Passing the Baton

With finances looking better and attendance creeping up, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra seems poised for a turnaround. Then again, its top leadership positions are vacant or about to be, and it faces future funding challenges. There's also this: How much does Charlotte really value its symphony orchestra?

Written by Judy Cole

For symphony orchestras in all but the largest cities in America, these are not the best of times. The troubles are well documented: mounting deficits, declining audiences, struggles to stay relevant. Charlotte's symphony shares the pain.

And yet here and there—Baltimore, Nashville, San Francisco—symphonies have begun to reinvent themselves. They have hired charismatic leaders, tweaked programming, accepted that the cultural landscape has shifted. They are drawing crowds, raising money.

The next two years could prove to be the most important of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra's seventy-six-year history. The orchestra may soon receive a funding cut from the Arts and Science Council, and there are vacancies at the two top leadership positions. Among supporters, hopes are high that the new blood will serve as the catalyst the CSO desperately needs. The new hires will face a series of challenges. The CSO must grow not only its funding, but its brand, and that may mean broadening its definition of what a symphony is as it evolves to meet the demands of the audience it serves.

All of which begs a larger question: In a city that reveres its banks and adores its sports, does the symphony orchestra matter?

In the past few years, the symphony has made a lot of news. Unfortunately, the headlines have been about not music, but money. The symphony doesn't have enough. With an annual operating budget of $8 million, the CSO bills itself as "the largest and most active performing arts organization in the central Carolinas, employing over 100 professional musicians, sixty-four on full-time contracts, for a forty-week season." But it spends more than it makes. A lot more.

Plagued with deficits since the 2002-'03 season, the CSO finished the 2006-'07 season barely in the black. To do so, it had to borrow about $700,000 from its already-embarrassingly low $5 million endowment fund. And at last accounting, the symphony is still $1.5 million in debt.

The financial challenges start with that paltry endowment. "If you look across the country and ask, ‘How does the Charlotte Symphony differ from those of like-size cities?' the endowment is the big red flag that you immediately come across," says CSO board President and Interim Executive Director Richard Osborne. The typical endowment for a professional orchestra in the CSO's class, Osborne says, is $15 million. Typically, nonprofits use the interest earned from an endowment for operating expenses. Figuring an average return of 10 percent a year, that's a difference of about $1 million a year in operating income.

The funding challenges have been exacerbated by delays. The CSO was planning an endowment campaign when the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center was conceived. The symphony shelved its campaign so as not to interfere with fundraising for the Blumenthal. "Since that culminated in a beautiful concert hall for us," Osborne concedes, "it was not anything we would have wanted to complicate or undermine."

The symphony attempted to launch another campaign at the beginning of the current decade, but with the combination of 9/11 and a strike by the symphony's musicians, that effort was eventually rolled into the current $83 million drive to fund the Cultural Facilities Master Plan, which will help pay for the Wachovia arts complex as well as feed several local endowments. "We will get $5.5 million eventually [bringing the CSO's total endowment to $10.5 million]," says Osborne, "but we never dreamed when we decided to throw in our endowment with the Cultural Facilities Master Plan [in 2003] that we wouldn't be receiving monies until 2009, '10, or whatever."

"Regardless of the reason," says Osborne, "we are starved for endowment."

The endowment may not be quite the hindrance the CSO makes it out to be. Russell Jones, vice president of marketing and membership development for the American Symphony Orchestra League, says the average for similar-scale symphonies is more like $17.5 million, but he says such statistics can be misleading.

"Some cities have a lot more, some have a lot less, and that's the trouble with averages," he says. "They don't really mean a lot because what works in Charlotte may be irrelevant to what's going on nationally." As an example, Jones cites Pittsburgh. Although it is one of the thirty largest cities in the country, it's near the bottom of the list in symphony giving. That's because Pittsburgh ranks first for foundation gifts. "Carnegie Melon, Heinz, all have significant operations there," Jones says. "A lot of the Pittsburgh Symphony's resources come from foundations. So, it punches above its weight in those terms, but below its weight in individual terms."

Charlotte's United Arts fund, the Arts & Science Council, is one of the country's most successful. This year, it provided $1.96 million a year in operating cash to the CSO, a number that goes a long way toward mitigating the lack of significant endowment income.

