Fogel takes the Utah Symphony's temperature

Published May 22, 2005 12:01 am
Orchestra pro: Adviser believes the jury is still out on US&O merger, but says things could be worse
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Because Henry Fogel believes in firsthand observation, he spends at least half his life on the road. Fogel, president of the American Symphony Orchestra League, began a three-day visit to Utah Symphony & Opera on Wednesday to pick up new ideas and share what he knows.

Fogel has visited 63 orchestras in the United States, and for 18 years was the wildly successful chief executive of Chicago Symphony Orchestra - a tenure Utah Symphony associate conductor Scott O'Neil calls "a model of how to run a symphony orchestra."

If you want to know about orchestras, Fogel is a good man to ask. O'Neil said Fogel "has probably experienced more of what this industry has to offer - both good and bad - than anyone else."

Thursday at Salt Lake City's Abravanel Hall, Fogel discussed the world of the American symphony orchestra with reporters and US&O staff members. Here is a sampling of his comments:

On US&O's controversial 2002 merger: Fogel said a "bumpy period" is to be expected for any such venture, but feels the worst part of the merger adjustment is over. He said the merger is an "interesting experiment" that seems to make sense. Bottom line: "The jury is still out on whether it's a good idea."

National perspective on US&O's recent financial troubles and contract strife: Things could have been worse, Fogel intimated: "You didn't have a strike. Some orchestras came closer [to going under]."

Beginning in March 2001, when the stock market began its sharp decline, most American orchestras began to experience difficulties, Fogel said. Because many groups take an annual 5 percent draw from endowment funds for operating costs, the drop in investment revenue had immediate effects. Those were followed by further declines in contributions, then plummeting ticket sales after Sept. 11, 2001.

The offshoot was difficult negotiations around the country, contract concessions from musicians and orchestra strikes - all part of a "marketplace adjustment" based on economic changes, Fogel said. Perform- ing-arts groups became accustomed during the 1990s to seeing contributions increase as foundations were compelled to give away a portion of investment earnings to maintain nonprofit status. When the economy turned down, "there was no way orchestras and operas could adjust their expenditures fast enough."

"Some say the mistake made here [in Utah] was the merger. I don't think you'll ever know that. If the merger took place in 1995, it might have been successful. And in this present climate, both organizations might have suffered even without the merger."

On orchestra management consultant Thomas Morris, who was brought in to study US&O's financial crisis last year and whose recommendations were the basis for broad changes in the group's manner of operation: Fogel said Anne Ewers, US&O's CEO, asked him to recommend someone to study US&O's difficulties after orchestra musicians suspended contract negotiations and requested one last summer. He recommended Morris.

"You went through a difficult period. You brought in a really smart consultant who made recommendations," Fogel said.

On US&O's Financial Recovery Plan, instituted to bring the group back to financial solvency after several years of operating deficits: US&O is running ahead of projections, Fogel said, and he feels the three-year plan suggested by Morris is challenging, but attainable.

"If you fail, it increases skepticism," he said. "Success breeds success. People get on a winning bandwagon."

On whether Salt Lake City's metropolitan population is too small to support Utah Symphony & Opera: Fogel said it was his "gut feeling" that US&O is not too large for its community, especially considering the support given the group through the Utah Legislature for education programs and Salt Lake County's Zoo, Arts and Parks tax. Utahns' choice to support US&O through taxes and legislation "makes a positive statement about how the organization is seen," he said.

Misunderstandings about the health of the American symphony orchestra: Broad publicity about struggling orchestras has led people to assume American orchestras are in worse shape than they really are, Fogel said: “ 'Orchestra balances budget' is not a headline."

Since 2001, there have been eight bankruptcies among approximately 350 professional orchestras, and five of those have rallied and are still performing, Fogel said.

"It's not a bad track record. It's better than the airline industry."

On the future of the American symphony orchestra: "Musicians have to be more a part of the decision-making process," Fogel said, something that is happening with increasing effectiveness at US&O, in his estimation.

Fogel said the American Symphony Orchestra League is trying to obtain and analyze more data about ticket sales, but he is not convinced that orchestra audiences have declined greatly. In Chicago, he said, suburban orchestras have seen ticket increases that balance declines of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The hassles of driving, parking and paying higher ticket prices might be causing some to forgo the prestige of CSO in favor of economy and convenience.

Orchestras must figure out how to make their product relevant to audiences who are increasingly removed by time from the European masters who created the art form. Though fairly traditional in his own tastes, he keeps an open mind about visual enhancements aimed at a generation brought up during the age of television and computers.

One such innovation is a handheld digital device called "CoCo" that can be issued to concertgoers. The PDA-like tool allows listeners to choose among following a musical score, reading program notes in a "play-by-play" format or watching video close-ups of the conductor or musicians. Fogel tried the device and found it distracting, but said younger fans, accustomed to multitasking, were enthusiastic about CoCo's potential.



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