The Charleston Symphony Orchestra performs Beethoven’s Violin Concerto during the 2014-2015 season. (Photo/Alyona Semenov for the Charleston Symphony Orchestra)
By Ashley Heffernan
Published Nov. 19, 2015 from the Nov. 2 print edition
The apricot-colored walls, celadon-green seats and blue ceiling mural, coupled with the room’s sheer size, were enough to make many people gasp when they entered the new Charleston Gaillard Center’s performance hall for the first time Oct. 9.
Charleston Symphony Orchestra expects to see an increase of more than $500,000 in its annual earned revenue.
The orchestra’s new business model and new, $142 million home facility are projected to build a million-dollar cash surplus for the nonprofit organization in five years. That cushion is something the orchestra has never had in its nearly 80-year history, according to Executive Director Michael Smith.
“There’s just a tremendous amount of enthusiasm” about the Gaillard Center, he said. “I think it’s going to draw in a different crowd. Of course, there’s going to be people who maybe haven’t come to the Charleston Symphony before but they want to be in the hall. So there’s certainly opportunity there.”
Decreased revenue during the Great Recession and a labor dispute caused the orchestra to suspend operations for nine months in 2010. It resumed with 24 full-time musicians — 22 fewer than before the shutdown — and a few years later, the musicians voted to leave the American Federation of Musicians Local 502 union.
In the years since, the orchestra has operated on modest annual surpluses, usually between $30,000 and $50,000, Smith said.
The orchestra ended the year June 30 with just over $3 million in revenue — about $2 million from contributions and grants and $1 million from earned revenue, including concerts and investment returns. Its expenses totaled about $2.94 million, financial statements show.
The budget for this year is $3.2 million, and Smith said the orchestra’s plan is to grow its earned revenue from $1 million to $1.5 million.
Last year, the orchestra sold about $570,000 in subscriptions, which package multiple concerts together, and about $400,000 in single tickets. The goal for this year is to sell $890,000 in subscriptions and $600,000 in single tickets.
Before the symphony played a single note in the new Gaillard Center, the orchestra already sold more than $800,000 in subscriptions.
“We’re already starting to recognize our forecast,” Smith said.
Over the next five years, the orchestra’s leaders have committed to holding expenses to 3%. They want to grow contributions by 5% each year and grow earned revenue by 60% this year and an additional 5% each year after. With a 20% contingency factored in, Smith said the plan will build $1 million for the organization to use in the event of another economic downturn or natural disaster.
“It allows us to weather the storm. That’s just something that every business needs,” he said.
The orchestra’s 24 core musicians now act as the leadership of the organization alongside Smith and the 28-member board of directors. But that wasn’t always the case.
Charles Messersmith joined the symphony in 1994 and is now principal clarinet. He said the orchestra was so unstable for the first part of his tenure that the musicians never knew if it would sustain itself from day to day.
|Violinst Kiarra Saito-Beckman, who won the Charleston Symphony Orchestra’s National Young Artist Competition in 2014, performs with the orchestra. (Photo/Alyona Semenov for the Charleston Symphony Orchestra)|
“Now that is a totally different, rare feeling. We have a stable foundation that we didn’t have before,” he said. “Sitting in the orchestra today, I know the board members now. We’re much more of a family in that they know us personally.”
He credits the change in culture to the orchestra leaving the union and to Smith, who was principal trumpet for the orchestra from 2006 to 2013 before becoming executive director.
“He’s opened a lot of those doors for us,” Messersmith said.
Musicians now receive regular financial updates and are included on many of the major decisions. They also take part in hiring freelance musicians to fill in for specific performances.
About 300 musicians applied to join the orchestra through auditions this summer. Musicians typically pay to travel to an orchestra’s location for tryouts. But the Charleston Symphony Orchestra invited musicians to audition via YouTube to save time and money.
Freelance musicians are hired for individual performances. For instance, a MasterWorks Series program usually requires 20 violinists. But the core group includes only four, so 16 violinists will be hired for each program.
“Some violinists live in town, but we need to bring some others in, and we want the best quality so we have the auditions,” Smith said.
While working, the freelance musicians are paid a per-diem plus travel expenses and are housed by donors and volunteers. The strategy saves the orchestra money and gives the core group of musicians more flexibility when not performing to focus on education, now a major emphasis for the orchestra.
Building an audience
The Gaillard Center opened a few weeks after the symphony’s season began. Without a performance hall, the orchestra delayed its shows and used the time to reach out to area schools.
Over a six-day period earlier this year, 24 musicians visited 48 schools and performed for 11,415 students, Smith said.
|Musician Alex Boissonnault shows elementary school students how to hold a violin. (Photo/Alyona Semenov for the Charleston Symphony Orchestra)|
“I didn’t have to have 46 musicians on payroll that week,” Smith said, referring to the previous number of musicians in the group. “On the days that I want to expand those variable expenses for opportunity, I can. But on the days that it makes sense for us to be 24, we can be 24 and still have a real impact on the community.”
Education and creation of a new, young audience has become a major focal point for the orchestra.
Janice Crews was hired as the orchestra’s first director of education and community engagement, and contracts for musicians were restructured after decertification from the union to devote a third of each musician’s workload to education.
“Most orchestra organizations are realizing now that we are responsible for building our future audiences and for giving young kids exposure to classical music,” Crews said. “It used to be that classical music was a big part of the curriculum for public-school education. But now there’s so many other types of music out there that really everything is in that curriculum, so sometimes classical music isn’t used that often.”
Yuriy Bekker, who has been with the orchestra since 2007 and is now the concertmaster and director of the chamber orchestra, said education is important for the survival of the art form.
“In some cases, when I’m going into a school and playing, it may be for some kids the only time they hear classical music and be exposed to Mozart, Bach, Beethoven,” he said. “Then there are kids that hopefully will become our patrons, hopefully will become the lovers of classical music. Maybe they become engineers or CEOs or some will become firefighters, policemen or taxi drivers — we want them all to love the music, to grow up loving music because it contributes so much to our society and our culture.”
Reach staff writer Ashley Heffernan at 843-849-3144 or @AshleyBHeff on Twitter.