Size Matters

Building a new concert hall seems to all the rage these days.  Recently Philadelphia, Detroit, and L.A. have moved into spectacular new digs.  Carnegie Hall opened up a new stage, and Miami is building a giant performing arts center for no one in particular (since both the symphonic and chamber orchestras have gone out of business).  For most orchestras, a new hall is another step toward artistic excellence and a long term assurance toward serving their communities.

Is a new concert hall always good for an orchestra?  If so, does the size of the hall really promote or restrict an orchestra’s artistic potential?  These are the questions which sparked this analysis.  With so many new halls being constructed, I decided to narrow the field down to four relatively similar orchestras. Given their unique nature, I excluded the big boys and decided to focus this analysis on “growing orchestras”, which are organizations that have annual budgets around $10 million or less.  It is these orchestras that collectively reach the largest number of patrons across America and therefore I feel best represent the future of classical music in this country.

The orchestras selected were Dayton Philharmonic, Richmond (VA) Symphony, Kansas City Symphony, and Nashville Symphony.  I then sent each orchestra a questionnaire and spoke with representatives from every ensemble about their respective building projects.  I’ll share the results from my examination over several installments and present my conclusions and predictions for each orchestra’s future at the end.

We’ll also hear from players in each of these orchestras to find out how they view these developments that influence their artistic satisfaction as professional musicians.  Additionally, the executive director from each orchestra will be allowed to comment on my conclusions and predictions.

Introduction
Building a new concert hall is a defining event for any orchestra.  Most orchestras stay in their concert hall for decades (if not generations), so there is no way you can underestimate the importance of a new performance venue.  A well designed hall with ideal acoustical properties, a convenient location, and ample patron facilities will shape the perception of the ensemble in the eyes of the community and the rest of the world.  There are two basic ways to go about obtaining a new concert hall:

  1. An orchestra can design, build, and own their own hall.
  2. An orchestra can become a resident ensemble and rent the use of a concert hall.

Within the context of those two scenarios there is much variation regarding the process an orchestra decides to follow.  In the following installments, you’ll be able to see how each of these organizations are going about this process and plan to achieve their goals.

I would like to thank all of the participating orchestra representatives for giving their time to fill out the questionnaires and allow telephone and email interviews.

Dayton Philharmonic

  • Annual Budget: $4.8 million
  • Length of Season: 35 Weeks   per service
  • Venue: Schuster Performing Arts Center
  • Executive Director: Curt Long
  • Acoustician: Jaffe Holden Acoustics.  Paul Scarborough (currently with Akustiks, Inc.) did much of the acoustic design while still affiliated with Jaffe Holden.

Among all of the organizations examined in this study, the Dayton Philharmonic is the only organization that has already moved into their new hall.  This gives them a unique ability to answer the following questions with retrospect compared to the other orchestras.

Question 1: Will your organization own or rent your planned concert hall?
Answer: Rent

Question 2: What organization will operate the concert hall facilities?
Answer: The Arts Center Foundation, a private non-profit that already owned the Victoria theatre.

Question 3: What is the overall cost and what is your organization’s financial commitment to the new concert hall?
Answer:  Approximately $80 million (out of the overall project costs of $121 million) was for the performing arts center portion of the complex.  The orchestra had no formal financial commitment (but we played a significant role in the fundraising). The center was completed on time and did not run over budget.

Questions 4: Do you plan to relocate the symphony administrative offices in the same building as the concert hall?
Answer: Yes, we pay about $30,000 per year in rent which includes offices, library, the musician locker room, and orchestra dedicated storage space.

Question 5: What is your annual rent for use of the concert hall facilities?
Answer: $171,000 hall rental for rehearsals and performances only.

Question 6: Which other cultural arts organizations will share this facility as regular tenants along with the orchestra, and do any receive ‘first pick” rights?
Answer: The Dayton Opera, the Broadway presenter, and Dayton Ballet.  We meet about 2 years before the start of a season to allocate available weeks among the four resident companies, and have established a fairly predictable rhythm of which organizations get which weeks over the course of the season.

