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.
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