America's orchestras: crescendo of costs, decrescendo of funds

The symphony orchestra in America is an institution that engenders tremendous civic pride. It is often the hub of the social scene of its community, and it is typically the core of the entire musical profile of that community.

But orchestras cost money - and raising it challenges every facet of that institution's abilities. Paying 60 to 100 musicians a weekly salary for part of or most of the year, paying a managerial bureaucracy, paying the costs of the hall in which the orchestra performs (be it in rental or building maintenance) - all this costs money. A modest budget for a city's orchestra these days is around $4 million. A major orchestra's budget is upward of $18 million.

It goes without saying that the federal government has no intention of subsidizing the symphony orchestras of the land, nor could it. But the $10 million the federal government allocated the National Endowment for the Arts was seriously cut during the early years of the Reagan administration and is only now being gradually restored by Congress. Orchestras have had to become increasingly inventive in finding sources of private giving: The burgeoning area for much of that massive fund-raising is in the corporate world.

How is the symphony orchestra faring these days? We are in a time when the arts have more popular exposure than ever before - on TV, in the news, in the community. With youth programs, ''Pops'' concerts, park concerts, summer series either in town or in some unusual summer home, symphony orchestras have become highly visible in their respective communities.

But does this also mean that they are highly successful financially? Catherine French, chief executive officer of the American Symphony Orchestra League (ASOL) is generally optimistic about the state of the orchestra in America today: ''The creativity and energy being applied to the financial problems (and solutions) is quite special.''

There seems to be a slumping profile to the scene today. The Kansas City Philharmonic had to fold and regroup last year because of financial woes. The Florida Philharmonic folded last year. Many orchestras that for years were in the black are now in the red. Other orchestras that have raised millions each year are beginning to wonder where the next half-million is going to come from. Some cities have united arts funds that serve as clearinghouses for the cities' entire arts scene, with each group getting a share of the total. Participating institutions are not then allowed to go out and do their own general fund-raising outside of their subscriber/member families.

Nonetheless, orchestras nationwide are becoming increasingly aware of a need to view themselves as a specialized business, and they all have had to professionalize their image and their operation if they have any hopes of coping with the escalating costs of sustaining this sort of institution in the community.

In a metropolis such as Salt Lake City, the Utah Symphony has had an auspicious tenure. Under former music director Maurice Abaravanel, it had great visibility as a recording orchestra. Until recently, it performed in the Mormon Tabernacle; its offices were rent free. Now it is part of Symphony Hall for which it must pay rent, rehearsal time, and office space. Whereas before, the orchestra could get by with subscribers and corporate sponsoring of specific events, the orchestra is now trying to convince corporations that giving without specific returns - a concert or a series specifically sponsored to give the corporation a specific public image - is to the good of corporation and community alike.

Veronica Bettinson, assistant director of development of the Utah Symphony, notes that until recently cultivating corporate giving was not a top priority. She cites the many impressive gifts given in the sponsorship department, but there is no real consistency in corporate general giving.

''The Utah Symphony is a resource everyone recognizes as valuable to the community. The medium-sized corporations here are not geared for arts giving. We have started a drive we hope will get us into their budgeting process for conversion to next year's giving,'' explains Ms. Bettinson. The Utah's current budget levels off at around $4.3 million, with $1.9 million earned box-office income. A new music director, former Boston Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Joseph Silverstein, seems likely to bring a new profile to the orchestra in the community.

In Los Angeles, things are rather different. As executive director Ernest Fleischmann notes, the Philharmonic gets a good portion of its corporate contributions from the United Arts Fund, a group effort that raises monies for all the arts in the Los Angeles area.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic has the highest earned income rate of any orchestra in the land: 80 percent of its budget is covered by subscriptions and ticket sales. The remaining 20 percent, Mr. Fleischmann pointed out on the phone, translates into an ominous cash figure of $3.6 million, and each year it gets larger. The Hollywood Bowl season brings in a high revenue, but ticket prices there (a top of $27.50) and in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the orchestra's winter home, can go just so high.

Then there is new plan to build three new theaters at the Los Angeles Music Center site, which will add more performing arts institutions plugging into the pool of fund-raising. Current music director Carlo Maria Giulini resigned last spring, and the search is on for a new chief who can capture the Los Angeles public's imagination and goodwill.

