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VOL. 7 | NO. 12 | Saturday, March 15, 2014

‘Bigger and Better’

Musicians hope efforts are enough to reshape Symphony’s future

By Andy Meek

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At a benefit concert earlier this month at Evergreen Presbyterian Church for the financially struggling Memphis Symphony Orchestra, one audience member was noticeably moved during a performance of “Capriccio Espagnol,” a piece based on Spanish folk melodies from the late 1800s by Nikolai Rismky-Korsakov.

Responding to the perfect time and harmony of the orchestra’s brass section at one point during the piece, which called for the section to strike a chord in unison before the sound tapers off, bass trombone player Mark Vail heard one woman in the audience whisper, “Oh, wow … .”

The orchestra’s financial troubles, meanwhile, have been public for a few months now. As the organization continues reeling from the existential crisis of a depleted reserve fund, a cash shortage and expenses that the orchestra’s leadership is racing to trim, orchestra musicians have gone to Kickstarter with hat in hand to raise money.

Amro Music has given the symphony several nonfunctioning violins – including, perhaps symbolically, a battered cello – to repurpose as pieces of art, which will be auctioned off to benefit the orchestra on April 15.

Fans of the orchestra have been signing up to win a spot as one of the recipients of a donation from the First Tennessee Foundation, which as part of the bank’s 150th anniversary this year is giving away $5,000 a day, every day, to a different nonprofit starting March 25.

All of which is to say, the orchestra – which plays to more than half a million people each year – will require a new business model if it hopes to avoid financial ruin, insists its current leadership. And what’s also required for the band to play on is an exponentially larger version of that audience member’s reaction to the piece at this month’s benefit concert, with enthusiasm that carries over into ticket sales and extended patronage.

“It’s easy to get angry, but there’s not really any point in that,” said Chris James, who plays piccolo and second flute and who heads the orchestra’s musicians’ committee. “We’re hoping to move forward through positivity. The more small donors we can engage, the more people feel some ownership of the symphony in their town, which is a feeling we’re trying to cultivate.

“I said something to someone before about instead of trying to lop branches off a dead tree, we need to just plant a new one, and I hope we’ll come out of this even bigger and better than we were before.”

Some of that will depend on decisions made by Roland Valliere, who joined the orchestra as president and CEO toward the end of 2013. Some of it also is beyond the remedy of easy solutions.

The orchestra at the end of January disclosed its perilous financial situation by acknowledging that its “once-robust reserves” have evaporated and that a bad economy plus changes in how fans consume classical music have compounded the problem.

Other factors worked more slowly, behind the scenes. Valliere, for example, pointed to the fact that in the early 1980s, the orchestra used to be a part-time group, “not a fully professional, paid orchestra.”

Eventually, he says, a “core orchestra” was established with a little more than 30 professionals who went through a rigorous audition process and “then were guaranteed a salary.”

“There are other factors not unique to Memphis, because there really is a sea change right now in the way people enjoy culture,” he said. “Listening to something at home is not a substitute for a live concert experience like at the Cannon Center, which is a singular experience, but it is an option. There’s just been a change in how people are choosing to spend their time.”

That’s true and, at least in part, validates the MSO’s current austerity mindset.

An orchestra facing financial troubles these days is not a particularly new storyline. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra, for example, weathered a financial crisis of its own which included a labor dispute a few years ago, and today it’s doing things like stretching beyond the confines of the concert hall it calls home to perform at more non-traditional events.

The DSO recently surprised shoppers at an Ikea store in Canton, Mich., with a flash mob performance of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” with the surprise and delight of the impromptu audience captured on video and uploaded to YouTube.

Before getting to the point where it could think about non-traditional shows and creative ways to reach audiences, the DSO went through an adjustment likely to sound both familiar and ominous to supporters of Memphis’ symphony. Leaders there insisted the orchestra needed to get smaller, but things got so rough that DSO musicians eventually went on a strike that lasted for months.

Over in Nashville, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra nearly lost its Schermerhorn Symphony Center to foreclosure until a benefactor stepped up at the last minute. To stave off its own financial woes, the Nashville orchestra has done everything from renegotiate musician labor contracts to pursuing more non-symphony bookings.

In Memphis, meanwhile, Valliere’s public remarks include praise of the orchestra’s musicians, saying “They are the orchestra. They’re our most critical asset.” Michael Barar, a violist with the MSO, wrote in a blog post for polyphonic.org that his fellow musicians are doing whatever they can to help, like “offering up every revenue-generating plan we can think of, donating services to a benefit concert and keeping an open dialogue with our board and administration.”

MSO musicians also are no stranger to making themselves visible in the community and pursuing non-traditional performance opportunities. Examples of the latter include the orchestra’s Opus One concert series, which pairs orchestra musicians with jazz, rock, soul, rap and other performers from musical worlds outside of the classical arena.

During 2012-2013, the MSO supported community revitalization in Soulsville by presenting a series of free concerts at the Memphis Music Magnet facility on East McLemore Avenue. That, said Valliere, is one important way forward for the orchestra – “innovation, in a way that makes it even more valuable to the community.”

Says Gayle Rose, the orchestra’s board chair who’s also a former MSO clarinetist: “The structure of the Symphony as we know it today must be changed, because the model is no longer viable. … We are committed to classical music in Memphis, but it needs to be operating within a model that is financially and artistically structured for our new environment.”

The MSO was founded in 1960 as an outgrowth of a chamber performance group that was started in 1953. Today, it has 36 full-time musicians, plus the Memphis Symphony Chorus as well as dozens of extra “per service” musicians. In 2003 the group moved into the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts, and outside of those walls the group’s musicians do extra things like give private lessons, visit elementary and secondary schools and teach courses at higher education institutions.

Valliere said the MSO isn’t yet over the hump of fixing its immediate financial needs, which would leave it to then focus on the next big challenge of sustainability.

“We’ve made a lot of progress, and I’m very confident, but we have not yet reached that threshold,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, I have two goals – align expenses with revenues, and absent an extraordinary gift, I don’t see any way other than to make substantial cuts. We’re looking at everything.”

For their part, MSO musicians have stepped up to offer a grab bag of incentives for supporters of the Kickstarter campaign. Those incentives include, for a pledge of $5,000 or more, the donor being treated to a private house concert by an MSO ensemble, as well as that recipient getting their name projected above the stage at the Cannon Center as a “Save our Symphony Campaign Donor.”

A handful of backers already have snapped up incentives including, for $250 or more, scheduling a lunch date with an MSO musician of their choice.

“Staff resources are very tight right now, and I know they’re firing on all their cylinders to try and get the rest of the season finished,” James said. “They’ve got a lot on their plate, and that’s why the musicians’ committee offered to start some of their own efforts to engage the community better. We’re hoping to put a more human face on the orchestra. We’re trying to see if we can get the musicians kind of out into the community more and into the public awareness, so we’re organizing several different things for later in the season, and the Kickstarter campaign is one way we were hoping to get the community involved.”

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