Behind the music: RPO isn't only orchestra to deal with financial woes

07:54 PM, Feb 19, 2013

Michael Butterman, Principal Conductor for Education and Outreach for the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, conducts the RPO at a youth concert for area school children in Kodak Hall at the Eastman Theater. (ANNETTE LEIN/ /staff photographer)/

Written By Stuart Low and Sean Dobbin | Staff writers

RPO fills out season

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra has announced program changes for the remaining 2013 concerts that former music director Arild Remmereit was scheduled to conduct.
As recently announced, Eastman School of Music Professor of Conducting and Ensembles Neil Varon will conduct the revised
Exquisite Puccini
concerts at 7:30 p.m. February 28 and 8 p.m. March 2 in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St. The program features soprano Karin Wolverton and tenor Dinyar Vania.
Two RPO Conducting Fellows, Jerry Hou and Chaowen Ting, will join Varon for the
Music from Italy
matinee at 2 p.m. March 3 at Hochstein Performance Hall, 50 N. Plymouth Ave.
Beethoven’s “Eroica”
program at Kodak Hall at 7:30 p.m. April 18 and 8 p.m. April 20 will be led by Minnesota Orchestra Associate Conductor Courtney Lewis. He also will conduct
Beethoven and the Making of Genius
at 2 p.m. March 21 at Hochstein Performance Hall.
Former RPO conductor Peter Bay, music director of the Austin Symphony, will lead
Spring Festival: NEXUS and the RPO
at 7:30 p.m. May 9 and 8 p.m. May 11 in Kodak Hall. The revised program replaces excerpts from Bizet’s Carmen with Ravel’s Menuet antique and Le Tombeau de Couperin.

Spring Festival: Rite of Spring: 100 Years
closes the season at 7:30 p.m. May 30 and 8 p.m. June 1 in Kodak Hall with conductor Tito Muñoz, music director of the Opéra National de Lorraine and the Orchestre symphonique et lyrique de Nancy.
Buy tickets for $10 to $82 at (585) 454-2100, or at area Wegmans.

The lingering recession of 2008 battered the finances of most major American orchestras. Detroit, Minneapolis, Philadelphia: No one seemed to escape the startlingly quick collapse of corporate and government support.

Upstate orchestras, like those across the nation, have responded to that meltdown with diverse strategies and varying degrees of success.

The bankrupt Syracuse Symphony folded in 2011, but its musicians have revived it as a community-backed orchestra called Symphoria. The Albany Symphony saw its endowment crumble, then launched a successful drive to boost board donations and ticket sales.

Saddled with a $746,000 operating deficit, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra last week announced new strategies to rebuild its resources. They include more performances in Finger Lakes towns, fundraising aimed at high-tech and financial services companies, and concert series with offbeat formats and venues.

The most startling results have come from the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, which has reported balanced budgets for seven of the last eight years. It didn’t find a magic bullet to protect it from the harsh economy. Rather, it tried inventive approaches to programming and funding that seem, in hindsight, like pure common sense.


Of course, no arts organization can do more than its local economy allows. But upstate orchestras surely have pushed the limit — especially the RPO.

A statistical analysis of nonprofit tax forms by the Democrat and Chronicle shows that among medium-sized cities, almost no orchestra has expenses as high as the RPO.

Of the 32 American cities with 700,000 to 1.5 million people in their primary statistical area — Rochester has 1.15 million — the RPO ranked No. 2 in expenses per capita for the 2010-2011 fiscal year.

The only orchestra showing higher expenses per capita in that time was the now-defunct Syracuse Symphony.

The RPO’s expenses climbed last year to nearly $10 million. It now spends $8.66 per local resident, compared to an average of $4.19 in all other medium-sized cities.

Of course, the easiest way to trim costs is to reduce the number of musicians. But that would affect quality, and the RPO is considered in the top tier of regional orchestras in quality.

We could cut back to $8 million,” board chair Elizabeth Rice said of the RPO’s expenses. “But the caliber of the product will suffer.”

To help erase its deficit, the RPO recently cut its summer season by three weeks and lowered musicians’ base salary from $44,070 to $40,600 in the first year of their new contract. Their wage and benefit cuts will save $328,000 in the current fiscal year.

