Stop the Music

If the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra does not raise $29 million by the end of this year, it's bankrupt

Sep 12, 2001 at 4:00 am
The problem has never been a mystery: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's endowment is pitifully small in relation to those of orchestras of similar caliber, or even of lesser caliber. Minneapolis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis -- all have orchestras with endowments of $100 million or more. St. Louis -- which has managed to compete with these orchestras for the best musicians coming out of the conservatories each year -- has an endowment of $28 million. This means that when SLSO draws on the interest of its endowment to help cover expenses each year, it must bring in substantially more revenue from other sources -- ticket sales, grants, contributions -- to barely break even. Those other orchestras don't have to stretch so far beyond the endowment resource to balance the books.

Gary Smith -- trumpeter, union rep and musicians' representative to the finance committee -- has observed a long line of administrative leaders come and go since he took his chair in the brass section in 1966, none of whom has managed to solve the unmysterious problem. Smith recalls "the old days of all those executives from Brown Shoe Co. and [philanthropists] Morton May and Stanley Goodman." Not all that long ago, corporations had their headquarters in St. Louis. Banks, and bank executives, were local. At the end of the SLSO season, a few of those folks would come in and write checks to cover the orchestra's debts with the gracious benevolence of another time.

"But that wasn't building an endowment," Smith says pointedly. Times changed. Many St. Louis philanthropists with a sense of civic responsibility passed on, CEOs moved to more economically favorable climates, the "local" banks began taking their orders from North Carolina. And SLSO's debts grew.

In the spring of 2000, SLSO executive director Don Roth and board chairwoman Virginia Weldon went public with just how bad the problems were. "A great symphony at great risk" became Weldon's pitch to quadruple that meager endowment. Near Christmas of that year, the Taylor family, which accumulated its fortune through Enterprise Rent-A-Car, made the largest single contribution to a nonprofit musical organization in the United States: a $40 million challenge grant to the symphony. It seemed, finally, that SLSO's financial solvency was achievable and the quality of the orchestra would be maintained.

Then, this summer, came the shocking news: Although the endowment drive had received a jumpstart from the Taylors, those annual operating costs had accumulated over the last decade, leaving the SLSO perilously in the red. If the organization does not have pledges for $29 million by Dec. 31, 2001 -- with the cash in hand by next summer -- SLSO is bankrupt. Stop the music.

Smith, who's been through bad times with SLSO before, voices the concern everyone thinks but doesn't want to speak aloud. "There's this worry in the back of everybody's mind," he says, "that the community of St. Louis -- whatever that is -- really doesn't want a major symphony orchestra, because they're unwilling to pay for it.

"You know, in the back of my mind I say, 'Whoever asked them?'" Smith's five decades with the organization force him to ask related questions: "Have we ever really, really had a development drive? Have we ever really, really had an endowment drive? Have we ever really had anything like what the Taylor gift is? Have we ever, ever had that?" Smith believes that the St. Louis community -- whatever that is -- has never really been tested. "What do they really want and what are they willing to pay for?" he asks.

Meanwhile, as St. Louis figures out the answer to that question over the coming months, organizations that compete with SLSO are taking a predatory interest in the crisis. Those musical institutions in Pittsburgh and Minneapolis and Cleveland and Indianapolis and elsewhere may shed a public tear over the plight of SLSO, but, says Smith, "They're going to pick this orchestra apart." What musicians at the top of their field are going to be attracted to a job with an orchestra that may go bankrupt? Who among them is going to stay?

Former SLSO conductor Leonard Slatkin has already plucked two violinists from his former orchestra for the National Symphony in Washington, D.C. SLSO concertmaster David Halen observes that in the cycle of retirements and hires, "If you start to hire lesser caliber, even for five years or 10 years, then for 30 years you suffer with that. When it was first publicized that we were running tremendous deficits two years ago, we had violin auditions that year, and we hired not a single player. Last year, after we received that $40 million gift, we had violin auditions again, and we hired four fabulous first-rate people that could go anywhere in this country -- and they will, eventually, if we don't fix this problem."

The new man in the line of SLSO executive directors, W. Randolph "Randy" Adams, has James Brolin good looks and a stalwart, no-nonsense demeanor. He replaces Roth, who abruptly resigned in June.

Adams wants the symphony lean, not mean, but the challenges he faces do not encourage whimsy: $29 million in stopgap funding by Dec. 31; a $7 million cut from a budget of $24 million to $25 million; the matching of the Taylor grant over six to 10 years to achieve a $110 million endowment and a stable A-plus orchestra.

"The unusual piece is the $29 million," says Adams, demonstrating a gift for understatement, "which we need up front and very fast." To achieve this, he says, "We have to go to some wealthy individuals who are key members of this community, some of whom are very involved in the symphony and some of whom are not -- but who appreciate how important an artistic organization this is and what it means to St. Louis. We're in the process of contacting those people."

As SLSO seeks to achieve the $7 million budget reduction, there is talk of fewer concerts, which means a reduction in musicians' salaries -- as much as 20 percent. The much-heralded collective-bargaining agreement reached last year between the musicians and management will be revisited. SLSO has already given over its Community Music School to Webster University and, in so doing, unburdened itself of an annual $1 million loss. The Pops series, the Sheldon, Concerts in the Loop, chamber recitals -- those other activities that don't make any money -- all are on the table. The vital relationship between SLSO and Opera Theatre of St. Louis is under discussion by Adams and OTSL's Charles MacKay. "There are three or four or five levers you can pull to change the cost structure of this place," says Adams. Time is not a resource he has with which to choose the best lever to pull. One hard decision he's made already has been to put permanent restrictions on endowment funds. No longer will the symphony's future -- indeterminate as it may be -- be dipped into as a short-term solution.

A benefit concert with an all-star lineup performing gratis -- including Midori, Philip Glass, Evelyn Glennie, Gil Shaham, Lynn Herrel, Frederica Von Stade, André Watts and Slatkin and Hans Vonk -- is slated for Sept. 30 at Powell Hall to emphasize the concern of the music world for the plight of SLSO. "The St. Louis Symphony," Halen suggests, "in a way, is sort of like America's orchestra. It was built by an American conductor, brought to greatness specializing in American music. It would be a great setback culturally for the United States."

The test is finally here for those who live near the Mississippi in the middle of America, both the well-to-do and those of moderate means. "Democracy," the art critic Dave Hickey has said, "gives everybody the right to be an elitist." The outcome of this test will not only determine the fate of the symphony and the survival of a unique cultural institution but might more accurately define that term "St. Louis community."