OREGON SYMPHONY RESPONDS
By Elaine Calder
Oregon Symphony Association
Of course it will take more than an endorsement from Thomas Lauderdale to fix the Oregon Symphony. But Thomas is a subscriber to our full classical series, and a classically trained musician who has appeared with the Oregon Symphony as a guest artist and will again in the future. In performances around the world, he generously credits some of Pink Martini's success to its early appearances with our Orchestra. He cares passionately about our organization and wants to help. And he's wonderfully tuned in to Portland and Portland audiences. As Beaudoin points out, he's the most famous of Portland personalities. Why wouldn't we accept his offer of help?
Let's start by geting one simple fact straight: We've been losing audiences - but not supporters. Our contributed income is higher than ever, thanks in large part to the Miller match, a three-year challenge by the Miller Foundation to our audiences and donors that has greatly increased our donor base. We have many thousands of contributors including some who make six figure gifts annually. We aren't Seattle, San Francisco or Los Angeles, but we do have patrons of means, and patrons with heart, who are determined that this Orchestra must survive and flourish.
And they are determined because this Orchestra is playing for them, week after week, at an exceptionally high standard of performance. No, we aren't as "hip" as Lauderdale, and not as "unmistakably Portland" - whatever that means. But we are Portland's local orchestra, and "local" resonates with Portlanders. We are a band of musicians who live and work in this community, providing classical and popular concerts at the Schnitz, education programs in our schools, teaching and adjudicating, and forming the nucleus and artistic leadership of smaller organizations like Fear No Music and Third Angle.
Under Carlos Kalmar our classical programming has broadened greatly. As Assistant Principal Viola, Charles Noble, points out in his blog (nobleviola.com/wordpress) subscriptions were falling even in DePreist's final seasons, with wall-to-wall Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. In the first years of Carlos's tenure, the Oregon Symphony has performed music by Benjamin Britten, Steven Mackey, György Ligeti, John Adams, Bohuslav Martinu, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Harrison Birtwistle, Luciano Berio, Henri Dutilleux and Alban Berg, among others. Many of these composers' works had never before been performed by the Oregon Symphony in its history. Everyone has an opinion on programming and every orchestra will be too conservative or too adventurous for some of its patrons and critics, all of the time.
Audiences numbers are crucial though, and we're working to reverse the damage of the past few seasons. I use the word "damage" advisedly. Change is essential for the continued vitality of any organization, but some of the changes in recent seasons were ill-advised or insensitively handled. And at least one of them was turned into a major news story with the kind of headline usually reserved for WAR DECLARED. (Yes, the Symphony's overall sound has improved dramatically, but that kind of improvement isn't achieved painlessly.)
As an example: audiences were confused by the change to our classical series, with seventeen programs of two, three of four performances each, instead of the traditional format of fourteen programs each with three performances. We've restored the earlier schedule and seen attendance improve significantly at our concerts this fall.
Carlos Kalmar had the unenviable challenge of succeeding a much-loved, long-serving music director, and has wisely concentrated on forming his own relationships with the orchestra, our audiences, our donors and the broader community. He's a younger man, with a busy international career, and his work with other orchestras has brought us a new and diverse roster of conductors and guest artists like Valentina Lisitsa, who opened our season in that "respectable - if safe - opening-season concert". I suppose there's nothing safer than Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto, and Dvorak's Symphonic Variations and Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra are certainly "respectable" - but we sold a quarter million dollars worth of tickets to large audiences who roared their approval. We're trying to close a $2 million structural deficit, and we think the solution lies in having as many people happily paying for our performances as possible. We don't blame Carlos for the financial problems, and he's working with us to design programs that will attract bigger audiences and help fix the mess.
And yes, we've stopped recording. All those recordings with DePreist were made possible by a one-time, single gift of $1 million, which has now been fully spent. The much-revered "Nerve Endings" concerts with Murray Sidlin were only possible because we had a grant from the Knight Foundation to produce them. Recordings, broadcasts, tours and innovative programs should be part of our overall operations and not special projects, funded by one-time grants. But that's a statement of principle, not a reality. At present, given our grave financial situation, we are focused on core activities and unable to take on unsustainable additional expenditures.
One of the writers who leaped to our defence suggests that it's time for us to realize our community just won't sustain what is needed to operate the Oregon Symphony as it is. Perhaps that is true, but we're not giving up yet. I've been working with the organization for about a year, and I've concluded that the Oregon Symphony has been through so many changes in the past decade that it's a wonder we have as strong a base of support as we still do. Some change was inevitable, and not all change is damaging, of course. A few of the most important changes have achieved a glorious new level of performance. One or two of them have helped to improve attendance and contributions. Most of the other, less successful innovations were the result of inexperience, caution, undue optimism, carelessness, hesitation - small sins, really, but for an organization as fragile as a symphony orchestra, sometimes hugely damaging.
We need a lively conversation about the role of a symphony orchestra in the 21st century, in a city with as vibrant and varied a cultural life as Portland. We need the support of everyone who believes in what we do, and we need to be challenged and goaded, stimulated and prodded into the pursuit of excellence at every level - artistic, financial and institutional. But we need those who despair of our attempts and think they know what is wrong to support their arguments with facts and a realistic assessment of what is possible, in this place and at this time.
Oregon Symphony Association
921 SW Washington Street, Suite 200
Portland, OR 97205