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Reinventing the Seattle Symphony, presto

The troubled orchestra has run up an $11 million deficit, but it suddenly has a compelling strategy for turning things around. The goal: become "a contemporary orchestra."
The SSO's unbuttoned new conductor, Ludovic Morlot

The SSO's unbuttoned new conductor, Ludovic Morlot Robert Wade/Seattle.gov

A hip promo from the Seattle Symphony blog

A hip promo from the Seattle Symphony blog Seattle Symphony

Simon Woods of the SSO: seeking the "alt-classical" audience.

Simon Woods of the SSO: seeking the "alt-classical" audience. Seattle Symphony

The Seattle Symphony, after struggling for years, has dramatically recovered its stride. And not a moment too soon. 

This past season, the first with the symphony’s popular new conductor, Ludovic Morlot, quickly repositioned the orchestra as far more contemporary in approach and broader in audience appeal. Under the SSO's new executive director, Simon Woods, an Englishman with a flair for developing younger audiences, the orchestra has enjoyed, Woods says, “an incredible year on just about every front.”

The season certainly began with a bang last September, with Morlot conducting before a packed house visibly falling in love with the new maestro. Woods still recalls “the total unity of purpose” he felt that night, including waking up the next morning and wondering how in the world to live up to that emotional high. Unity of purpose has long been absent from this troubled organization, and the hunger for a new vision and a new hope is intense.

The metrics Woods cites for the past year are impressive. According to Woods, this year will be “at or a hair’s breadth away from breaking even,” the first time in years. Donations toward the $24 million annual budget will hit a new high of $9.5 million. Ticket sales, already a remarkably high percentage of income (45 percent), are up 2 percent.  Woods has also brought in new department leaders for nearly every section of the staff.

Another key actor in this turnaround is board chair Leslie Jackson Chihuly, a business and marketing dynamo who oversees her husband Dale Chihuly’s glass empire. Chihuly took over at the orchestra's nadir in July 2009, stepped in as interim executive director, instituted some bold strategic thinking, and helped in the search process for Morlot and Woods. The trio has directed a wildly successful repositioning of the orchestra’s image, almost overnight.

 “Listen boldly” is the new tagline, neatly capturing the slightly edgy and more youthful audience appeal the orchestra wants to convey. Chihuly has also added 22 new members to the 55-member board, a badly needed infusion of new blood.

"I was stunned when I heard the Symphony had selected Leslie as its chair," says one charged-up new boardmember. "She's so hip!" Both Woods and Chihuly have strong strategic focus, looking well beyond the next donor luncheon to creating a consistent and modernized image. Morlot's youth (he's 38) and easy charm are one dimension. Reaching out to other kinds of music and younger tastes is another. Getting the musicians, sour from years of labor-management friction, excited about the conductor, his collaborative style, and the orchestra's aspirations is another.

The result is a positive vibe that is apparent when you look at the musicians performing or visit them backstage, where Morlot likes to mingle at intermission, praising grandchildren and lavishing compliments. It's also apparent to the musicians on stage, who are thrilled to sense how the audiences are rapt even when hearing difficult contemporary works.

There was a lot of damage to be overcome, lending urgency to the rapid reinvention of the SSO. The past years of accumulating deficits have produced a total deficit of (gulp) $11 million. When Woods revealed that figure to me, I was both stunned at the size and also that the symphony (for years a fortress of guarded information) would come clean. The candor is admirable, but the total is daunting, in part because raising money to retire debt is the hardest funding to get.

Another possibly serious hurdle is the labor agreement with the symphony musicians, whose current contract expires on August 31. In the past two rounds, these negotiations have been excruciating and bitter. In part, this was a reflection of how unhappy many musicians had become at the board’s willingness to keep extending Music Director Gerard Schwarz’s contract long after he had lost support with most of the musicians. (Schwarz retired last year after 26 seasons.) The last round, two and a half years ago, convinced many musicians that management was trying to solve the organization's structural deficit by reducing the orchestra's artistic aspirations drastically.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Aug 15, 8:10 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for bringing this welcome news. The SSO is one of the city's key "soft" assets (along with the sports franchises, the universities, etc) that should bind the metropolitian region to its urban center. A reinvigorated orchestra can and ought to reach out both cross-culturally and more widely into the suburbs for attendance and support. It will be good for the SSO and good for the region.