Question 7: Did the orchestra music director and/or player’s committee have final say regarding acoustical aspects of the proposed concert hall?
Answer: No, but we put 100% of our influence on the hall process into pushing for no compromises on acoustics.

Question 8: Does the concert hall have provisions for dedicated educational/outreach facilities?
Answer: Not as dedicated spaces, but we use the main concert hall for educational and family performances on a regular basis.

Question 9: What are the proposed concert hall technical specifications: seating and stage size?
Answer: In its symphonic configuration the multipurpose concert hall seats 2155, which is a number we’re very happy with.  We felt that anything less than 1800 seats would have severely reduced our ability to generate sufficient ticket sales income.  The stage is approximately 116’w x 50’d so there is more than sufficient room for our concerts that utilize an 83 piece orchestra.

Question 10: How did you organization decide to either own or rent your proposed concert hall?
Answer:  Owning our own hall was determined to be beyond our financial or fundraising capacity.  We did consider pursuing an option of managing the new hall, but decided against it.

Richmond (VA) Symphony

In the case of the Richmond Symphony, some of the questions were directed to representatives from the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation as the Symphony does not have control over those specific issues.  Richmond is unique in that they are the only orchestra in this study that will be without a permanent concert hall for at least three years while this new facility is being constructed.

Question 1: Will your organization own or rent your planned concert hall?
Answer: Rent

Question 2: What organization will own & operate the concert hall facilities?
Answer: The Virginia Performing Arts Foundation

Question 3: What is the overall cost and what is your organization’s financial commitment to the new concert hall?
Answer:  The overall cost of the VAPAF project is $150 million, which includes construction costs for the entire center in addition to establishing an endowment to help subsidize operating expenses. The Symphony has undertaken to help VAPAF raise all the funds to build the new Music Hall but has not committed to delivering any particular sum.

Questions 4: Do you plan to relocate the symphony administrative offices in the same building as the concert hall?
Answer: Yes.

Question 5: What is your annual rent for use of the concert hall facilities?
Answer: We’re still in the process of determining that amount.

Question 6: Which other cultural arts organizations will share this facility as regular tenants along with the orchestra, and do any receive ‘first pick” rights?
Answer: The Richmond Ballet, Virginia Opera, Elegba Folklore Society, Richmond Jazz Society, and touring Broadway shows.  Scheduling priority will be given to the local performing arts organizations, with consideration for the needs of the community audiences and for the financial health of the Performing Arts Foundation.

Question 7: Did the orchestra music director and/or player’s committee have final say regarding acoustical aspects of the proposed concert hall?
Answer: Not a final say, but our two musicians’ representatives and Music Director are closely involved in discussions and that consultation process will continue.  We are happy with the level of consultation being undertaken with Jaffe Holden, the acousticians for this project.

Question 8: Does the concert hall have provisions for dedicated educational/outreach facilities?
Answer: Yes, on-site and in the associated plans for an additional off-site theatre to host a performing arts educational facility.

Question 9: What are the proposed concert hall technical specifications: seating and stage size?
Answer: The new multipurpose concert hall will have 1,100 seats.  Although this does place some restrictions on available repertoire for our Masterworks Series concerts, I’m not sure the orchestra wants to move into a larger size hall.  We are keen to use the smaller hall for most of our concerts where we can bring the audience closer to the orchestra and break down barriers.  We also intend to use the renovated 2,050 seat Carpenter Center within the same complex to perform major symphonic works and Pops concerts.

Question 10: How did you organization decide to either own or rent your proposed concert hall?
Answer:  It was determined that building our own facility was financially beyond our means.  Early in the VAPAF planning stage the orchestra was to receive a dedicated hall, but that later evolved into the current multipurpose design.  Our board of directors also decided the best course for the organization was to become a member of the Alliance for the Performing Arts and contribute our resources to the new Virginia Performing Arts Center.

Additional comments:  During our telephone conversation, David pointed out that the new 1,100 seat concert hall will be their primary performance venue.  He went on to say that this new hall will accommodate the orchestra’s current chamber ‘core’ configuration so it will not need to grow past that current size.

I invite you to return tomorrow for part two where we will learn about the new concert halls in Kansas City and Nashville.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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