If We Make It Through December

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra passes its first financial hurdle

Randy Adams has been making this presentation for a few months now, can hardly get to sleep without it drumming through his head. The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's financial situation: dire. Its needs: enormous. The solutions: few, all of them painful, all of them risky.

Adams doesn't look the worse for all the stress on a gray morning before a meeting of the Regional Arts Commission. Since he came on as executive director of SLSO in July, he's played the role of the stalwart banker, the no-nonsense manager with a plan to get this artistically beautiful yet fiscally dumb organization out of the red. It doesn't hurt that when Adams goes to corporate execs with his hand out he looks like them, though with more charm and swagger than most, possessing the casual good looks of James Garner (rather than James Brolin, to correct an observation made in this column previously).

The grimmest news Adams has had to give in the last few months is the immediate need for $29 million in stopgap funding -- $20 million to be raised in the form of pledges by Dec. 31, 2001, and the entire $29 million in hand by next spring. Otherwise, at the end of the orchestral season, Powell Hall's doors will be closed and liquidation will begin.

In September, Adams told the RFT that if the money was raised, it would "be a major positive event for this community. You didn't think we could raise $29 million. We did it."

A little more than two weeks before the end-of-the-year deadline, Adams reports to the RAC's board of the commissioners that $25 million has been received in pledges so far. They've done it.

Adams isn't exactly trumpeting the news, however. He drops the information so surreptitiously that more than a few in attendance give each other startled looks, as if to ask, "Did you hear what I just heard?"

SLSO has been keeping mum about the progress of the emergency fundraising. Just a week before Adams let the news out to RAC, SLSO's interim director of communications, Carter Dunkin, had little to tell the RFT officially, other than "The response has been very encouraging. We won't make an announcement until we have it all."

Expect a more exuberant announcement to be made soon, with all the holiday good cheer that came a year ago when the Taylor Challenge grant ($40 million from the Jack Taylor family) was announced.

There's more than Midwestern modesty to restrain Adams and SLSO from playing "Ode to Joy" down Grand Boulevard. The last time the herald angels sang was over the $40 million, and why not? It's the largest single philanthropic gift ever made to an orchestra. Then, in the summer, came the announcement that SLSO was near bankruptcy. The symphony's repeated plotline -- peril then triumph then peril again -- has been more tiresome than thrilling to the community at large. This is an orchestra, for God's sake, not a remake of Speed.

SLSO remains far from financial health, and, as Adams informs RAC's board of commissioners, the organization is "playing a fine line between fiscal responsibility and lessening the quality of the orchestra." Sure, St. Louis can still have an orchestra, but is it willing to pay for the great orchestra it has now, or would it just as soon have one that's not so hot?

That's been a debate within the organization itself, especially among the board of trustees, and it's been one the musicians have been waiting to hear resolved. In recent weeks, however, the board has displayed more ambition, making $150 million the new endowment goal, going well beyond the $100 million they sought previously. SLSO's ebullient concertmaster, David Halen, recognizes the change in tone. "The board took the right position," he says, "and it was good that they had the guts to say it."

The SLSO endowment stands at a meager $18 million after being bled from a high of $29 million to cover operating costs over the last few years. Other major orchestras, those St. Louis competes with for talent, have endowments of $100 million-plus. Adams puts it bluntly: "There are two kinds of symphonies: those with endowments and those without."

But between now and 2004, when the Taylor grant is to be matched, and 2010, when that $150 million endowment is to be raised, the orchestra remains in the Sandra Bullock role. The musicians are in negotiations with management, and they're being asked to reopen their collective-bargaining agreement. The 52 weeks of salary SLSO musicians have been paid each year since the '70s -- back when the effort began to make St. Louis home of one of the majors -- could be cut back by as much as 30 percent. "Randy Adams says 52 weeks is not chiseled in granite," says Adams at the RAC meeting, and how the musicians respond to the new executive director's use of the third person is crucial to the fate of the SLSO. They've accepted three salary freezes over the last decade and live at a pay level below that of their peers. Although with the musicians' average salary of $74,000, many in St. Louis shrug at their plight, consider that Mark McGwire couldn't hit his weight last summer and made $9 million. SLSO had a much better year, at least musically, and you never heard its members whine.

At least 10 musicians are auditioning elsewhere this year, because they don't have the patience or willingness or faith to take the pain of the next few years. Summer and winter pops cut, tours cut (the last trip to Carnegie is in February), music school cut, salaries cut: Adams admits that all that cutting can, and probably will, lead to the SLSO's diminution from one of the premier orchestras to the good-enough-for-Cincinnati second tier. But, he emphasizes to RAC, "The goal is to return to the first tier," with the $150 million endowment secured and competitive salaries restored.

There are a lot more Decembers to make it through before that happens. Powell Hall needs $10 million worth of repairs. (An example of how administrators handled problems in the past: In 1990 they sold the parking lot to repair the roof). The relationship between Opera Theatre of St. Louis and SLSO continues with its own major dramas: SLSO musicians receive full salary through the OTSL season, with SLSO paying $1.4 million and OTSL paying $500,000. Adams talked of cutting that expense before OTSL general director Charles MacKay and the musicians let him know this was a gig more valued than playing tunes in Queeny Park. Adams says he remains in "discussions with Charles MacKay on how to narrow the gap" and doesn't underestimate the importance of the negotiations because "a large part of our donor base overlaps."

Adams gives a good presentation, though, and most of the commissioners look more buoyed than depressed afterward. RAC board chairman David Mason stands up and gives Adams a hearty handshake.

Now with the pledges in, or nearly in, making that first hurdle, will SLSO ever get over its regional myopia in its search for donors? A case can be strongly made -- and Halen and others have made it -- that SLSO needs to be considered a national treasure: an American orchestra that made its way to greatness by playing American music. Wherever the SLSO tours, both in Europe and America, its excellence is revered. The loss of SLSO's quality would be more than just a loss to the city.

The star-studded gala in October, in which stars such as André Watts and Frederica von Stade performed for free to a sold-out house, was awfully nice, but where was the national media attention the event deserved? Are national foundations such as the Ford and the Mellon being contacted? As thousands from around the world come to Opera Theatre each summer, among them are those with the love and money to keep the music sweetly played.

Halen has said it is well and good to hear about fiscal responsibility and budget-cutting measures. He wants to hear about "herculean fundraising efforts." There are many more Decembers to go.

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