TylerP

Posted Wed, Aug 15, 3:56 p.m. Inappropriate

As for reaching out to the suburbs, the Symphony is very positive about doing a series in the Eastside, assuming the Tateuchi Center finds the funding to get itself built. They join the Ballet in strong support for a proper performance hall on the Eastside, where so many of the patrons and donors live. Keep in mind, too, the effect of tolls on 520 as further discouragement, if it is that, to driving into Seattle for a concert.

Posted Wed, Aug 15, 6:53 p.m. Inappropriate

I find it hard to believe that tolls would be an issue.

NotFan

Posted Wed, Aug 15, 10:06 a.m. Inappropriate

To point four: There's a sold-out computer game tournament at Benaroya over Labor Day Weekend. http://www.seattlesymphony.org/benaroya/browse/dateview.aspx?dt=8%2f31%2f2012

LiamL

Posted Wed, Aug 15, 5:34 p.m. Inappropriate

Benaroya's nothing but a building. It says nothing to me about the symphony if they use the place for a computer game tournament.

NotFan

Posted Wed, Aug 15, 12:06 p.m. Inappropriate

A lot of protesting and publicity can't cover continued discord in Seattle, from what I hear. As a very longtime subscriber, I do appreciate the innovative programming, but Morlot is embarrassingly clumsy with the public and, from what I hear, the musicians, who continue, by all accounts to be an unhappy, litigious bunch. Certainly a new conductor was a good idea, but it's like that old relationship adage; if circumstances change and the fundamental unrest remains "may be it's you." Perhaps the SSO needs a stronger hand to weed out what sounds like some rotten apples.

barbraP

Posted Wed, Aug 15, 6:10 p.m. Inappropriate

I really think you need to remember that there's no such thing as a happy orchestra. If that's what you expect. I think you will always be disappointed.

It's not like I'd want them to be miserable (or at least any more miserable than they'll make themselves). But I'm not so sure that "continuing discord," as a general principle, is something to worry very much about. So half the orchestra wants to kill the other half, and they all want to kill the conductor. I understand the sun rose in the east today too.

Not sure what you mean about Morlot being clumsy with the public, because to be honest I'm 95% about the music even if I'm not a classical expert. It'd be interesting if you'd flesh that out a little bit.

For me anyway, it's about the music, even if I don't know as much as I want to know. But the more I go, the more I know. I look at the p.r. side of the conductor as immaterial to me, even though I also know it's a big part of keeping the bucks flowing in. Seeing as how there isn't just one "public," I wonder which "publics" you think Morlot is clumsy with, and how it's screwing things up.

Just so you know, I'm neutral on Morlot, just as I'm neutral on all conductors. To me, they could stick a metronome up there for all the conductor usually matters to me. But then, that's just me so I'd really be interested if you'd flesh out what you wrote.

NotFan

Posted Wed, Aug 15, 11:53 p.m. Inappropriate

Very amusing! Your post is eye opening. I suppose I personally have found Morlot very stiff, impersonal, and simply just not very socially savvy in relating to audiences at concerts and benefits. I understand from friends who have spoken to him one-on-one that perhaps he is a bit "green" at juggling the many hats, as a conductor must. I agree with you 100% about this dangerous tilt towards freshness and contemporaneousness...exactly right "Might sell tickets until the public actually have to listen to it." I for one, and all of my grey-tipped friends, certainly hone in on the classics. I did very much enjoy both the gershwin program and others that presently escape my memory. Perhaps our tastes are dated, but I even when I was of these young lions generation, I did not like the modern music (60s). The subsequent poster should be reminded that even Beethoven had to, I believe, show some respect to the emperor. This balance between the old and the new must be struck, but the musicians are, ultimately, beholden to the market, and we would all be loathe to forget that.. Finally, as a resident in both Washington and California, I am very lucky to attend and sponsor many ensembles. I regret that, while every organization certainly has its internal squabbles, I have found few as rancorous as Seattle and I hoped that a new conductor would be changing that tide.

