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Laurie Niles

Know your strengths, then play to them

November 10, 2008 at 8:42 AM

Why are the Orchestras of Pasadena in such a desperate situation? Last week I talked to Jean Horton, Interim Executive Director of the Orchestras, in search of an answer to that question, and he gave me a pretty thorough picture of the group's financial troubles, which are considerable. 

But there's a bigger picture. Board members, and Pops conductor Rachel Worby, have a false idea about the needs of the community, namely that its public schools have a dire lack of music education, which needs to be filled by the Orchestras. This simply is not so and it should not be the organization's primary mission.

As an education administrator who works closely with the district said to me: "If you have an excellent orchestra in town – that's what our kids need." 

Yet there is a perception that the group's artistic direction has been watered down; LA Times music critic Mark Swed this week called its shortcomings not just a failure of finances but a "failure of imagination." 

I can't completely agree; our first concert of the season was mighty innovative. But is Symphony Artistic Director Jorge Mester routinely given leeway to make bold artistic decisions? It's a fair question, and if the orchestra is to survive – and thrive – the answer better be "yes" for the future. Because if we aren't offering anything artistically special – in the city of Los Angeles – then who cares?

First, about financial condition of the Orchestras: For the last three years – even during the economic good-time bubble - the symphony was not meeting its fundraising goals. Horton described the convergence of insufficient development on the part of the Orchestras and the sharp downturn in the economy as "the perfect storm."

"We needed to get our development act and our contribution base improved in any case," Horton said, "but we wouldn't have had to cancel concerts and we wouldn't be in the straits that we are in today if we hadn't seen the financial fallout."

"The endowment [was at] $6 million, and we're required by law to maintain that," Horton said. "But we can't do anything about the market going down. So the market went down to the point where we only have about $5 million."

"The way that works with the restricted endowment is that we can spend the yield – either capital gains or dividends and interest that we got off of it – but we can't spend the principal. We have to get that back up to $6 million before we can ever take anything out of it," Horton said. The symphonies are getting a legal review of the situation, "but I don't believe we can even use that as collateral on a loan. We're exploring that right now." 

The institution has been depending in large degree on its board-designated funds. These were not endowment funds, but these were the funds that had been saved up over the years: from the yield on the endowment, or through contributions that were made. The board decided they wanted to put these into a restricted fund, to use only on a rainy-day basis. 

"We'd been permitting ourselves all along to take roughly $400,000 a year out. Most non-for-profit boards will take about 5 percent out of the average 3-year balances in the endowment for designated funds. That amount would have been about $400,000," Horton said. "But we overdrew that for two or three years to make up for losses that we had in ordinary operations. The primary reason for that wasn't so much on the cost overrun side as the fact that we just didn't have the contributions coming in that the board had hoped for. We didn't get the traction in the development area that we needed."

Generally, about 25 percent of a concert is funded by ticket sales, and the remaining 75 percent has to be made up from other funding. The problem came with that 75 percent the Orchestras needed to find. 

"We didn't find enough," Horton said. "So we starting eating into our board-designated funds."

The Orchestras haven't been straight with the community about its financial situation, either. At the end of last summer, the Pasadena Pops performed a benefit concert with conductor John Williams. Sold by Pops conductor Rachel Worby to donors as a concert to create an educational endowment to allow the group's educational concerts to continue in perpetuity, the actual aims of this concert, Horton said, were to retire a loan made by a board member to the Pasadena Pops organization before the merger of the Pops and Symphony, and to support educational activities. 

Unfortunately, the benefit accomplished neither. "We found ourselves sitting on a lot of bills around here, and we used that money to pay the bills. I'm not happy about that, to say the least, but that's sort of where we are," Horton said. 

The Orchestras' educational programs, which include some 63 concerts in the Pasadena Unified School District as well as other outreach programs, are in fairly good shape, and Educational Director Jerri Price will remain on staff, Horton said.

"We get a lot of grants that are earmarked for education," he said, though a component of these programs still relies on the symphony's general funds. The Pasadena Youth Symphony Orchestra is a tuition-based program, and "tuitions and fees are quite close to breaking even," Horton said. 

"One of our problems, in my opinion, is that we haven't explained to this community how much we are part of the fabric of the community, by being in the public schools, by supporting a youth orchestra, and a lot of other programs we have in the schools. Right now we're at every level, we're in the grammar schools, in middle schools and high schools, and it's almost fair to say that we are the musical educational component of the public school system, there's not much else out there," Horton said. 

