CSO rising from the financial ashes
The Charleston Symphony Orchestra, under the musical direction of David Stahl over the course of 25 years, grew, thrived, then foundered financially until a shortage of cash compelled it to shut down operations during the 2009-10 season.
The forces working against the organization were several and well-documented: a prolonged recession, bad administrative habits, contractual disputes between musicians and management, an inadequate concert hall and, finally, the death of Stahl in October 2010.
The organization came close to declaring bankruptcy, but last-minute contract negotiations, some shuffling of personnel and a blow-out concert helped set the stage for the symphony's resurrection.
It reorganized its board, appointed a new executive director, Daniel Beckley, and cobbled together a modest 2010-11 season.
Today, it continues to expand its leadership, enlarge its board of directors and maintain a cache of guest musicians and conductors at the ready.
The symphony has obtained new commitments from donors and devised ambitious (if still limited) programming for the 2011-12 season, which could be its last in the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium for a few years if the city proceeds with its renovation plans for the venue.
The Charleston Symphony's first Pops concert is Nov. 4; its first Masterworks concert is Nov. 12.
The latter features Conductor Stuart Molina and the internationally known Emanuel Ax.
When he heard about the orchestra's financial distress, Ax offered to help, according to symphony officials. He quickly was scheduled to open the new season.
During the past year, the symphony enlarged its staff from three to 10, six of whom are full time and include a new development director, Alana Morrall, and a new marketing director, Nicole Ward.
Ward was manager of patron engagement at the Memphis Symphony Orchestra until she replaced Tara Scott, who left the organization this past spring.
Morrall, who most recently served as director of individual and institutional giving for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, is the first full-time development director the symphony has employed in years.
Many musicians, donors, patrons and others have long complained that the symphony had made its financial situation worse by failing to fill this vital position.
On Tuesday, the symphony announced it was appointing a high-profile vice president for artistic planning: Robert Blocker, the current dean of music at Yale University and a concert pianist with extensive administrative experience.
Blocker will assist Yuriy Bekker, CSO concertmaster and artistic adviser, in devising compelling programs and help executive director Beckley strengthen the symphony's financial footing.
Bekker already has introduced innovative new programs, including chamber music concerts scheduled for the Dock Street Theatre, the first of which is Nov. 15.
Bekker said the chamber orchestra will offer performances on Hilton Head Island, Columbia and possibly other communities, thanks to collaborations with the Hilton Head Symphony and South Carolina Philharmonic.
The chamber initiative is designed to widen the symphony's reach, introduce classical music to new patrons and foster relationships with other arts organizations, Beckley said.
The chamber music initiative includes small-ensemble concerts planned for Beaufort, Georgetown, Bluffton, Summerville, Walterboro, Manning and Pawleys Island, Beckley said.
"The big advantage we can offer is not just performance but education in communities not typically exposed to classical music," he said.
In the boardroom
CSO Board President John H. Warren III said six people have joined the board in recent months, bringing the total number to 32. The organization hopes to secure 45 members, half of whom never have served on the board before, he said.
The board includes three musicians, Warren said, and is divided into fundraising segments: groups of board members that focus on specific concert series or initiatives.
During a recent interview, Warren and Beckley spoke in measured terms with cautious optimism, barely suppressing a newly found enthusiasm. The annual budget, which had been reduced to about $1.3 million after the symphony shut down in March 2010, was bumped up to $1.7 million for the new season, then raised again to $1.9 million.
The core of salaried musicians now stands at 24, but several former symphony members and other professional freelancers often will be hired on a per-service basis, Bekker said.
"We've had unbelievably good ticket sales," Beckley said. To date, about 1,100 people are season subscribers, a number not achieved since the year 2000, he said. The symphony has launched a half-off promotion for new subscribers and has nearly reached the halfway mark on the way to its fundraising goal.
All revenue collected from ticket sales is set aside to be spent on operations only as new revenue is earned, Beckley said. In the past, ticket revenue collected for the upcoming season was used to get the organization through the spring and summer.
"So we started in the hole," Beckley said.
No more. Part of the fundraising push includes a $625,000 goal to be fulfilled by 25 donors giving $25,000 each, Warren said. Eight so far have made commitments.
Beckley acknowledged that a bad economy has made potential donors "squeamish."
"If they give, they give less than they did," he said. "Because of that, we're casting a much wider net."
The symphony recently performed a back-of-the-envelope calculation, estimating that perhaps 7 percent of residents in the Charleston metropolitan area are interested in classical music, and that around half of them will attend concerts.
If the population is 600,000, that means 21,000 are potential concertgoers. There are more potential patrons elsewhere in the state, and the symphony plans on bringing concerts to them, Bekker said.
Warren and Beckley said success requires momentum. When patrons commit to the symphony, that gives the organization leverage to raise money from donors, and when cash flow improves, so does programming.
And when programs appeal to patrons, they attend more concerts, they said. In this way, the symphony can achieve a snowball effect, adding new patrons to its growing base of supporters and offering more and better concert performances.
"We want (patrons) to fall in love with the symphony," Beckley said. "But to fall in love, they have to come more than once."
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Visit him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.