The Seattle Symphony has been a kind of splendid invalid in Seattle arts, but that may now be changing. With the announcement that Gerard Schwarz will be retiring as music director at the end of the 2010-11 season, the orchestra could enter a period of healing with the musicians and staff, planning for a new future and more contemporary feel, and reconnecting with the city. It all depends on whether the board seizes the opportunity, and whether the faltering economy punishes our major arts groups.
Not much is settled so far about the search process, and the executive committee will start working on details later this month. Schwarz will not play a role in the search process, unless asked. The musicians will be "involved in a major way," according to SSO President Tom Philion. No word on who will be on the committee and whether some member will come from outside the board, which is full of Schwarz loyalists.
Philion plans to use the next three years to stir excitement in the orchestra and the new directions. He says the board will "reflect a little bit" about possible changes in direction, such as having more than one main conductor or programming more adventurous fare. This season celebrates Benaroya Hall's tenth anniversary; next season will salute Schwarz's 25th anniversary. Whether there will be much public engagement over the search is not clear. Normally such searches are super-secret, but the guest conductors are generally thought to be auditioning during this time.
The slumping economy is definitely alarming for large arts organizations, but at least the SSO has turned in two straight years of tiny surpluses, following several years of serious deficits. A few years ago, the city reduced its rent for Benaroya Hall by about $600,000 a year, by refinancing the construction bonds at lower rates and passing along the savings. These past two years the symphony has tapped its endowment by a bonus $1.6 million from earnings, to help cover over a structural deficit that Philion says remains about $2 million. That deficit can only be solved, he says, by an additional $40 million to the SSO's $30 million endowment. That endowment figure, very low by national standards, is supposed to be going up, but so far the endowment campaign has not raised enough to go public, and has perhaps been beset by turnover in the development department.
Staff turnover is not the only problem at the symphony. The musicians have been angry and defiant, pressing for a change of conductor and feeling disrespected by the board. There has been lots of turnover at the top levels of the staff, with Philion the fourth staff leader in the past seven years. The board had been distracted from fundraising by all the feuds over succession planning for Schwarz and such seemingly routine matters as finding a new concertmaster. Meanwhile, the Seattle Art Museum board attracted the top gifts and overshadowed the symphony.
Board President Susan Hutchison has helped get the board back on track, raising money and looking toward the future. Meanwhile, Philion has been selling lots of tickets by his strategy of musical programming that appeals to many different audience segments, not just classical buffs. However, programming to many tastes is a market-driven, rather than an artistic-vision-driven approach, which may somewhat limit the pool of conductors interested in the SSO job. The orchestra will have several other tasks in setting its house in order, starting with negotiating a new contract with the musicians next summer, if it's going to sign up a top, or rising star.
Some orchestras have used regime change as a way to embrace younger audiences and spice up the generally fairly stolid and repetitious orchestral repertoire. Examples are Minneapolis, Dallas, Baltimore, San Francisco, and particularly Los Angeles, whose new music director is the 26-year-old phenom, Gustavo Dudamel. Might Seattle go that route? Not likely, but maybe to a small degree: Seattle audiences are still quite conservative, even though there are lots of young newcomers in the region. The SSO has no financial cushion to hedge the risk of alienating older audiences while developing new ones. Yet if the search committee includes people who want to raise standards and try to pull the orchestra beyond its respectable plateau, there would be many inspiring examples from other cities.
The key, in my view, is whether the symphony can emerge from the defensive bunker it has built for the past decade. While feuds simmered, staff turned over, and Schwarz was uncertain about his future career, the orchestra has stifled criticism, muzzled the musicians, and put up a bold, if unconvincing public relations facade of sunny good news. When the local media played along and looked the other way, the SSO has somewhat dropped from sight, failing to set a bold artistic agenda.
The result was that the board put off its delicate task of setting on a course for a new leader to rejuvenate the orchestra and perk up audiences and players. Schwarz is a very effective fundraiser, with several wealthy donors such as Jack Benaroya and Charles Simonyi, who are very loyal to him personally, and this made the idea of change at the top more frightening. Few orchestras in America have had a conductor with a longer tenure than Seattle's, though long years in one city used to be the rule many years ago.
Now the question is whether the board, long in a defensive crouch, can regain its confidence and aspire greatly. Two factors could help the most. One is if the musicians turn over a new leaf and really participate in the process, rather than suspecting management at every turn. (A veteran orchestra consultant has been hired to help with this healing — a good sign.) The other key signal will be the make-up of the search committee, and whether the board has the courage to stock it with musically knowledgeable members who are willing to push for significant change, even if it seems disrespectful of the long and in many ways admired Schwarz era.