The Philharmonic now has had to become ever more resourceful in its targeting for corporate funding of specific programs. For instance, the specially funded Summer Institute for Young Conductors and Musicians has taken off in a big way. Nevertheless, Mr. Fleischmann is not a bright-eyed optimist: ''I'm deeply worried about it; I don't see a dramatic increase in corporate giving.''

The Buffalo Philharmonic is seeing things from an entirely new perspective today. Two years ago, the creditors were pounding at the door. Even this past year, there was the threat of legal action, but under executive director Gary L. Good, the financial base, the managerial core, and the attitude within the orchestra has undergone an entire about-face. Where once there was gloom, there is now morale. Where once there was an accumulated deficit of $958,000, there is now the expectation that the red ink will be eradicated within another year.

Mr. Good cited how practical considerations and a bold projection of a fiscally responsible management image persuaded local corporations and foundations that this new team would be able not merely to staunch the flow of red ink but to turn the institution around altogether. They gave money to allow the management to effect these changes. With orchestra projecting a sound image, the corporations are becoming increasingly interested in supporting it, and this success breeds more success. County and local government support has been unusually strong for an arts institution. The creditors agreed to a cash settlement over several years or else to parlay some of the debt into a contribution to the orchestra.

The orchestra is aiming to balance the budget, to increase earned income, boost the subscription base, and be more responsive to the needs of the community. The net surplus in the coffers at the end of this past fiscal year is salary increase this new season instead of holding out for major salary concessions. This vote of goodwill on the players' part contrasts strikingly with the situation that confronted the now-defunct Florida Philharmonic, which folded over a protracted labor dispute.

In San Francisco, a new home for the orchestra has symbolized the end to doldrums all around. Naturally, the groundwork for the turnaround had been laid several years before Louise M. Davies Hall opened, but at that time nearly $1 million of accumulated deficit had been eradicated under the guidance of executive manager Peter Pastreich.

The orchestra had also become a full-time symphonic institution (no longer functioning as pit orchestra for the San Francisco Opera Company) with a greatly expanded season. In short, a total revitalization had been effect. In the fiscal year just past, a $14 million budget was 66 percent covered by earned income.

That figure, notes John Gidwitz, manager of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, has been quite consistent throughout the past decade or more - only the cash value of that figure has actually changed. The San Francisco Symphony boasts a strong subscription base that fills just about every seat in the house at all times (very little last-minute window business occurs there!).

But the corporate image - with the bold exceptions of Bank of America and Standard Oil of California - has been low key. Beginning this year, Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith is underwriting three seasons of the orchestra's Great Performers Series at Davies Hall to the tune of $350,000. Another $350,000 from the McKesson Corporation underwrites the orchestra's current fall tour. But getting corporations to contribute quietly to the annual funding drives is more of a problem. Mr. Gidwitz states that corporate foundations are increasingly generous, but that ''as a whole, the corporate climate for giving in California is not as developed as it is in Eastern and Midwestern cities.''

Miss French notes that the aggregate numbers can be misleading when viewing the orchestra picture as a whole. Out of a $350 million expenditure base nationwide, there are only a few million dollars of aggregate deficit. But this does not, she explains, give an idea of how tough it is for some communities: ''They are having a terrible time breaking even. Also, when the boards and management are committed to balancing the budget, you don't see the things that don't get done (sufficient rehearsal time, progressive wage increases, inventive programming that might not sell out a house but are the backbone of an institution's artistic vitality, etc.).

It is also increasingly difficult to find sufficent funds, she continues, ''in places without strong corporate bases and without all the levels of local government support.'' There are added problems, financially. ''The cost of raising money has increased, and the cost of selling tickets has increased.'' Particularly in terms of finding and keeping subscribers, the costs are skyrocketing. Every orchestra I talked with mentioned telemarketing as a new facet of its outreach efforts. It has had startling success everywhere it has been tried, and Miss French confirms the benefits of that innovation. ''The level of professional help orchestras are acquiring is higher and higher.'' About all these increased expenditures, she states simply ''In the long run it's money wisely invested.''

Miss French is fundamentally optimistic: ''The makeup of audiences is much broader than ever before. The push toward strengthening endowments is very strong and very sound. I don't think orchestras are dying: Very few managements are allowing the sort of deficits that would do them in.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.