Symphony Overtures

A great orchestra at great risk, the SLSO seeks major donors to close the endowment gap between their $28 million and the $100 million of their competitors

When St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) bassoonist Felicia Foland talks about what it takes to maintain a world-class orchestra, the first thing she doesn't want to talk about is money. She is passionate about her art, passionate about this symphony she toils for and with. She's no 23-year-old (rather, she's somewhere in the late-thirtysomething stage) straight out of conservatory who landed a plum position right off the bat, she emphasizes. There were 32 auditions with orchestras around the country before she became a member of the SLSO, playing an instrument that's never going to get her an overnight recording contract. She made a living freelancing, "playing smaller orchestral venues in regional orchestras, pickup jobs, and some very good things, too. I was a substitute player in the Chicago Symphony and in the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra for a number of years." But, by her own assessment, she was "scraping by" without much to go on but persistence and a belief in her own talent. "The hardest time is the time between realizing where you are, and you don't want to be there, to where you are that is satisfying." Foland watched many talented friends turn to more lucrative careers: "They do other things. They have other talents. I know a terrific clarinet player who's a lawyer. I know a great bassoon player who's a writer. I know a wonderful oboe player who left the profession. There are a lot of people walking around out there who are doing things that don't have anything to do with music who are just incredible."

But Foland, with a combination of talent, luck, tenacity and foolhardiness, on audition No. 32 landed a position with, by most everyone's estimation, one of the world's premier orchestras. So it's not surprising that to someone who dedicates herself to an art form that demands the highest expertise in return for, economically, little more than a stable middle-class life, dollars and cents are not the primary issue when discussing a symphony orchestra.

"You cannot be reasonable about bringing world-class-quality classical music to people and have any logical talk about money," Foland asserts. "Yes, there are nuts and bolts, but it is essentially not a corporate way of thinking or the business status quo. It can't function that way. If it did, it would have failed a long time ago. You have to forget all that financial thinking. If it depended on what came back to the orchestra, none of it would be here."

Foland's romantic sentiments about the orchestra and music she loves are as one would wish them to be. Pragmatism is the last thing one wants to hear from a classical musician. Great art is not produced by accountants. Part of the beauty of art is how it soars above the tedium of everyday life. To walk away from a Mozart piano concerto and wonder about Evgeny Kissin's salary implies the death of beauty.

Yet the symphony orchestra, which flowered in an age of romanticism, is most endangered in this most unromantic time. Foland's passion, which can be heard voiced in other ways throughout Powell Hall -- from musicians to marketers to boards of directors -- is rare even among artists in this new millennium of technological profiteers. In a culture increasingly afflicted with attention-deficit disorder, what is the value of sitting and listening to two-and-a-half hours of exquisite music in a glittering auditorium? How to sell specialness when the going currency is familiarity? What is such an experience worth in a time when the very notion of "experience" takes on new meaning in an age of virtual reality? Does "being there" matter in the world of cyberspace, when an entire concert can be downloaded?

And how to convince citizens living in a region with so many serious problems that this extra-special commodity is worth $100 million?

"IT'S UP TO US TO MAKE THE PITCH," SAYS Dr. Virginia Weldon, chairwoman of the SLSO board of directors. And what is that pitch? "A great symphony at great risk."

There's no question that the SLSO is one of the great symphonies. "We are one of the few cities in the United States of America that has a truly great symphony orchestra. There are probably four or five cities that are as fortunate as we are," Weldon observes. Most critics name the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra as the pre-eminent classical-music maker in the country; if the SLSO is not No. 2, it makes it into most everyone's top five. Remarkably, the most acclaimed symphonies are not in the greatest metropolises but in midsize cities such as St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Minneapolis.

But what do those symphonies have that the SLSO doesn't? A $100 million endowment.

"The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra has an endowment of $110 million. The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra has an endowment of $28 million. It doesn't take a mathematical genius to figure out that's a big problem," says Weldon.

Although Weldon talks in the terms of dollars and cents that Foland would sooner avoid, she does not lack any of the musician's passion. A former senior vice president of public policy at Monsanto, she affirms community values that are not so common among the new breed of corporate leaders: "I grew up in a family where my father always made it very clear that it was a responsibility to give back to the community in whatever way you could. I believe in that very strongly, and I always have." Weldon grew up with a love of music and studied piano (she still does), but as her mother dreamed of her daughter performing in the concert halls of the world, the more pragmatic Weldon realized she had a better chance at medicine.

