Can the Band Play On?

The Houston Symphony opens its new season without a music director, an executive director or a clear vision for the future. Only one thing appears certain: The post-Eschenbach era is going to look a lot different.

Other orchestras were filling that hole.

During the decade of Eschenbach, as the Houston Symphony reached its artistic pinnacle and financial nadir, orchestras nationwide were beginning to recover from crisis. In an American Symphony Orchestra League study conducted between the 1990-1991 an 1997-1998 performing seasons, the turnaround was significant for many of the 109 orchestras involved in the research. The report found that symphony attendance was up by five million people; the number of concerts was up by 6,000; all categories of income were up; and the number of orchestras reporting deficits was down. Of the orchestras reporting data for all seven years, 72 percent were claiming a surplus by 1997-1998, while only 27 percent reported a deficit, compared to 49 percent in 1990-1991 season. And that's not all. The combined deficit of orchestras in the study had dropped 87 percent by 1997-1998, from $20.8 million to just $3.4 million.

Former executive director Wax: "I think [Houston has] done well, but we are not on the cutting edge of the arts."
Former executive director Wax: "I think [Houston has] done well, but we are not on the cutting edge of the arts."

At the same time, the Houston Symphony was struggling with a $7.6 million debt, declining subscriptions and a possible musicians strike. Even worse, its maestro had decided to resign. Eschenbach had seen the handwriting on the wall and realized it was time to move on. He had taken the orchestra as far as he could; he had created the highest level of professional music Houston had ever heard; and he had pushed the organization so far into the red that some wondered if it would ever recover.

"It wasn't Christoph's salary that was the problem," says Wax. "It was his artistic demands." And the fact that Houstonians simply weren't lining up to pay for them. In the 1997-1998 season, Eschenbach as music director was paid $858,988 by the Houston Symphony. In the next two years, as his work with the symphony tapered off, so did his fees, and the much more exorbitant touring and recording costs. But the bigger problems still remained: the deficit, the weak staff and board, the looming strike. Finally, in a last-ditch effort to avoid a walkout, the musicians turned to a longtime orchestra wizard, the president and guiding force of the Chicago Symphony.

"I hate to use consultant-ese," says the smooth-talking Henry Fogel from his Chicago office, "but this was an organization that was not "in alignment' with itself." The artistic side was on one page, the staff on another, the board uninvolved, and the public hardly even included. Fogel issued a report on the organization in May 1998 with some guidelines for salvation. The findings gave hope to all the stakeholders; the musicians union finally signed a contract, and the board began to wake up to the fact that it needed to be more responsive and more responsible. Musicians and board members credited Fogel with saving the orchestra. But it was too little, too late for Eschenbach, who resigned his post as music director and then, as conductor laureate, began his long farewell tour.

The spectacle of Eschenbach's drawn-out farewell has also served to overshadow the departure of his administrative counterpart, David Wax, a departure that could ultimately be of more significance to the organization's long-term stability.

"There are laurels that I don't mind resting on," says Wax, "or using as a springboard. I am leaving this orchestra artistically sound and in the best fiscal shape it's ever been in." A true enough statement, but one that relies also on the generosity of two local foundations and the fluctuations of the economy. In early 1998 endowed trusts were doing very well with investments, particularly the Houston Endowment. With more than $1 billion in assets, it is one of the largest foundations in the South, one that has, since that auspicious gift of $250 in 1940, given $7.85 million to the Houston Symphony -- almost half of that in 1998.

"We saw a need and we gave," says Steven Fenberg, community affairs coordinator for the endowment. In fact, Houston Endowment gave $3.7 million, with the Wortham Foundation covering the rest of the symphony's multimillion-dollar debt. Sources close to the bailout say one condition was that the symphony had to maintain a balanced budget; Fenberg will say guardedly only that "we always have an assurance that our money will be used wisely." Whether that means new leadership, new leadership is what the Houston Symphony will be getting.

During last year's "rebuilding" period, insiders feared that Margolis, the new board president, was pushing Wax out and trying to micromanage the orchestra. Wax has little to say about the board or Margolis, except that "the board always approved the budget." "They knew exactly what was going on," he adds.

Margolis, a retired retail executive and former chair of the University of Texas-Houston Health Science Center Development Board, declined to be interviewed for this article, saying, through a symphony spokesperson, that he preferred to remain in the background. But both Kirk and Fogel sing his praises as a can-do kind of guy. "I'm a fan of his," says Fogel. Kirk admits Margolis is very hands-on but also says it has been great for the orchestra to have someone listen to them, and then make a plan and see it through. "He's definitely the one driving the car right now," Kirk says.

In fact, many involved with the symphony are excited by the prospects of trying new things, such as video and the Internet, to attract new audiences. Some, including Wax, think the next challenge will be building a new home for the orchestra. Dallas's symphony finally turned its financial picture around when it opened the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in 1989. But a $150 million to $200 million orchestra hall is still more than a decade away for Houston, and industry experts agree that the orchestra, and its new executive director, first need to prove themselves to Houston audiences and donors before embarking on such a large capital campaign.

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