barbraP

Posted Thu, Aug 16, 12:15 a.m. Inappropriate

I'm going to make a confession, and I hope you'll never tell another living soul. I'm a sucker for Tschaikovsky, Prokoviev, Ravel, Strauss, and Mozart. Gershwin's great, but I was a frequent flyer on United for so long that they kinda sorta killed Rhapsody in Blue for me.

Now, in the spirit of the foodie who whispers to a friend that there's nothing like a bag of Cheetohs at three in the morning, I am really looking forward to the "Rachfest" in January. I know how dang trite I am, but I can't help it: The first symphony concert I ever actually paid for was Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto #2, which actually had several tunes you can hum and therefore deserves no respect. So I'm going to wear a bag over my head and rent a pickup truck so no one actually recognizes me on the way in, or during what we all know will be a standing ovation from a packed hall full of trite suckers who, every so often, just wanna have some foot stompin' fun. Look for the guy in the cowboy boots. It'll be me.

p.s.: My hypothesis about contemporary music is that 90% of the composers were altar boys who were diddled by their parish priests and therefore can't write in the major key or hold a thought long enough to develop a theme. But maybe I'm wrong.

NotFan

Posted Wed, Aug 15, 12:31 p.m. Inappropriate

As a season ticket holder for about 10 years, I have a bunch of reactions to this. I'm going to list them without trying to reconcile anything.

- Benaroya's acoustics, if "admired," are quite overrated. The hall has a rather cold, even harsh, sound. It's typical of modernistic designs lacking intimacy.

- The variety of performances is impressive.

- All symphony orchestras are on the brink of mutiny, even mass fratricidal slaughter, at all times. It's all focused on the conductor. It's amazing that Schwartz lasted 26 years.

- There isn't one symphony audience. Like any other product or service, the symphony offers a vaiety of benefits and thus draws a coalition. There are genuine aficianados of classical music. There are spouses there to please their spouses, usually men pleasing wives but not always in that direction. There are those who seek an elegant evening with pretty music. There are "aspirational motives," i.e. those who want to convey to themselves and/or others that they are some of the following: sophisticated, intellectual, wealthy, civic minded, broad-minded, world-class.

- In the end, the orchestra is the band at the wedding. No one else is going to hire these people, so they had better understand their audiences. Any symphony musician who puts his need for "artistic expression" ahead of the audience's priorities is, in one way or another, a fool.

- At any given point during a concert, a significant portion of the audience is wondering how long it'll be until intermission, or until they can go home.

- Most contemporary symphonic music is barely listenable. Some time after World War II, the "academy" collectively decided that melody and orderly structure were simplistic, naive, and even stupid. As a result, most of what's been written after 1945 or so sounds more or less like the soundtrack to Mannix, the '70s-era police drama. Not all of it, but most of it.

- Seattle's audience aspirations tilt toward "sophisticated," "broad minded" and "intellectual," so there's a higher demand, or at least feigned appreciation for, contemporary music. But not a lot of real love. As a result, the typical concert is headlined by a dead European, with some version of a Mannix soundtrack injected into the middle, as if it were penance or castor oil, which it usually is.

- Morlot is affecting "freshness," which is what every new conductor does. Have you ever heard of a new conductor who announces himself by saying that he wants to return to the beaten path, and get the audience home, well rested, by 10 o'clock?

- Emphasizing the contemporary stuff will give a newsy peg to those media outlets that still care (minimally) about the symphony. Might even sell some more tickets, at least until the people actually have to listen to it.