The love of music, and the concern for community, remained with her, however, and drives her in her current efforts. "We're at a real turning point," she says of the SLSO, and that turning point means that the affluent of this community, of which there are many, need to be asked to give more, something that, as a board member, she has already done herself.

"It's an expensive organization to run, because we're dealing with very talented people," she observes. "The competition for those talented people is very intense. Just like Washington University doesn't like to lose a very talented professor to another university, we don't like to lose a very talented musician to another orchestra.

"That's why we need to have an endowment, and that's why we need to raise $80 million in the next four years."

IF DON ROTH IS ANYTHING, HE IS POLITIC. The executive director of the SLSO, who replaced the more demonstrative Bruce Coppock in 1998, chooses his words carefully so as not to cast blame on anyone for SLSO's financial state. For example, residing in the St. Louis region are those with personal wealth that rivals, or is at least equal to, those people whose money supports the $100 million endowments other orchestras enjoy. Someone less astute, or less diplomatic, might rail against a perceived philanthropic neglect in this area, but Roth doesn't even come close to offending those who, after all, he wants to encourage to give as they never have before.

He talks instead about developing a "giving culture in which multimillion-dollar gifts become the norm for people of means. To some degree we can't blame anybody but ourselves, because there have been a number of times we haven't asked for enough, when we haven't made the case for what is really needed." Roth doesn't place the blame on past administrations -- he's only been here two years -- he says "we."

Part of that "giving culture," Roth explains in his modest Powell Hall office, has been affected by the presence of the Zoo/Museum District taxation (created in 1972), in which major institutions such as the Zoo, the Art Museum, the Missouri History Museum, the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Science Center receive money from local real-estate and personal-property taxes. Roth believes that because, historically, those institutions haven't had to raise large endowments, the "giving culture" has not been made accustomed to a higher level of generosity. "It's actually better when a number of big institutions are out raising endowment funds, because a rising tide raises all boats; it really does. I'd love it if one of the other arts institutions had gotten a $5 million or $10 million endowment deal, because that would set a standard. But we have a number of our major institutions secured by extraordinary tax funding, which we don't have."

The SLSO tried to become a part of the Zoo/Museum District pie but was soundly defeated in a 1989 voter referendum. The public's perception of the symphony was discomforting to the organization: isolated, elitist, extraneous to the local fabric.

To its credit, the SLSO responded by becoming the arts institution with the greatest local outreach in the city, developing partnerships with the In Unison Chorus, with the Grand Center and North St. Louis churches and schools, and with the St. Louis Community Music School, a program initiated by Coppock, who chose a proactive approach in music education rather than join the chorus of complaints about the loss of such "extracurricular" activities in the public schools.

The "elitist" tag has never been an easy one to shake, however. A $2 million debt to the state became a political football in 1994. Gov. Mel Carnahan signed onto a plan for the SLSO to work off the debt, giving concerts around the state, but conservative legislators cried foul, revealing how little the work, and product, of the symphony musicians was valued.

Eventually, pre-eminent St. Louis philanthropist E. Desmond Lee paid off the debt, and the SLSO has worked hard to lose the "elitist" tag ever since. But then, in the summer of 1999, subscribers learned of a significant increase in their ticket prices. They also learned of the creation of the Powell Club, an exclusive offering of dinner and drinks before the concert to those who can afford it. A second-floor meeting area was turned into a private, closed-door sanctuary. To many, Roth had turned the new community institution back into the old elitist one.

"Elitist" is one word that turns the usually politic Roth into someone more representative of his New York City roots. "That's B.S., OK? If anybody says the St. Louis Symphony is elitist, it's B.S. And they know it's B.S. And they're using it because that's a perception that's a national perception of classical music. My father was a letter carrier, and I bought 50-cent tickets to hear Leonard Bernstein conduct the New York Philharmonic. That's how I started, and I want everybody here to have the same opportunity. We can't be free, because we don't have the Zoo/Museum District paying us to be free and open. But we can be cheap, and we are."

Roth is quick to note that at the same time as the creation of the Powell Club, the SLSO offered $10 tickets. "The philosophy is that price will never be an impediment to anybody coming to the symphony. There should always be a ticket that anybody can afford. At the other end, we've created something that, for those who want it, they pay for it. Is hockey elitist? Is baseball elitist?

"The origin of (the Powell Club) was that there are people who want it. There are people who are willing to pay for something that has that additional social element to it. I don't see it, frankly, as an elitist experience. I've been in situations that felt elitist to me, but I walk around that room and there's a mixture of people: Their economic backgrounds are different, their social backgrounds are different. What unifies them is that they're people who really love the symphony. This is where they want to sit; this is what they want to do. Does that make us elitist? No way.

