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August 30, 2007

Good News From Utah

I have been known to complain that bad news travels more widely and strongly than good news - I've said for years that "Orchestra Balances Budget" is not a headline, but "Orchestra in Serious Trouble" is a national news story. A good example of that is the story of the Utah Symphony and Opera...

Their financial problems of the early 2000s were national news and widely reported. But they engaged Tom Morris as a consultant. He worked with the board, management, and musicians, and together they devised a recovery plan that called for them to be operating with reduced deficits prior to this current fiscal year, and to have a surplus of some $300,000 in FY2007 (which ends August 31st). As of the two days I spent with them in mid-August, it wasn't clear that they would meet that ambitious goal, but it was clear that they would end FY2007 with a surplus of perhaps $150,000 or a bit more (and with some luck they could even hit their goal). This is a remarkable turnaround in about three years, and my guess is that it will not be as widely reported as their troubles were.

Currently, they are in a search for a new president/CEO, and a music director for the orchestra, so this is a very key time for the organization. But having spent two days with them, it was apparent to me that the board recognizes the critical nature of the moment - recognizes that having applied the most stringent short-term restraints on expenses in order to turn the organization around, some of those will have to be lifted if they are to grow in a healthy manner in the future. The trick will be finding a proper balance - growth that is too much too soon will be damaging; holding the line under what have been austerity conditions will stifle the institution. But the meetings I attended showed a very honest sense of self-knowledge and evaluation, an understanding of the choices that they have to make, and whatever differences of opinion they had amongst themselves were of the healthy nature that usually leads to good decisions. They have a very strong chair in Pat Richards - she leads by building consensus and encouraging honest discussion. That is a very important asset for the organization.

For an orchestra of their size (the combined budget of the opera company and orchestra is $17 million) they are unusual in having a healthy summer season - the Deer Valley Music Festival that includes some outdoor full-orchestra concerts, and chamber orchestra and chamber music concerts in a church. I heard a wonderful chamber orchestra concert, under James Gaffigan, new associate conductor of the San Francisco Symphony and former assistant conductor of The Cleveland Orchestra, that was very impressive. The orchestra played a difficult program (including Beethoven's Fourth Symphony, Haydn's 63rd, and the Spohr Violin Concerto No. 8 with their concertmaster, Ralph Matson) terrifically, and Gaffigan conducted imaginatively. Both the concert and the two days I spent with them make me believe that the Utah Symphony and Opera has a strong, secure future - something that might have been harder to predict three years ago.

Posted by hfogel at August 30, 2007 11:11 AM

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Quite true that bad news seems to be covered with more zeal than good news. However, there are times when this industry needs to be more diligent about following up on the news - good or bad. A few years ago, Symphony Magazine ran a lenghty - and largely positive - profile of the US&O merger. I don't recall a follow up story in Symphony, despite numerous newspaper accounts of US&O's troubles. When industry publications (Symphony, Arts Journal, and others) establish an impression, they have a responsibility to reinforce or refute this impression based on the facts as they unfold.

Mr. Kocal makes a fair point in noting that SYMPHONY did not report the financial troubles that followed the merger in Utah. However, it is reasonable to point out that the financial troubles of the Utah Symphony and Opera mirrored those of many other orchestras and opera companies in the early 2000s, affected to at least some major degree by the economy at that time. Those troubles were an interim, or unfinished, story -- and were all too well publicized nationally. I am not convinced that financial problems with a duration of a few years represent a newsworthy story - though they are often treated as such. The fact is that the Utah Symphony and Opera seems to be well on the way to solving those problems, a situation that merits at least as much coverage as the troubles got.

Henry Fogel

Posted by: Chuck Kocal at August 31, 2007 8:30 AM