An impressive first: Oregon Symphony plays Seattle

It took 117 years for the fine orchestra in Portland to make it to Seattle. What does this tell us about the state of our orchestras and what works to keep them vital?
Crosscut archive image.

Carlos Kalmar, conductor of the Oregon Symphony

It took 117 years for the fine orchestra in Portland to make it to Seattle. What does this tell us about the state of our orchestras and what works to keep them vital?

Last week the Oregon Symphony, based in Portland, played a concert, quite a wonderful concert, in Seattle’s Benaroya Hall. In greeting the (smallish) audience, conductor Carlos Kalmar noted the amazing fact that this was the 117-year-old orchestra’s first ever appearance in Seattle .

How could that be? In finding some answers, I learned a little more about the current state of American orchestras, including encouraging aspects of their resilience.

As it happened, a few days later the Seattle Symphony players and management reached a tentative new labor contract, after 15 months of nervous-making negotiations. Few details have emerged, but it appears to be a good deal for the players and management, with compromises all around. (Ratification vote will be next Tuesday.) With labor peace, plus the excitement of the new Ludovic-Morlot-led team, the Seattle band has a decent chance of climbing back out of the scary deficit cliff it went over in the past five years.

More about the Seattle situation below. First, a little trip down to Portland.

The Oregon Symphony, riding high after a smashing performance at Carnegie Hall last spring, wowing the New York critics, has also been struggling with its finances.  Back in 2007, Crosscut published an article, “Can anyone save the Oregon Symphony?” that ran through a doleful litany: Deep in debt, hemorrhaging audiences and supporters, tallying a 2006 fiscal year with a $2 million shortfall on a budget of $14 million.

It has an excellent conductor, Carlos Kalmar, an Uruguayan of Austrian parents, who joined the orchestra in 2003 and greatly improved the slap-dash playing under the James DePriest years. It had a lot of help from the super-popular Pink Martini, one of whose stars, soprano Storm Large, beautifully sang the lead role in Kurt Weill’s “The Seven Deadly Sins” at last week’s concert.  And it survived by imposing tighter fiscal discipline.

So much discipline, in fact, that the Oregon group’s planned return to Carnegie Hall this spring had to be cancelled clumsily and at the last minute for financial reasons; the orchestra is currently struggling again to find its managerial footing after the departure last year of Executive Director Elaine Calder, who had managed to turn around the orchestra's desperate finances.

The program they were going to take to New York was built around the Kurt Weill ballet piece (to a libretto by Bertolt Brecht), and this fascinating work, staring the sultry Storm Large, will be performed instead by the Detroit Symphony. Orchestras are chosen for this Spring for Music Festival based on adventurous programming, a Portland specialty. Seattle goes next spring, the last year of the festival (sponsorship has run out).

Seattle Symphony Executive Director Simon Woods explains how the Oregon appearance at Benaroya came about.  The Portland group wanted a place to warm up its Carnegie concert, and Seattle obliged in return for the same courtesy next spring in Portland when Seattle is bound for Carnegie Hall. Similarly, the Vancouver Symphony, which played a stunning concert at Benaroya earlier this year, wanted Seattle as part of its West Coast tour.

It says a lot about the newly collaborative spirit at the Seattle Symphony that the orchestra happily obliged, even though such concerts lose some money. But this is not the start, alas, of a regular exchange program, though Woods is exploring some ways that could make it work. Indeed, touring orchestras, which used to be a big part of city seasons, including in Seattle, are now a rarity. When Woods took the helm last year, he canceled the SSO’s visiting orchestra series, saying it was “bleeding money.” Audiences, loyal to the home band, will not turn out unless it’s a very expensive, very famous orchestra, Woods explains.

My sense is, now that Portland and Seattle are much more respectful of each other, and much more sophisticated than decades ago, such cultural exchanges, if enthusiastically marketed, might actually work. It was tried in the 1980s, with both the Ballet and the Opera swapping some productions. The Oregon Symphony, as the name suggests, has always been much more of a touring orchestra in its state. Among the advantages of these exchanges: inducing cultural tourism to both cities; giving orchestras a way to realize a better performance-to-rehearsal ratio; enriching the musical menu in each city without huge costs.

My, how good the Oregon orchestra sounded! They played an intelligent program, starting with a splashy 2004 work by the Thai composer Narong Prangcharoen, then the slinky, biting Weill work, a fascinating rarity. For the second half, Kalmar conducted a marvelously shaped performance of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, gliding without pause into Ravel’s “La Valse.” The point was that the Schubert work was escaping classical style into the Romantic century and Ravel was looking back at Romanticism with a modernist deconstruction of the waltz.  Smart, fresh programming. Refined musicianship. Players excited to be in such a good hall acoustically (compared to their too-dry converted movie theater in Portland). An over-familiar Schubert symphony made compellingly fresh note-by-note.

As one musical friend observed, the virtuosity of American orchestras even with modest budgets like Oregon’s ($14.7 million last year) is extraordinary today. So many superb musicians are coming out of conservatories, competing furiously for jobs, that the playing is remarkable, especially when shaped by an excellent conductor. The Carnegie Hall series presents orchestras with budgets as low as Albany’s  $2.3 million or Buffalo’s $10 million. Even a famous orchestra like Detroit now has a budget only $2 million higher than Seattle’s $24 million.

This suggests that as orchestras like Seattle’s adjust to flat or even slightly lower budgets, they need not sacrifice quality, need not dumb down programming to reach a mass audience to survive. They do have to be smart, and they do have to make the musicians happy campers (which Morlot has certainly accomplished).

The saddest story for American orchestras today is in Minneapolis, where the orchestra has been locked out all year, great players are defecting, and bitterness is poisoning everything. An interesting essay on how to solve the Minneapolis mess proposes a five-year plan of mutual sacrifice: players figure out how to cut costs by $1 million; 500 season ticket holders pledge $2,000 a year for five years; and the orchestra devises ways to improve productivity, such as playing more concerts per year.

Which brings us back to the Seattle Symphony’s strategy for reinvention.  It has an exciting young conductor with a flair for imaginative programming. It has more experienced top management. It has lots of fresh blood on the board and a dynamic chair in Leslie Chihuly. It has labor peace. Last year it stopped the five-year string of deficits and broke even, recording “a very small surplus.” It has a clear vision of becoming "a contemporary orchestra." But it also has an $11 million deficit that will require a major campaign, soon to get under way, to reduce that debt, enhance the too-small endowment, and do some repairs and technical enhancements for Benaroya Hall. 

The Minnesota proposal of showing how we are all in this together provides a good template. And maybe the “we” that are in this together could include certain fine cities and orchestras to the north and south of us.


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