"This is not an elitist organization. This is an organization that runs a school. Ten percent of the kids are on scholarship. This is an organization that does more free events than any orchestra in the country. If somebody wants to say it's elitist, that's their problem, that's their dynamic."

If not elitist, the SLSO is certainly an expensive organization to maintain. The rise in ticket prices generated $700,000 in additional revenue the symphony dearly needed. Roth has also generated additional dollars from a sponsorship deal with Volvo, which is why a car sits in the lobby as concertgoers sip their champagne. He also cut a tour to upstate New York that would have cost the organization $100,000: "We can't do things like that. It would have been nice, and my cousin who goes to Cornell in Ithaca could have seen the orchestra. But going to Carnegie (Hall) is one thing; going to Ithaca and Toledo is another. We cannot just do that, because we did it last year. We can't go on autodrive. We have to really examine how we do stuff: lean -- not mean, but lean."

Roth has taken a fair amount of criticism for this new approach, the most flagrant being when he was booed on the Powell Hall stage. "I wasn't 100 percent surprised," he says of the heckling. "If I have to be the focal point for raising the prices and starting the Powell Club, the Volvo in the lobby -- none of those were decisions I made myself. I'm not the führer of this institution, but if somebody has to be the focal point, let it be me. I don't want it to be (Maestro Hans) Vonk. I don't want it to be the musicians. I don't want it to be my volunteers. Frankly, I don't want it to be the staff who work for me. That's my job.

"I've had to be a change agent because of the endowment issues. My goal is to make the institution as strong as possible. It's got a lot of things that need to happen. If, in doing that, I become a focal point for people who don't like it, fine. Certainly St. Louis is as averse to change as any community I've been in, maybe more so."

WHEN HANS VONK, DON ROTH AND ARTISTIC advisor Tim Page get together to plan a new season, Carla Johnson is at the table with them. Johnson holds the position of orchestra manager for the SLSO; along with director of operations Susan Lim, she must guard against irrational exuberance. "I'm the logistical conscience of the planning group," Johnson notes. For example, although the SLSO may approach the sublime when playing the works of Mahler and Bruckner, such composers "also cost a lot," says Johnson. "You need 10 more brass players, for instance.

"So we have to do a Mozart-Mahler tradeoff," she explains. Mozart is relatively cheap to perform, because the composer's works don't call for the mass of musicians that Mahler's requires. Chances are, the music is in the symphony library (if not, it can cost from $1,000-$2,000 to rent sheet music), and Mozart remains extremely popular, which means there will be few empty seats in the 2,800-seat Powell Hall.

Johnson recognizes that an evening of Sibelius and Arvo Part, with conducter Osmo Vanska and pianist Mikhail Rudy, makes for a stimulating program, but most concertgoers don't know who any of those guys are, so a Gershwin program goes in the next week. "A lot of what we do is about mathematics," says Johnson. "X number of weeks to fill X number of services; 24 subscription weeks; 24 times three pieces of music. It's not mysterious."

Also factor in three full-time union stagehands. "Anything moved onstage has to be moved by union stagehands," Lim says. "If we're doing a week of straight subscription, we can manage to stay within nonovertime hours." But many weeks Powell Hall is also the home of pops concerts, children's concerts, assorted special events: "We're looking at 20 hours' overtime plus extras, which can triple the stagehand expenditure."

If the St. Louis Symphony Chorus is added to the mix, risers are required for them to stand on. "If you can't fit everything onstage," says Johnson, "you need to put out stage extensions, which means you lose seats." Sometimes as many as 100-200 seats are lost, which means lost revenue.

The biggest logistical nightmare is touring. Johnson and Lim don't even want to venture into the minutiae of the SLSO's European tour because of the shifting exchange rates that must be factored in. But even a concert in Carnegie Hall means a plane full of musicians and their instruments, insurance on those instruments, a hotel for those musicians, New York Teamsters to unload the trucks carrying those instruments from the airport to the hall, $74 per diem for those musicians, the cost of the soloist (who, with any luck, is already living in New York so he or she doesn't need a room). "And last time we took the chorus," says Johnson, "which required another plane."

Part of the SLSO's reputation comes from those trips to Carnegie, which have resulted in consistently lavish praise for the Midwestern institution from the East Coast press, but is that worth the cost? "We stay up nights figuring that out," Johnson confides. Travel "builds solidarity in the symphony," she says, and there are those kudos from outside critics and audiences. But, Johnson asks, "How do you measure that? Can you measure that? There's no economy of scale here."

