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Reinventing the Seattle Symphony, presto

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

The musicians fought back, accepting still more financial cuts but encouraged when the board was finally persuaded to seek a new conductor and a new management team. This time, the mood is far more positive. Negotiations are under way in earnest, with one leader of the musicians' team predicting there might be an agreement by the deadline or shortly after when the first concert of the season is held. "Unity of purpose" seems very much alive, so far.

Another long-deferred problem is the symphony’s way-too-small endowment of $25 million. (A rule of thumb is that an endowment ought to be three times the annual budget, or triple the current size.) This endowment is used as collateral against the $7 million line of revolving credit the orchestra has with USB, and it is part of the reason that the institution is pinched for working capital. It also means that the orchestra must raise large sums of donations each year. For years, dating back to the opening of Benaroya Hall in 1998, the orchestra board has tried to increase the endowment substantially, but the campaign has never achieved lift-off.

“Seattle Symphony ranks very high nationally in the number of performances each year, and the variety of series,” notes Woods. “Of the top 20 national symphony orchestras, Seattle ranks first on percentage of earned income (primarily ticket sales), but 19th in endowment size.”  

A variety of factors, many of them national trends, drove the symphony into its precarious position. Schwarz accomplished many things in his 26 years: building Benaroya Hall with its admired acoustics, a great number of recordings of neglected American composers such as David Diamond, building an orchestra with excellent players, and developing a mastery of the late-Romantic repertoire, notably Wagner and Strauss.

But there were debilitating feuds between Schwarz and executive directors, some of whom left after short tenures and some of whom were overmatched. There were struggles over board chairs not to the maestro’s liking. As the board increasingly split over the timing for finding a successor, it neglected fundraising and failed to attract new leadership. Schwarz’s programming was very traditional, and it relied on expensive brand-name soloists to keep audience levels high. Staff turnover was chronic. Here was an organization heading into deep trouble, and seemingly unable to arrest its slide.

Undeniably orchestras all over the country are struggling with aging audiences, the lack of arts education in schools, high, built-in cost structures such as pensions and generous medical plans for the players, waning public-sector support, and a shift of philanthropy from the arts to social needs. (The tech generation in Seattle is also not known for supporting classical arts.)

The venerable Philadelphia Orchestra went through bankruptcy to shed many of these costs, and is hoping residencies in China will solve some of its problems. The Cleveland Orchestra now has a second home in Florida. The Baltimore Symphony has an additional home in suburban D.C. Many other orchestras are shutting down or taking drastic cuts, and the misery is unrelated to the size of the city.

Morlot and Woods quickly settled on a new vision for the orchestra, dispensing with the usual Seattle custom of extensive, ask-everyone, strategic planning. There wasn’t time, explains Woods, so he and Morlot produced “vision and leadership from the front.” The result is a very coherent, rather bold new stance for the orchestra.

Here are the main components:

First, position the SSO as “a contemporary orchestra.” This means several things, in addition to more contemporary music on the programs. Woods is struck by what he calls the “contemporary, alternative quality of Seattle,” meaning the way we dress, the informality, "the openness to edgy and complex music of all kinds."  Some new series directly appeal to this “alt-classical” audience, mixing genres as in “Sonic Evolution” concerts, shifting to an informal setting in the lobby as in the new “Untitled” series.

The cosmopolitan Morlot is genuinely open to lots of different music, and he explains modern music in an engaging, unpompous way. Even better, he and the players pick thrny contemporary music they really believe in, and play it with conviction, not dutifully. The eclectic combination also reflects the potent mass-appeal of Dale Chihuly's brand: a mixture of rich people buying his highly accessible art and edgy encounters with young artists as part of the package. The main goal here, of course, is to appeal to the next, and broader, generation of music lovers.

Second, refine the orchestra’s sound.  Schwarz was a trumpet player who liked a hard, brassy, "pushed" sound. Morlot is a Frenchman, for whom the sensuous, more richly "colored" quality of sound and subtle nuances count for much more. He has been working to reshape the symphony’s balance, tone, phrasing, blend. He puts great emphasis on the players' listening intently to each other when performing. He sometimes explains "there are 20 different kinds of forte," depending on the moment and the context, so stay alert!

This is a welcome change. It is also a way of reassuring traditional audiences that they not only continue to get the music they love, but with a new refinement.

Third, and most unusually, pay attention to the social and public values, not just musical aspects, of the orchestra’s mission. Many tickets are being distributed to what Woods calls “people who never thought they’d be able to set forth in a symphony hall,” such as members of a post-prison support group, soldiers, and other normally excluded groups. Young people under 18 now can come free. Some rehearsals are open and free. It's all part of the message: reach out and join the community, welcome in those who haven't been coming. It's also a smart pivot into social and educational needs, where foundations and corporations who formerly supported the arts are moving. Interesting: a classical orchestra with a social conscience!

Fourth, reshape the image of Benaroya Hall. Some symphony halls, such as Carnegie Hall in New York City, are not just a symphony hall but an arts center. (Carnegie is famous for jazz, for instance.) A first step is outfitting the main hall at Benaroya for amplified music, since its present sound system was an afterthought. The symphony is starting a series this year called “Live at Benaroya Hall,” with at least a dozen non-classical concerts by such artists as Dwight Yoakam, Monterey Jazz Festival, Los Lobos, and Jim Brickman. Ed Beeson, who ran the Backstage in Ballard, will be one of the bookers — another sign of the orchestra's reaching out to contemporary, alt-Seattle. This series should bring in more revenue and further muss up the image of the stuffy symphony.

Will this reinvention of the symphony work? Some major risks are obvious. The traditional audience that has developed with a vengeance in the past years of conservative programming might exit faster than the new audiences arrive — and the younger patrons will be less likely to buy season tickets or expensive seats, or to donate generously.

A second risk relates to the newness of the team, since fundraising relies on years of patient cultivation.  Morlot has a big new job in Brussels as chief conductor of the La Monnaie/De Munt opera company, which takes him away from Seattle for several six-week periods.  Development departments have not been a strong suit of the orchestra, so much depends on the new vice president of development, Jane Hargraft, who arrived here from an opera company in Toronto.

Related to fundraising is the quality of the board. Among the 22 new members are a few names with serious clout in the city (philanthropist Laurel Nesholm, instrument collector David Fulton), along with lots of fresh faces. When the SSO was riding high in the 1990s it had support from several powerful civic leaders, such as Sam Stroum, Sam Rubinstein, Patsy Bullitt Collins, and Jack Benaroya, who were exceedingly loyal to Schwarz and pushed each other and their friends to considerable generosity. Leslie Chihuly, who succeeded Susan Hutchison as board chair, knows many wealthy people who are art collectors, but she is a fairly new name in the higher echelons of arts board leadership.

The fundraising goals will be ambitious: getting out of debt, building an endowment, touring (Carnegie Hall in 2014, maybe Asia “long term”), and a capital campaign to improve the hall and get more working capital. The context is also daunting: a recession, competition from deferred major campaigns by other struggling arts organizations, a diminishing class of donors who take civic and cultural obligations seriously over multiple generations.

But if the symphony is late in the game of transforming these 19th century institutions into much more living organisms which are engaged with contemporary culture, at least it’s not working without maps. All up and down the West Coast, these rejuvenation formulas — built around a dynamic younger conductor (Gustavo Dudamel in Los Angeles) and wide-ranging repertoire (Michael Tilson-Thomas in San Francisco — are working.

True, we waited too long. But in that time some valuable lessons were learned from other orchestras reinventing themselves. Those lessons are now being applied at Benaroya Hall, con brio.





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