It was heartening to read about the progress made by the Cincinnati Symphony that recently celebrated a new music director, Louis Langree. The elements of this story are a textbook case for the way an orchestra -- and any other arts organization -- can survive, even thrive, in the current environment.
A few years back, the orchestra had a substantial deficit and its smart President, Trey Devey, cut expenses modestly (15 percent across the board) rather than seeking draconian cuts from musicians alone. This allowed the organization to stop raiding its own endowment and to establish a measure of stability.
His intelligent moves encouraged a major donor to make a huge gift, $85 million, that created an endowment that allows the local opera and ballet companies to engage the orchestra, providing weeks of work for the musicians.
For his inaugural program, Maestro Langree asked the great poet Maya Angelou to narrated "The Lincoln Portrait." The program also included a chamber concerto by Jennifer Higdon and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.
And while it still faces challenges attracting audiences, the orchestra has seen attendance rise, albeit not enough to fill the huge hall it occupies. In fact the orchestra attracted 35,000 people to two outdoor concerts this summer! (Classical music is not dead -- it is simply too expensive.)
Yet renovating the hall is not currently on the agenda for the Cincinnati Symphony. Its new maestro is more concerned with adding musicians to its roster, improving the quality of the music rather than the decor of its hall.
To my mind, this organization is doing everything right:
- It recognized the need to cut costs but did so in a fair and judicious manner
- It recognizes the value of celebrity -- both its maestro and its guest speaker are of note
- It is focusing on improving its art before it tackles a renovated or new hall. It is art, after all, not architecture that draws people to its performances
- It has formed meaningful joint ventures with its ballet and opera counterparts. The opera and ballet companies benefit from excellent orchestral playing while the symphony benefits from guaranteed annual engagements.
- It is not afraid of new work (several premieres are on the calendar for this season) but recognizes the value of the classics as well.
- It is welcoming the entire community to enjoy and support its endeavors.
Yes, some will say, the Symphony was 'lucky' to attract a major endowment gift. And luck is always part of the equation. But I prefer to view this as an instance where an organization does so many things correctly that donors are willing, indeed happy, to support its work.
In other words, in the arts world, we make our own luck by creating a family of loyal, engaged donors, audience members and volunteers.
Imagine if some of our most troubled arts organizations had proceeded in this thoughtful, mature manner to solve their problems?
I have to believe that they would be in far better shape today.