To make matters tougher, though, the symphony stands to see cuts in its ASC funding. The ASC has adopted a new strategic direction that will, in essence, funnel some of the money that has been going to large, central organizations to smaller groups and individuals throughout the
county. "The last thing we need," Osborne told The Charlotte Observer when the changes became public, "is to start to worry about the money we get from the ASC."

It's not like money is in short supply in Charlotte.
Last March, when, amid a whirlwind of rah-rah, hoopla and hype, Charlotte beat out Atlanta and Daytona in the race to host the NASCAR Hall of Fame, city leaders had no problem ponying up $155 million (including about $120 million in public funding) to entice the stock car czars to park their cars in a Queen City garage. Apples and oranges? Perhaps, but in Nashville, the symphony, which was bankrupt as recently as 1995, has a staggering endowment of more than $100 million, which was built, in large part, from a number of substantial individual donations. How'd that symphony raise that kind of cash?

"That is a tough question to answer briefly," says Christy Crytzer, Nashville Symphony's senior director of communications. The Nashville Symphony is a $25 million organization that built, owns, and operates its own concert hall. To raise the $104.4 million endowment, Crytzer says the orchestra leadership made a compelling case to the community about its vision. Several individual gifts of $1 million or more didn't hurt, either.

As it has searched for the right formula the past several years, the CSO hasn't shown much of a vision. It certainly hasn't displayed a vision that could generate $100 million in donations. Even if it had, Osborne, for one, questions whether a vision would be enough. He says Charlotte has a lot of income (read: new money), but not a lot of wealth (read: old money). It's the latter that typically donates to symphonies.

Last year, with funding from the Arts & Science Council, the CSO hired consultant Tom Morris out of Cleveland to determine whether Charlotte could afford a symphony, and if so, what it should look like and how it should function. While he concluded that Charlotte had the resources to support a professional symphony, he strongly recommended that the CSO overhaul its financial model. Already, it has restructured its board to bring in considerably more revenue. It also negotiated a revised contract with the musicians that will save roughly $960,000 over three years, and it is in talks with the Arts & Science Council about getting cash from the Cultural Facilities Master Plan sooner rather than later.

Morris also offered some counsel on bringing CSO's marketing into the twenty-first century. "Some of his recommendations suggested that we needed to spend more money," says Osborne, "that we were being pennywise and pound foolish." CSO's spending for marketing and promotion had been, until recently, far below the norm for an orchestra of its size and caliber. "It had been [cut] over the years with the best of intentions to try to reduce deficits but, effectively, it was reducing audience income as well. We made a very conscious decision to put more money on the stage, so that the quality of the product is better, and to put more money into marketing and promotion." This season, the symphony is spending significant money on radio advertising—seemingly a no-brainer for a musical outfit—for the first time in several years.

Those efforts appear to be paying off. Osborne reports that subscriptions to the Pops series, which pairs singers like Johnny Mathis and Natalie Cole with the orchestra, were up 60 percent for the 2006-'07 season. He also says there's been a bump in the Lollipops series, which are Saturday-morning concerts aimed at families. And attendance to the Classics series, the core of the symphony's season, is up about 11 percent from last year, to 74 percent capacity.

The orchestra does appear to be on the rebound. In addition to the better attendance figures, donations are up. But there is still the challenge of the vision. That part will be up to the new guys. The executive director will come first.

"The executive director is the administrative driving force of the organization. He's got to lead in terms of financial health and logistical support—everything that's necessary to put on concerts," explains former ASC head and current Foundation For the Carolinas President and CEO Michael Marsicano, who chairs the executive director search committee. The committee has hired a search firm, but candidates had yet to be interviewed at press time. Marsicano believes the new executive director will be on the job by the end of this year's first financial quarter.

The time line to find and attract a new music director is longer. "That search … probably won't end until, at earliest, the latter part of next year," Osborne says. Christof Perick will remain the music director for the next two seasons, and he'll return for the '09-'10 and the '10-'11 seasons for two programs each as conductor laureate.

