April 8, 2007 Weekly News Roundup

Although TAFTO 2007 will occupy Adaptistration’s weekday slots through April 20, that doesn’t mean the orchestra business isn’t filled with some notable events…

What’s In A Name
The orchestra formerly known as the Virginia Beach Symphony Orchestra may be a small budget ensemble but they managed to garner some national attention this week when they revealed the new name for their ensemble; unfortunately, it might not be the sort of attention they expected.

The Virginian-Pilot’s Marc Davis authored an article which reports that in an attempt to distinguish itself from their larger budget neighbor to the north, the Virginia Symphony, the VBSO changed their name to Symphonicity. There’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting for an organization to find ways to distinguish itself from other nearby orchestras but not unlike some other precarious endeavors in recent years, this effort appears to be somewhat misguided.

The Virginian-Pilot article goes on to report that the orchestra formerly known as the Virginia Beach Symphony Orchestra hired HCD Advertising & Public Relations, a Virginia Beach PR firm, to help them devise the new name. The article doesn’t report how the brainstorming sessions between HCD Advertising & Public Relations and the orchestra formerly known as the Virginia Beach Symphony Orchestra functioned and other than the acknowledgement of an HCD executive vice president that the new name is a “$50 word” there isn’t any indication as to how the name fits with the ensemble.

So when it is all said and done, the organization reversed the order of words most ensembles use to name themselves, declined to use any specific indicators connecting them to their community in lieu of using generic designations, and then added a musical symbol. The end result might well look something like this:

If you’re a musician, the initial impulse is to hold the first “I” sound for a longer period of time than would otherwise be done (which is what the fermata sign indicates). Try it once, hold that first “I” sound for three seconds and see what you end up with. If nothing else, it is fair to say that the orchestra formerly known as the Virginia Beach Symphony Orchestra will get their wish and have a name that distinguishes them from the Virginia Symphony. Whether or not it conjures up images of a condo community for retired orchestra musicians as opposed to a symphonic ensemble is something time will tell.

The US&O’s Situation Heats Up
Following the reversal of a decision to close off the Third Tier seats for the 2007-2008 symphony series, the US&O recently informed subscribers that in order to keep their seats, it will cost them twice what they paid in 2006-2007. In the 3/31/2007 edition of the Salt Lake Tribune, Brandon Griggs reports that the US&O’s decision to double the subscription prices for the once-closed-now-open Third Tier seats has generated a great deal of furor among current subscribers.

Several subscribers were quoted in the article stating sentiments that ranged from “My feelings are hurt.” to “I feel like I’m being picked on.” One patron even claimed that US&O’s Vice President for Marketing & Communications, Sean Toomey, contacted her and “berated” her for talking to a Salt Lake Tribune reporter in an earlier article. The article goes on to report that although Toomey acknowledges talking to the patron in question on several occasions, he never “berated” her.

Nevertheless, the closing of several Abravanel Hall sections and subsequent doubling of ticket prices has left patrons so upset that 118 patrons signed a petition protesting the decisions and the Salt Lake Tribune has published several letters to the editor on the issue, including one from Carolyn Abravanel, widow of Abravanel Hall’s namesake and former Utah Symphony music director, Maurice Abravanel.

The letters question the wisdom of recent decisions and encourage patrons to contact the US&O’s executive leaders responsible for recent decisions, Sean Toomey and his immediate superior CEO Anne Ewers, to express their feelings.

When contacted with questions about how the US&O determined the pricing for reopened Third tier seats, Sean Toomey responded with an email reiterating his outlook reported in an Adaptistration article published on 03/20/2007. Along those lines, it will be interesting to see how the US&O determines whether or not these decisions have been successful.

Since Sean Toomey stated in an earlier article that the US&O’ maintains goals that are “revenue-driven, not attendance-driven.” It is feasible that so long as half of the current Third Tier subscribers renew their subscriptions then the organization might claim that the recent pricing decisions resulted in no less than break-even results. Nevertheless, loosing half of the subscribers in an entire seating tier will undoubtedly have other negative consequences beyond ticket revenue. When asked about those very issues, Sean Toomey declined to comment and instead reiterated their original reasoning behind the new seating and pricing plans.

According to the recent Salt Lake Tribune article, Toomey claims that some patrons have contacted his office equating the US&O’s recent decisions to the war in Iraq. If nothing else, perhaps it is easy for the mind to associate the term “quagmire” to this state of affairs.

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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