- The real money is made by the standards. Where would they be without the Nutcracker in December, opening night, the Pops, and that short list of dead Europeans who people actually love but don't want to praise too loudly because they'll sound so corny?

- To ensure its ongoing existence, the Seattle Symphony needs to aggressively, and over the long term, court the younger Asian techies here. Asians are a growing share of symphony players, composers (many of them quite good, an exception to the general horribleness of contemporary symphonic music), and audiences.

- They'd better be careful about dissing the old folks who love the dead Europeans. They're the ones who buy season tickets, not the wannabe yuppie review for The Stranger. Or, as the once put it so aptly: "Know what to kiss, and when."
-

NotFan

Posted Wed, Aug 15, 8:17 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm wondering, if you are a season ticket holder of 10 years, why you have so much to say about so many things, but nothing to say about the actual music-making itself? I can't believe you wouldn't comment on, for example, the Sacre/American in Paris/Ameriques concert... it was one of the tightest, cleanest, most intense, most illuminating performances of Stravinsky I've heard, and the Ameriques tore the #$*(ing roof off the place.

Statements like "most contemporary symphonic music is barely listenable" are so trite that it's surprising to me people still say things like that. Most contemporary music is actually freaking amazing, if you actually listen to it. Sure, serialists, the Darmstadt School, etc... yeah, it's very different. If you don't like it, your loss.

But either way, the orchestra is not your personal Spotify playlist - it is a cultural institution that serves a broad audience. You seem to think that its programming of contemporary music reflects some kind of desire for P.R... you don't even consider that maybe people *do* want to hear that stuff, because you're so set on hating it.

You also seem deeply attached to the idea that the orchestra works for you... "Any symphony musician who puts his need for "artistic expression" ahead of the audience's priorities is, in one way or another, a fool." Speaking as a very engaged audience member, my priority is hearing the musicians' artistic expression. Period. That's what I'm there for. The idea that somehow *your* priorities are higher than that is utterly, utterly absurd... as if somehow your 10 years of buying a season ticket makes you the boss. Please. A symphony concert is not a trip to Costco. Have some respect.

0cme

Posted Thu, Aug 16, midnight Inappropriate

I didn't comment on the Sacre/American in Paris/Ameriques concert because I didn't attend it. Sorry. And even though I love Russians because they're always such drama queens, I'm not much of a Stravinsky fan, although I haven't made any final call on him yet.

I don't use Spotify or any of the other Internet music services. The fidelity just isn't there. You must be under the age of 30 or 35 and have never actually heard a good recording. If you had, you wouldn't be listening to either their 160 kbps or their so-called "premium" 320 kbps. After all, a CD streams at about 1.45 mbps, and vinyl is the best.

In any case, maybe we can agree that variety is the saving grace of the Seattle symphony, if for no other reason than it keeps us from meeting in the hallways and spitting in each others' faces. It took me a while to get clued into their habit of sandwiching contemporary junk in between dead Europeans and leaving it up to the subscriber to sniff it out in advance. Once I did that, I starting exchanging away from the stuff you claim to love, to the trite stuff that I know I love.

My atttitude toward musicians is a bit like Alfred Hitchcock's attitude toward actors: "In my opinion, the chief requisite for an actor is the ability to do nothing well, which is by no means as easy as it sounds. He should be willing to be utilised and wholly integrated into the picture by the director and the camera. He must allow the camera to determine the proper emphasis and the most effective dramatic highlights."

The orchestra doesn't work for me, me, me. I'm opinionated, but not rich enough to call the tunes. That said, the musicians work for whoever signs their checks. And whoever signs their checks better be able to hold the coalition of audiences together, or the whole structure will collapse. For me (and I know I am not alone), the minute I can't select away from Mannix soundtracks, I'm out of there.

I'll give Morlot this much: He's arranged to hold contemporary concerts for yuppies on the lobby balcony. This is as it should be: Bad music, in terrible acoustic settings, for an audience accustomed to iTunes and ear buds. Works for me, and I suspect you too, if not for the same reasons. If you're listening to that dreck, who'd ever really need to hear it, anyhow?