Horton is correct to see a problem in this area. But the problem is as much the board's perception of the community as it is the community's perception of the Orchestras. Certainly the Pasadena Symphony provides an important component for the public schools, training classroom teachers in early elementary music instruction and recorder in most elementary schools. 

It isn't, however, fair to say that it is the sole provider of musical education in PUSD, as Worby also suggested from the podium at several Pops concerts this summer. Independent of the Pasadena Symphony educational programs, all 20 Pasadena Unified School elementary schools have instrumental music programs, starting in the third and fourth grades, with five instrumental music teachers rotating through assigned school sites, according to Karen Klages, PUSD District Music Specialist. All PUSD secondary schools have orchestra, band, and jazz programs, and this year three districtwide festivals are planned for students participating at every level, in choral, band and orchestral music. Also the schools incorporate music programs from other organizations, including Southwest Chamber Music, Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Pasadena Conservatory of Music.

In other words, without the Orchestras of Pasadena, public school children will still have music in their schools. They just won't have the excellence of a symphony orchestra in their community, and that would be a considerable loss. 

On Wednesday, a group of staff, board members and musicians met with Paul Jan Zdunek, the executive director of the Modesto Symphony, who came to talk about crisis management and to help the organization map solutions to its problems. Orchestras of Pasadena Personnel Director Polly Sweeney emerged from the meeting with optimism, reporting to musicians that "this looks like a coordinated, well-thought-out attack on the problem, and we want to help in whatever way possible."

At this point, with half of the symphony's eight concerts canceled, Horton has re-deployed the remaining staff – now reduced to seven people -- to get out into the community and raise funds. Horton will meet with Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard, who attends symphony performances on a regular basis, to talk about ways to approach the community. 

"We're really outward focused now, and we need to be," Horton said. "The aim is to get back closer to normal operations, if we can, by about January. And it is our aim to keep the remainder of the classical season and the summer reason. I think we're going to get there. The board, the musicians, everybody wants this to happen."

Horton said he would like to avoid compromising its strengths for the sake of commercialization and/or the economy of using a smaller orchestra, though there will have to be a balance between all those needs.

"Jorge Mester's forte is to do the larger pieces," Horton said. "If you go hear him do a Mahler symphony (a work that involves a large orchestra), you're seeing something that's as good as it gets --- on any stage anywhere in the world on any night . And I know it sounds perhaps a little Chamber of Commerce-like, but this guy is an inspired conductor. We don't want to take that away."

"We could be in the position of having to do smaller programs as a way of getting through this period, but I would hope that period would be the remainder of this season, and that as soon as next season we could find enough traction to move back (to larger orchestras)," Horton said. "But to be honest about it, until we know how much traction we get, I can't answer that question. But that is our goal."

It is heartening to hear the orchestra's new administrative leadership talk about allowing its musical director to do what he does best, but there is a public perception that Mester's talents have been underutilized for some time.

LA Times music critic Swed, who has all but quit writing about the group, lamented this week in the LA Times that "Mester, who is an outstanding musician, seems to have lost his taste for advocacy. He focuses on standard repertory, and his orchestra performs in the dowdy, acoustically dry Civic Auditorium."

He goes on to say, "The Orchestras of Pasadena are passionately involved in music education. But the organization lacks charismatic leadership, and now the orchestras operate on the principle that they have no choice but to focus all their attention on their investment portfolios. That is a road to doom. Artists are our leaders. Organizations exist to serve them. The wisest public servants learn from them. If we hope to enter a new era of hope, we will need to keep these priorities in order."

Certainly a balance is needed, of financial custodianship and artistic vision. This orchestra has an affluent and educated community. It has a strong artistic director in Mester. It needs to know its community and play to its strengths; and to know where both are coming from.

From James Dew
Posted via on November 11, 2008 at 5:01 PM


I appreciate the effort by you and Robert in trying to improve the design. Thank you.

However I see little improvement and long for the original. Call me old fashioned if you wish. Also how does partrisan politics jive with   Refer to Pauline Lerner "Promise Fulfilled" Nov. 8   Disgusting.




From Robert Niles
Posted via on November 12, 2008 at 5:13 AM

Umm... anyone want to comment on the topic of this post? You can write about other issues on those pages. 

This entry has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

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