Orchestral Maneuvers

The Tucson Symphony's new season shows the organization is being fiscally tight without selling out

Why does a symphony orchestra exist? To act as a conservator of the best classical music of the past? To cultivate music of the present and the near future? To remind the public that, along with theater companies and art museums and dance troupes, there is a panoply of culture beyond the films of Vin Diesel? To help municipal economic-development councils lure corporate executives with the promise that there's more to do in town than hang out at Wal-Mart?

The answer involves a combination of those factors, plus a few more. But it's an answer that a lot of people just don't care about. Read the culture news, and every month, there's an item about some American orchestra reaching a record deficit, losing an audience, doing desperately silly things to lure people to concerts. And, yes, periodically, you'll find an orchestral death notice.

The situation is worrisome, but not dismal, if you believe the American Symphony Orchestra League. According to a silver-lining fact sheet issued two years ago by the orchestra-support organization, "Over the past 20 years, out of the approximately 350 professional American orchestras, 17 were forced to cease operations--an average of 0.2 percent per year. Although the closure of an orchestra is devastating for any community, this is an incredibly low failure rate for any industry."

Putting an even happier spin on the mortality rate, the report continues, "Of the eight communities that lost their orchestras during the recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s, all eight have orchestras today--employing many of the same musicians and operating on scales comparable to the orchestras they lost. Three of the communities that lost orchestras during the recession of 2002 through 2005 have already revived their orchestras or started new ones."

That bit about new orchestras "operating on scales comparable" to the lost orchestras is debatable, particularly in the case of the newer groups. But one could argue that a scaled-back orchestra may be a good thing--a realistic response to a market in which there's not enough demand for biweekly concerts of the same old Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Brahms (the four most often performed composers, nationwide, in the 2005-06 season).

As for finances, the American Symphony Orchestra League reports, "Over the last decade, revenue increased more than 35 percent, while expenses increased nearly 36 percent (using 2004 dollars)." These figures are a couple of years old, but they don't look disastrous--except that they do demonstrate that revenue isn't quite keeping up with expenses, which means orchestras are either posting a deficit or raiding the cash reserve (or worse, the endowment). And you have to wonder about the starting point for these figures: What was the income-to-revenue gap 10 years ago? Were orchestras behind from the beginning?

Clearly troubling is the anecdotal evidence--I don't know of any statistics that actually support this--that subscription sales are dropping around the country. That means two bad things: Fewer people are making sustained commitments to concerts, and this leads to lower ticket revenue.

At the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, the situation is not so dismal, although it's sufficiently tense that music director George Hanson told me a couple of months ago that his intention when programming the 2006-2007 season was to concoct something that's "economically responsible and draws an audience." That formula usually leads to a stinkbomb of moldy oldies, but Hanson has tried to put together a fairly diverse season, even though it relies heavily on audience pleasers that don't require a lot of extra musicians, rental fees or increased rehearsal.

"This is probably as tight and efficient a season as any we've produced," Hanson said. "Dollars to donuts, we're getting a lot of donuts."

So, yeah, the TSO is trotting many of the warhorses out of the stable, including Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto, Dvorák's "New World" Symphony and Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, and the guest artists, aside from Hilary Hahn in a one-night stand, aren't going to break the budget.

But for every overplayed standard like Rhapsody in Blue or Don Juan, there's something at least a little unusual, be it new works by Stephen Paulus and Christopher Theofanidis, Ralph Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 4 (one of the finest yet most neglected symphonies of the 20th century) or even a concerto for guzheng, a kind of Chinese zither. In other words, Hanson isn't selling out in order to sell tickets.

Or, as TSO executive director Susan Franano phrased it in admin-speak, "We're careful to maximize our return on investment while sustaining the level of excellence."

Although the TSO's income isn't keeping up with expenses, according to Franano, the situation is hardly dire. The heartening news is that ticket sales are increasing 3 or 4 percent a year, and the subscription-renewal rate is 86 percent, about 10 points above the national average. "When we do four concerts in a weekend," she said, "we have a total of 7,500 people in the hall. That means we're reaching close to 1 percent of Tucson's population in a single weekend--that's pretty impressive."

Nevertheless, the TSO has had to dip into its reserves to cover continuing revenue gaps. Part of the problem is a too-small endowment of $1.7 million. The rule of thumb is that an endowment, from which an organization generally draws off interest without touching the capital, should be four to five times the organization's annual budget. The TSO's expense budget is $3.8 million, which means the orchestra really needs to whomp up another $15 million for its endowment. A campaign may be in the works, but plans are hush-hush.

Meanwhile, Hanson is concentrating on getting those single-ticket buyers into the hall long-term. "Once they come, the key is to get them back," he said, "and that has to do with the 'wow' factor: Was the concert thrilling? Was it hair-raising? Did I cry? Did I stand up and wave my lighter?"

If nothing else, Hanson is confident. For many orchestras today, the goal is not to get people to stand in the seats, but just to get their butts in the seats in the first place.

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