Seattle Symphony diversifies the product line

The symphony embarks on some new, non-traditional programming directions as it faces a decline in season ticket buyers and tight finances. So far, it seems to be working.
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Seattle Symphony Executive Director Thomas Philion.

The symphony embarks on some new, non-traditional programming directions as it faces a decline in season ticket buyers and tight finances. So far, it seems to be working.

When the grimly pitiless A minor chord closing Mahler's "Tragic" Sixth Symphony reverberated through Benaroya Hall a couple weeks ago, it marked the end of the Seattle Symphony's regular season — the ensemble's 23rd with music director Gerard Schwarz at the helm.

At the same time, the program was billed as the kickoff for the SummerFest 2008 currently under way. SummerFest's lineup ranges from guest ensembles led by such artists as Mark O'Connor (the festival's director), Wynton Marsalis, and Earl Scruggs to collaborations with the SSO, including this week's mashup of orchestral music with circus performers.

"We want to position the orchestra a little differently during the summer season and experiment with what kind of programming we might be able to do in the future," explains SSO executive director Thomas Philion. "Classical audiences are segmented just like any other musical type. There are people who like pops instead of the serious programming, people who prefer chamber music and don't care to invest in orchestral music as much. We want to reach all of those different segments."

In fact, Philion says, the intention is to develop even beyond these three "segments" — pops, chamber, and of course the traditional orchestral audience. As an example, he refers to the Pop Culture series recently announced for next season, which will include a duo of Edgar Meyer and former Nickel Creek mandolin player Chris Thile, Pink Martini, The Chieftains, and fado star Mariza. "Why? Because it's a niche for us and an opportunity to experience some different things."

When Philion came aboard in the spring of 2007, he was facing some daunting challenges. Along with an accumulated deficit that started dragging about the SSO since the 2001-02 season like a ball and chain (which the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported was "unprecedented for city art institutions"), the ensemble's board was staring down an additional deficit of over $2 million for the 2006-07 season. However, record-breaking ticket sales and an urgent fund-raising effort allowed the SSO to end that season in the black (although this was enabled in part by deferring normal payments to the players' pension fund and upping the draw from the endowment).

Philion, 55, arrived with an impressive performance record. In his previous role as executive director of North Carolina's Eastern Music Festival (where Schwarz also serves as music director), he presided over a dramatic reversal from near-bankruptcy to fiscal health and expanded audiences. Along with the SSO's accumulated deficit, Philion is facing the longer-term challenge of working with the board to develop a feasible plan for substantially growing the organization's endowment (currently around $33 million — compared with, for example, an endowment of over $120 million for the Dallas Symphony, which has a similar operating budget of $24 million).

"What I'm trying to focus my energies on," Philion says, "is renewing confidence in financial management of this institution. That's in the end what allows us to do all the things we can do." The basic challenges he refers to are of course hardly unique to the SSO: They're related to an overall climate affecting orchestras around the country. A spiraling trend downward in subscriptions according to the old model and increased competition for the entertainment dollar are only exacerbated by a weakening economy.

Moreover, orchestral institutions are expected to perform a delicate balancing act between fiscal responsibility and the less easily measured mandate for artistic excellence. At the tragic end of the spectrum, the latest cautionary tale that has been circulating involves the apparent demise of the Columbus Symphony — a particularly alarming story, given its recent growth in attendance.

A number of orchestras are facing today's challenges through new programming strategies recognizing the differentiated "segments" of music lovers. Philion mentions the Philadelphia Orchestra as one model the SSO has been looking at to reverse the trend of decreasing season subscriptions. Philadelphia's new season offers patrons the flexibility to create their own "collections" ranging from a "connoisseur" series (basic repertory concerts with no frills) to a series including live video projections ("Odyssey" concerts) and performances where the musicians socialize in after-concert receptions. The Philadelphia Inquirer's Peter Dobrin suggests that, instead of the often clumsy attempts to adjust the tradition-encrusted habits of orchestral programming "these experiments have been organized into packages with a lot of forethought about who the customer is and what her level of musical education might be." It may well be, as Dobrin says, "a smart blueprint for the future."

A similar strategy is apparent in the various series the SSO has announced for next season. In fact, it's already been at work in such efforts as this past season's collaboration with the Mark Morris Dance Group at the Paramount (who will perform a Mozart program with the SSO in May) or the multi-media efforts with glass artist Dale Chihuly which began last year in the staged presentation of Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle. That program, as Philion rightly notes, was both a box office and critical success, despite not being "an easy sell" and something "outside our normal orchestral offering."

Looking ahead, he points to next season's programming of the complete Beethoven string quartets in the more-intimate Nordstrom Hall — an underused venue which Philion hints will be pressed into greater service in coming years — and the successes of the new Pop Culture series. The latter has, he points out, already generated about 33 percent more at the box office than the originally targeted budget.

But does all of this threaten to distract from the SSO's core mission? "The idea here is not to change that, but to broaden and expand," Philion says. "If we can add to the base of support, it allows us to look at things differently than we have in the past. I think this raises the brand. It adds to the value we bring into the community. With new resources, we can be more competitive in terms of how we compensate musicians, the level of artists we are able to draw to the orchestra."

It will indeed be excellent news if the organization finds a way to shore up its financial foundation. But the path is a very tricky one, beset with a number of potentially troublesome detours. For one, there's a tendency to get stuck in a rut with past proven successes. While the Bluebeard was one of the SSO's more memorable programs of late, is a Chihuly collaboration three seasons in a row really what we need? (The recent Coming to America festival featured another, while a third is planned for next June, in conjunction with Scriabin's The Poem of Ecstasy.) Why not develop — and even expand — this exciting convergence of media by looking to other local artists?

Even more problematic is the relegation of repertory masterpieces to safe habits, with the now-established annual holiday performances of Beethoven's Ninth as a prime example. Certainly there are other surefire draws that can provide both musicians and loyal audiences some variety in place of expecting the same fare every holiday? And what about looking to the segment of music lovers eager to hear a greater variety of new works?

Certainly the diversity of options Philion and the SSO are embracing is full of exciting potential. They may have some competition from more commercial operations. The Moore Theatre, for example, is offering a tantalizing "build your own" array of subscription packages for next season. The range includes Broadway shows and a Blue Note jazz tribute side by side with performance artist Laurie Anderson, Spectrum Dance, and the Early Music Guild. The subscription brochure gives shout-outs to a Monteverdi opera alongside Linda Ronstadt as part of its "Big Night Out" series.

Ultimately, then, the SSO needs to safeguard its own identity and continue evolving artistically rather than become just another attraction in the big tent.


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