Size Matters Part 3

Welcome back for part three in this study of how an orchestra accomplishes the monumental task of building a new concert hall.  In today’s installment I provide my conclusions and predictions regarding how each orchestra’s new hall will shape their future.  If you missed part one and part two, we covered the details of how each orchestra plans to build their new hall.

Conclusions & Predictions

Dayton Philharmonic

Since Dayton has already moved into their new hall there is no speculation regarding its acoustical distinction   the new hall was a good idea.  The 2155 seat capacity is a big enough venue to perform the full range of orchestral repertoire and enough seats to make generating sufficient revenue possible.  If their management can find a way to increase the musician’s base scale to a livable wage over the next three years, then the orchestra will become a “fast track” ensemble for success while attracting the brightest young talent in the industry.

At that point they could begin to lobby for managerial control over the entire Schuster Performing Arts Center, providing the orchestra with de facto “ownership” of the facility. This will allow them to schedule the additional services they need to accommodate an expanded season schedule.  But I think that with the player’s current level of increased artistic satisfaction, the management will opt for maintaining status quo for the next several years.

Richmond Symphony

The Richmond Symphony is in a very difficult place.  They are the only orchestra out of this group that will be completely dislodged from their regular performance venue during construction of the new facility.  Furthermore, they are the only orchestra destined to be renters that is also helping to raise all of the funds for the new concert hall   which according to several of the musicians amounts to no less than $10 million. And with no written guarantees afforded to the orchestra on any matter of their occupancy, this leads me to believe that it’s not a partnership, it’s indentured servitude.  Would you help a developer raise all the money to build a house, then move in just to pay them rent for the next 30 years?

Once the new concert hall is completed, it will only be capable of accommodating chamber orchestras. When talking with the RSO executive director, he did mention that the orchestra could use the larger renovated proscenium theatre that is located adjacent to the new hall.  Although this does increase the hall size, it’s not designed for optimum orchestral acoustics.  And when you talk about orchestras, it’s all about the sound.  Even the best orchestras sound bad in an acoustically inadequate hall.

Although I believe that the opening of their new hall in 2007 in result in initially increased interest in the orchestra, the decision to make the modest 1,100 seat hall their primary performance venue will significantly restrict the orchestra’s ability to perform the larger, popular orchestral works, such as Strauss and Mahler, on a regular basis.  Additionally, they will have a very difficult time attracting a new audience and maintaining their core audience as ticket prices will increase exponentially in order to generate sufficient revenue.

Measured against the other orchestras, their failure to solicit as much direct musician input regarding player facilities is another factor that will lead to ongoing long term problems.  In the initial design of the performing arts facility, the orchestra was not even considered a primary tenant. So it seems that providing the backstage facilities afforded to the musicians at the other three orchestras will not be as much of a priority at Richmond.  This will make the musicians feel more like paying guests rather than “partners” in the new hall.

Out of the four orchestras in this study, Richmond has the smallest potential for future growth and their situation will actually grow unstable. Given the limited opportunity to perform on a large stage, the orchestra’s artistic potential will be severely hobbled by having few concerts to perform together as a full orchestra. Unfortunately, I see the organization having to either officially restructure as a chamber orchestra or continue down a path of steady player turnover, financial limitations, and mediocre artistic achievement.

So is a new hall good in Richmond’s case? Not with the plan they have. It’s a bad business deal that they should back out of as soon as possible.  On the bright side, since the orchestra has no written commitment or obligation to become a tenant in the new Performing Arts Center, they still have the opportunity to follow Nashville’s lead and build their own hall. Richmond is a terrific town with tremendous potential and just as much money as Nashville; the orchestra’s management and board simply need to figure out how to tap into it.

Kansas City Symphony

Of the four orchestras selected for this study, I’ve always had a soft spot for Kansas City.  Both Nashville and Kansas City have recovered from bankruptcy to become artistically sound orchestras that rose from the ashes.  Kansas City’s situation will decidedly improve by finally having one dedicated performance venue as opposed to the several they now utilize.  Having some dedicated backstage facilities for the players and a single location for the majority of their performances will add some stability to a historically unstable group.

I feel that their true potential will have artificial limitations due to the new hall’s relatively small size, if for no other reason than the fact that ticket prices will remain prohibitively high.  Of all the orchestras in this group I believe that Kansas City has the greatest potential, it just needs the right spark. Hopefully, the orchestra board will find a way to bring some additional funds to the project, and soon, in order to increase the size of the hall to at least 1,600 seats and find space for the symphony offices on-site. This will allow them the catalyst they need to move from being a good orchestra to becoming a magnificent orchestra.   If they don’t, they’ll look back in10 years and wish they had.

Nashville Symphony

Of all the orchestras in this study I believe Nashville has the best laid plan for constructing their hall and the brightest future.  Once completed, they have every tool at their disposal to enter the top 10% of America’s orchestras, in both artistic quality and job satisfaction.  I am impressed at the level of detail regarding their financial plan to fund their building project and the guarantee of funds for its completion.  They have also demonstrated that even in the “bad economy” it’s possible to thrive and grow.  No excuses of a mini stock market crash, no whining about how 9/11 hurt the economy; just hard work and vision coupled with the most fiscally sound long term strategic plan I’ve seen come from an orchestra (due to the exceptional financial prowess of Steven Bronfenbrenner of B Squared Consulting).  Look for this economic plan to become a benchmark for how future orchestras will fund capital projects.

They have a building that is designed to serve their needs and facilitate the orchestra’s growth for generations. It ample size will allow them to perform every imaginable piece of the standard orchestra repertoire (including organ works) as well as contemporary compositions while still allowing for a good profit margin on ticket sales.  By securing a successful experienced acoustician, they are nearly assured a top notch sounding hall.

By including education facilities that allow the local schools to afford bringing children to the hall, they will increase their standing in the community as well as providing the foundation for a top notch youth orchestra program.  This will allow the orchestra to constantly build their future audience as well as bring in parents that would otherwise not have a connection to the organization.

Nashville also seemed to have the greatest amount of direct musician and music director input regarding the acoustic quality and backstage amenities.  The management has demonstrated that they honestly believe in a partnership with the musicians and have shown this through their actions.

In the end, this hall is a good idea for Nashville and it will be well suited to help the orchestra reach it’s true artistic potential.  They will own and operate a dedicated symphony hall that is theirs. Simply put, they will control their own destiny.  Their success or failure will be entirely their own.

I invite you to return tomorrow for the final installment, where the players from each orchestra get to voice their opinions about the building process.  Additionally, the executive director’s will have an opportunity to respond to my conclusions and predictions.

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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