Are symphonies still 'too big to fail'?

They anchor cultural districts as well as corporate culture. Consider this tale of two symphonies, Dallas and Seattle.
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Ludovic Morlot, newly named music director of the Seattle Symphony

They anchor cultural districts as well as corporate culture. Consider this tale of two symphonies, Dallas and Seattle.

One of the interesting civic dramas in the next few years will be the effort to turn around the fortunes of the Seattle Symphony. I say "civic" drama, because the plight of these orchestras very much involves a city's reputation, particularly its ability to attract corporations and to serve as a symbol of a region's rising cultural reputation. Such orchestras are nearly always "too big to fail."

An excellent account of this aspect is in the current D magazine. Consider this quote:

'ꀜWe lost Boeing because they thought the city of Dallas was not strong enough culturally,'ꀝ explains Pavestone Co. vice president Myrna Schlegel, a member of the DSO executive board, referring to the aircraft manufacturer'ꀙs 2001 decision to relocate its headquarters to Chicago instead of North Texas. 'ꀜWe don'ꀙt want to lose businesses and corporations in the future.'ꀝ

Corporations use symphonies not only to recruit executives (and their spouses and families) but as showcases for marketing to upscale and influential audiences. Serving on prestigious arts boards is a way for rising executives to test their public skills and to network. Orchestras well understand how to turn evenings at the symphony into carefully calibrated experiences, depending on donation levels, in social hierarchies at intermission time or in the conductor's suite afterward.

The Dallas narrative is instructive, etched in typically bold Texas strokes. The orchestra built a fancy new home, anchoring its cultural district. It raised its endowment (something Seattle has failed to do); it has hired a rising star, the Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden; it stumbled when it lost an admired orchestra manager, Fred Bronstein, who moved up to the St. Louis Orchestra. After all of which the DSO has built up a deficit of $5 million, imposed a two-year salary freeze on its musicians, and watched attendance, endowment, and donations plummet. Seattle, with a slightly smaller budget, has followed this score faithfully, though with more turmoil in its management and board.

Bringing in a new conductor, as the Seattle Symphony has just done with the young French conductor Ludovic Morlot, is one of two big turnaround cards that an orchestra can play — the other being to build a new hall. Seattle hasn't played this conductor card for 26 years, a long time to hold trumps, and it will have to play it aggressively. Morlot recently demonstrated his impressive charm and aplomb at a party hosted by board chair Leslie Chihuly at the Dale Chihuly boathouse. "Call me Ludo," was one effective remark when he was asked if he should be addressed as "Maestro."

A new conductor brings in new audiences, excites the players, and provides a novelty factor for bringing back major donors and sponsors. But all this happens against the backdrop of a recession, with many other major arts institutions, such as the Opera, also very needy. Meanwhile, corporations are under pressure to rehire employees not to throw money around visibly at high-ticket events. The new philanthropy is both more directed at global problems and more insistent on tangible, measurable results.

I also wonder how much the "we lost Boeing" argument still works in Seattle. The case for being a corporate headquarters requires a kind of business establishment that works together and imposes this goal on public opinion. With the departure of WaMu, Safeco, Boeing headquarters, and most of our local banks do we still have a critical mass of major companies with local focus? Would Mayor Mike McGinn be a part of such a consensus? And hasn't the "creative economy" with its emphasis on startups and hip culture replaced the grandees of large corporations?

We are about to find out.


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