Perick, who officially took up the baton here in 2001, admits that music directors have a shelf life. "I've had my seventh and now my eighth season with this orchestra, and that's a nice tenure, but now they need a new face. After a while, musicians need someone who says things that are completely opposite from the person before him. If after eight years they have someone who has been saying, ‘Please, play softer,' they are desperate for someone who says, ‘Play louder!' "

Perick's goals for the CSO were to return to classical tradition and to improve technique. "I wanted very much to improve their playing and to bring into their spectrum the Viennese classics, especially, which they had neglected. That meant we played a lot of Hayden symphonies, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert—there were symphonies of Shubert's and Hayden's that they had never even touched in all of their seventy-five years. So we did that—and that is very important for each and every orchestra to play that school.

"It's been a wonderful time, but it's enough," Perick says. "I've been through a big part of the repertoire, and I don't want to start repeating. It's time for a new face."

"[The orchestra] is significantly better than it was when he got here," says Osborne. "He has dramatically improved their sound and their capabilities. We've been very fortunate to have had him."

Hollis Ulaky, the CSO's principal oboist and a player since 1974, agrees that Perick has had a positive influence. "We sound better. [Perick]'s worked very hard with us to improve the quality. . . . We want to keep getting better, and hope the city notices."

 

That last statement neatly sums up the charge for the next music director: continue the orchestra's improvement and be visible in the community.

"The music director is not only a conductor who conducts regularly for the orchestra, he also takes care of the orchestra's artistic issues," Perick says. "If you have to hire a new musician, it's the job of the music director. Sometimes there are fights between groups, and it's the job of the music director to settle them. The music director is responsible for ‘the vision' of the orchestra; to talk with those who are having problems musically, or otherwise. The music director is a lot of jobs in one person."

Several candidates have already passed through Charlotte as guest conductors, and more are coming next season. For other orchestras either currently conducting or having recently completed similar searches, star power is a factor in the equation. The New York Times credits the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's energetic Maestra Marin Alsop, one of the few females to conduct at the major symphony level, with "reinvigorating the orchestra, institutionally and artistically." One candidate CSO was considering, the charismatic thirty-eight-year-old Giancarlo Guerrero, was just snapped up by the Nashville Symphony.

"I think it would be great if the symphony can find a really spiffy conductor like Keith Lockhart of the Boston Pops," says Paul Nitsch, a thirty-one-year Charlotte resident and Queens University professor of music. "He's got personality, and he's fun. Everywhere he goes, people know him, and he draws a crowd. If you had a character like that conducting the symphony, that would really bring in an audience." Nitsch notes that the Brevard Music Center has hired Lockhart as music director for its coming season. "That's just going to bring in tons of people. I know that I'm going," he laughs.

At the very least, the CSO hopes to hire someone who will be a major figure in the community, unlike Perick has been. "People have to say, 'Charlotte Symphony, it is this guy,' " says Perick, who says that splitting time between Charlotte and his home in Germany has kept him from being the kind of forceful presence Charlotte needs. "I can't do that because I don't live here. A place like this needs to see the face of its conductor regularly—in the supermarket, on the street, at parties, and so on."

That's not to say the music isn't still important. "It's very important to have more presence in the community," says Osborne, "but, that said, it's the primary criteria to find a music director who will build on the qualitative improvements that Christof has made during his tenure. We do not want to even think about taking a step backward. We need both—the quality of the performances that you will hear when you go to a concert now, plus the presence of the chief artistic officer of this organization in the community."

A reorganized board, star power, and a high-quality product aren't enough. Osborne says it's more difficult to engage audiences than it was fifteen or twenty years ago. "There is a general trend toward single-ticket sales and away from subscription. People don't like to commit out as far as they did a few years ago. You have to market more, and you have to market differently. You also have to program in a way that is relevant to the audience," he says.

Many observers cite orchestral music's graying audience as cause for worry. Osborne does not. "You could have sat in a concert thirty years ago and looked around and said, ‘This audience will all be dead in twenty years,' " he says, "but the fact is, people don't really start patronizing symphonies until they get to a certain point in life. You end up with a ‘grayer' audience, but it keeps replenishing itself as people age into the demographic. It's not as if the audience twenty years ago was young or a bunch of college kids, and now it's older. There's no alarm bell going off."