Although the SLSO is one of the top five American orchestras, it ranks below its competition in musician salaries. The rank-and-file SLSO musician makes a salary in the low 70s; his or her counterpart in Cleveland makes six figures. With all the concerns Johnson and Lim deal with in the day-to-day operations of the SLSO -- the difficulties of travel, the cost of commissioning new works, sheet-music rentals, the New York Teamsters -- what makes a world-class orchestra are world-class musicians, and in an extremely competitive industry, keeping those musicians is the concern above all others. "You have to pay for expertise," says Johnson. "You don't want to have constant turnover in an orchestra." Currently, that expertise costs some $13 million, or roughly half of the organization's total budget.

Until the endowment is quadrupled, the SLSO must attract top candidates, and keep them, with less tangible benefits. "We have to work a little bit harder," admits David Halen, violinist and concertmaster. On a morning when the orchestra is auditioning candidates for a new principal flutist, a position that, Halen observes, perhaps only six candidates in the whole country are qualified to fill, what the SLSO has to offer is "our mentality and morale," says Halen. "We work very hard to make a very satisfying musical experience here, relative to other positions in the country." For example, says Halen, outreach programs "are not just there because what it does in the community but also what it has done for our musicians, their entrepreneurial skills' being developed by using their chamber-music skills they learned in school," skills that are usually neglected when a musician joins a major orchestra. "It requires a lot of preparation and creative thinking. We have this enormous mass of people who are raised as artists. If you just put them in an orchestra and tell them what to do, they can literally wither if they don't work very hard to keep their artistic skills and creativity alive." In Vonk, the orchestra has a conductor who understands an individual musician's artistic needs, Halen believes. Halen has known conductors who "tell people how to do it, 'and don't make a mistake.' If you approach the music that way, it can be very frustrating."

Halen also lists Powell Hall as one of the attractions for working musicians. "We're fortunate to have this hall, which is an absolute gem in the industry. I think there are only three halls that I like better in the country (Carnegie, Boston Symphony Hall and Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Mass.). This hall is comparable to the very finest. When I go away and play at other places, I think, 'It must be a very great orchestra here, but I feel so sorry for them to have to play in this room.'"

The SLSO lures musicians with the beauty and acoustical design of Powell but also employs stealth tactics. Halen was with the Houston Symphony before he was spirited away by the SLSO. "We do that more than some of the other orchestras, because they don't feel they need to," Halen confides. "They assume people are going to come, and we know we have to work really hard." One of the first conversations Halen will have with the new principal flutist will concern any colleague he or she has known, whether in conservatory or in another orchestra, "who blew them away and has the kind of mentality we like. Then, we get them."

And when they get here, however they get here, be it on audition No. 32 or straight out of the academy, be it after investing in a $26,000 bassoon or a $300,000 violin, the SLSO is working to have the money to keep them here for generations to come, generations -- it is hoped -- that will still value sitting in a large auditorium for two-and-a-half hours to just hear music, "really beautiful music on these really cumbersome instruments," says Foland, who returns matters to the irrationality of beauty. "And we make them sound like heaven."

Maintaining a world-class symphony orchestra is a costly enterprise. One night of Bruckner's Eighth Symphony, for instance, costs more than $30,000 to perform in Powell Hall. Yet the SLSO has a minimal endowment in relation to its competitors, a disparity the organization is trying to correct over the next four years. The figures below come from the SLSO, with executive director Don Roth providing an accounting of where monies come from now and where he hopes they come from in the future.

Minneapolis: $137 million
Cleveland: $113 million
Pittsburgh: $106 million
Cincinnati: $94 million
St. Louis: $28 million

A Night of Bruckner's Eighth
Orchestra and conductor: $27,525 (four rehearsals and two concerts: $172,282)
Stagehands: $350 (four rehearsals and two concerts: $1,480)
Music: $750 (two concerts: $1,500)
Janitor: $480 (two concerts: $960)
Ushers: $1,000 (two concerts: $2,000)
Security: $250 (two concerts: $500)
Total: $30,355 (four rehearsals and two concerts: $178,722)

Where the Money Comes From
Endowment: 10 percent
Ticket sales: 35 percent
Contributions: 50 percent
Government granting agencies: 5 percent

Where the SLSO Hopes the Money Will Come From
Endowment: 20 percent
Ticket sales: 40 percent
Contributions: 35 percent
Government granting agencies: 5 percent

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