If nothing else, have I proven that I can be every last bit as snotty as you? I sure hope so.

NotFan

Posted Thu, Aug 16, 10:30 p.m. Inappropriate

Wow... to make a bunch of dumb assumptions about me because I barely mentioned *Spotify*, and then tell me you want to *spit* on me...? That's hilarious.

The facts are, people keep writing contemporary music, publishing it, recording it, playing it, and listening to it, and the Seattle Symphony is participating. If you want to believe that it's all some kind of shell game, because you are too arrogant to consider the possibility that you don't understand or appreciate something that actually has genuine value, knock yourself out.

0cme

Posted Thu, Aug 16, 10:59 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm always happy to be hilarious. We can all agree, I hope, that Seattle is in perpetual need of a hilarity implant.

Not all contemporary music stinks. Only about 95% of it. Knock myself out, you say. Remember, an unconscious concertgoer is in no position to hand over a thousand bucks for another pair of season tickets. Better hope that a few hundred of us don't knock ourselves out, either with a hammer or a few Manhattans in front of the stereo at home, because we're too arrogant to be tortured by our betters. Something tells me that it'll be hard to make it up with the revenues generated by the usual coven of important lemon-sucking young vegans demanding we all swoon for Phil Glass.

I'll have the bone-in ribeye, rare, with a baked potato and a double bourbon. And Beethoven. You go for the tofu with Benjamin Britten? Just remember: Too much soy makes men grow breasts and shrinks their brains, among other things. Maybe that accounts for the popularity of the War Requiem? That was the second symphony show I ever paid for, and it took another two years before I went back for a third try.

NotFan

Posted Thu, Aug 16, 7:38 p.m. Inappropriate

Marry me,NotFan

Posted Thu, Aug 16, 11:04 p.m. Inappropriate

How about a temporary marriage? Classical music fans are such rabbits! Want to meet in the parking garage during intermission at Rachfest? I'll be in the big pickup truck on the lower level. And unlike the contemporary type parked in the electric car space who'd have to write a long letter to The Stranger listing the reasons he couldn't, ah, well, you know, I'm not only as horny as you are, but I can shut up about it later on. Deal?

NotFan

Posted Sun, Feb 3, 7:40 p.m. Inappropriate

Frankly, this article terrified me, with all its talk about the Symphony appealing to the hideous "alt" culture of Seattle. But before letting my evening be ruined, I remembered how fantastic the newly announced season is, and decided to compare it to Morlot's first two seasons. To my relief, I see that Morlot and team have actually moved back towards the "conservative" for the 2013-2014 program. I wonder whether this is because big donors and others who buy expensive tickets were turned off by the contemporary programming. (The article addresses this possibility).

In my case that rings true, except that I am a very young patron. Had the season just announced leaned more towards the new-age/hip/contemporary, for instance, I would have been disappointed and probably purchased the 7-concert subscription rather than the 30-concert multiple-subscription behemoth that I eagerly and joyfully jumped on minutes after the announcement a couple weeks ago.

I bought all those concerts not only because I live and breathe great music, but because I'm afraid that seasons of consistently great music are being threatened, and I feel it is my duty to vote for more programming like the 2013-2014 season in any way that I can. I strongly hope that a year from now I will be as excited about the 14/15 season, and I can say with the utmost certainty that there is not one supporter of the hip, new-age programming in my age group, in all of Seattle, who would financially support the Symphony's movement in that direction as much as I financially support the Symphony remaining traditional.

All I can ask is please don't abandon us. All this talk about new-age, alternative, fusion, contemporary, etc, makes my blood run cold. There are ways to reach out to more people without spoiling it for the true, passionate classical musicians.

In light of the newly announced season however, I have hope for the future, and I would like to say thank you. I've already given thanks from the bottom of my bank account (almost literally), and I would like to also give thanks from the bottom of my heart. The new season truly fills me with joy and gives me hope. Keep it up. Please.

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