Other American symphonies that face similar challenges have been making efforts to expand their audience. They recognize that large swaths of the populace listen to classical music but do not patronize symphonies. In an article for Slate.com, New Yorker classical music critic Alex Ross wrote, "These days, institutions must invent programming that will please multiple overlapping audiences; there is no one audience anymore, if there ever was." He cites a Minimalist Jukebox festival that drew large crowds of newcomers to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, "even as traditional subscribers stayed away in protest." In the same article, he points to a new-music concert sponsored by the Chicago Symphony that "drew almost a thousand people, about a third of them under the age of thirty. . . . It looked like an indie-rock show from an audience standpoint."

Locally, North Carolina Dance Theatre's annual Innovative Works, which is usually a trio of modern pieces, sells out the 434-seat Booth Playhouse every year. Audiences love the more intimate venue and the thrilling nature of the performances.

The CSO has struggled to find programming that consistently draws crowds. "It seems like what programming works in other towns doesn't always work in Charlotte," Ulaky says. "Even guest artists we'll have will be sellouts in another town and they'll come to Charlotte and people don't know them and they won't come."

Charlotte audiences have also been less welcoming of new works. They'll sometimes accept it in small doses, but patrons have been known to grumble when they have to sit through a long section of modern music to get to, say, one of Beethoven's symphonies. But a successful symphony can't just be a greatest-hits jukebox. "We don't want to scare them away with modern music," Ulaky says, "but we do have to do some of it, to educate the community."

The problem may be in the approach.

"I think that things like the symphony that function in a traditional format have got to be looked at and renewed," says Nitsch. "The symphony needs to find ways to reinvent itself to take advantage of what the audience could be, the people that are really around here."

With apologies for the overload of Alex Ross, the critic began a New Yorker piece on the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with these words: "The classical business is temperamentally resistant to novelty, whether in the form of female conductors, American conductors, younger conductors, new music, post-1900 concert dress, or concert-hall color schemes that aren't corporate beige." The CSO checks out on all six of those examples.

Nitsch has a radical idea to shake things up: "Younger people coming into town are looking for something to do other than just go to a concert, sit down, listen, and then leave. They want to go to an event. What if we had a place downtown that was connected to, say, Johnson & Wales, that could offer an amazing culinary experience in the middle of a gallery of art with magnificent sculptures and rotating exhibits where all kinds of music could be played—from classical to the blues."
    
Would any of that work here? It may be that the symphony's biggest problem isn't the symphony at all, but the city in which it exists.

"The symphony here is a minor player in the cultural scene, which is a minor cultural scene to begin with," Nitsch says. "There is so much potential here, but people here are just not trained in the cultural arts. Charlotte is such a business/corporate culture that most people here think like investors. ‘People will move to Charlotte if we have ‘culture,' so we'll support the symphony.' "

Charlotte's cultural scene, much like its business and political climate, has traditionally been top-down. A few select leaders tell the city what is good for it, and the city agrees. That was the original basis for the Arts and Science Council, which provides a portion of the operating cash for all of the major arts institutions in the city.

But that doesn't lead to a deep connection between Charlotteans and its cultural institutions. That's not how Nashville's symphony built a grand concert hall and raised a hundred million bucks for its endowment.

"Relevance [is about] communication on a large scale. The challenge for an orchestra is to make it possible for people in the audience to look up on the stage and see something that reflects them … So much of the entertainment in this culture seems to be directed at one little segment of a given community. I think an orchestra has potential to be an unbelievable tool for community building, for getting people who wouldn't ever see each other to just sit in the same room and shut up; to sit in the same room and listen to things." So said Michael Morgan, conductor and music director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony, artistic director of the Oakland Youth Orchestra, and music director of the Sacramento Philharmonic, in a panel discussion that was published in a journal about grant making.

So then. Back to the big question: Does a symphony orchestra matter here? Arts supporters struggle to answer, because it deals with intangibles. "It's something positive for the city," Ulaky says. "I think you need to not just have sports in a city, but the culture. I think people should be able to enjoy music."

Says Perick, "We have to make it clear that music is more than just entertainment. It should be a part of all our lives—like reading a book. So we just have to keep going, and make sure people know what we do and how well we do it. To do our music in the best possible way is the best advertisement."

Ultimately, only the symphony can answer the question. More specifically, the new executive director and the new music director will have to make the answer clear to Charlotte. But it won't be easy.

"It's just such a struggle here in this town for some reason," Ulaky says. "The arts just… I wish they were more important here. We have to struggle for people's entertainment dollars now, and we have to be the thing they want to come and see. Hopefully that will happen."

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