Rice said that some critics still view the RPO as “too big for its britches.” But for many residents, it’s a badge of pride for a city that places a high premium on its culture. Its many educational concerts also are valued at a time when budget-conscious schools are trimming music classes.

She and RPO President Charles Owens have followed other upstate orchestras’ musical and financial choices. But the RPO’s current plans reflect its own financial needs and audience expectations.


The Buffalo Philharmonic has faced the same economic pressures as the RPO.

Yet it has achieved a modest surplus on its operating budget — which was around $10 million last season — for seven of the last eight years. Though its ticket sales last season remained flat at $1.2 million, nudging it into the black was a 7.5 percent increase in subscribers, from 6,077 to 6,532.

The BPO also is buoyed by local government support nearly four times that received by the RPO. Erie County provided $825,000 to BPO last year, compared with a total of $225,000 given to the RPO by Monroe County and the city of Rochester.

Still, the BPO saw its government support decline last season by 30 percent from $1.45 million to $1 million. And its corporate donations were down by 20 percent from pre-recession levels.

Helping offset this downturn was funding from foundations. The Milwaukee-based Baird Foundation recently gave it a challenge grant of $100,000, which the orchestra matched with $125,000 in gifts. Three area foundations each contribute more than $150,000 annually.

By comparison, the RPO receives more than $50,000 each from the Wegman Family Charitable Foundation and the Elaine and Richard Wilson Foundation.

The BPO also emphasizes planned giving and encourages its patrons to make bequests, said Susan Schwartz, director of marketing and communications.

The BPO shares a few similarities in its programming with the RPO.

Like former RPO maestro Arild Remmereit, BPO music director JoAnn Falletta prefers an adventurous mix of music, from Beethoven to banjo-strumming modern composer Bela Fleck. For pops concerts, the BPO in the past few years has often invested more heavily than the RPO in big names like Johnny Mathis. It also hosts a BPO Rocks series with stars such as Three Dog Night.

And like the RPO, the BPO is seeking to broaden its audiences. One popular series invites young professionals to mingle with musicians after a short concert.

Schwartz cautioned that the orchestra still encounters financial hurdles. Its recent Wynonna Judd concert was a flop.

One concert can make a difference as to how the year is going to look,” she said. “A Wynonna Judd can take your legs out from under you. That’s a big concern for me this year.”


The BPO’s problems may seem enviable to members of the former Syracuse Symphony. Bankrupty silenced their concerts two years ago. For the second time since 1992, the 79-year-old orchestra couldn’t raise enough money to cover its operating budget.

The musicians kept performing under different names and last year met with civic leaders to develop a new business plan. In December, 50 players announced a fresh musical identity: Symphoria, an upbeat merger of “symphony” and “euphoria.” The group gives classical, pops and young people’s concerts.

Its operating structure resembles a cooperative. The musicians formed a partnership with community and university groups in which all are financial stakeholders.

Symphoria likes to play up its role as a hub of Syracuse’s cultural life. The volunteers running the organization did not respond to requests for interviews, so it’s unclear how the bold venture is faring.


The Albany Symphony differs considerably from other upstate orchestras in its size and mission.

Operating on a shoestring budget of $2 million, it employs 60 part-time musicians for 16 programs. Under music director David Alan Miller, it plays lots of contemporary music, makes critically acclaimed recordings and has a national profile that far exceeds its modest resources.

The recession hit it hard, and from 2008 to 2010 it used more than half of its $1 million endowment to make ends meet. By 2010, it had 40 percent fewer season subscribers than five years earlier. A rescue mission urgently was needed.

We decided to keep expenses flat while trying to increase revenue sources,” said Jim Sector, director of marketing and communications. “We launched a three-year drive to get $1.3 million in board contributions.”

That drive proved successful, and the number of subscribers climbed from 870 to 1,523. Single ticket sales for classical events rose by 122 percent to 4,100 a year.

But now, the players (who earn about $6,000 a year) are immersed in contract negotiations that could influence the orchestra’s fiscal picture — just as the RPO’s tense contract talks did last month.

Whether in the board room or the concert hall, today’s upstate musicians always are playing at the edge of their seats.