board, says that’s the kind of person the search committee wants to find.
For the interim, two executives are making day-to-day decisions as co-presidents.
Musicians and staff have weathered several disappointments during the search. A trip to Carnegie Hall that the musicians and staff were very excited about was cancelled last fall. The annual free Waterfront concert was nixed for budget reasons. Three staff positions were cut and non-union salaries were reduced 4 percent. The musicians made concessions in their compensation package, including an end-of-year payment, and a salary increase they’d negotiated for 2014.
Jun Iwasaki served as concertmaster to the Oregon Symphony for four years. He left in 2011 to join the Nashville Symphony. He says he thinks the Oregon Symphony job would still be an attractive opportunity, for an able administrator.
“Finding the right person is important,” Iwasaki says. “If that person is extremely creative and ambitious I think there are a lot of things that could happen here that could change the outlook.”
Iwasaki says the musicians are eager to do more to help the Symphony survive. “They don’t want to just go onstage and play music. They want to be a part of the growth.”
While ideas abound about what kind of structure could help the Symphony survive, it appears the next President may have to work with some limitations.
Musicians and administrators are buckling down for contract talks. The formal negotiations for the 2014-2015 season aren’t scheduled to start until spring, but sources say short-term discussions are already in the works.
Bruce Fife is President of the American Federation of Musicians, Local 99. That’s the union representing Symphony members. He says he’s not available for comment.
Board Vice-Chair Walt Weyler acknowledges the talks will likely define what the Symphony can do over its next few seasons before a new President is hired.
“It is fair to say that there are some individuals that would prefer to do it the other way around,” Weyler says. “But the majority of the board and the staff felt that we need to get this thing in order, and then go for the kind of upfront leadership we’re looking for.”
Weyler says there is no set timetable for resuming the executive search. He says as soon as the board is satisfied with a short-term and long term plan of action, the search will start up again immediately.
In the interest of full disclosure: the President and CEO of OPB, Steve Bass, joined the Symphony’s board a few weeks ago.