Going Baroque

Musicians and management of the Houston Symphony battle over a budget that wonít stay in the black

"I was floored," says Toeplitz. "It was so good, it was second to none."

Conductor from 1988 until 1999, when he left to direct the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eschenbach is credited with dramatically increasing the visibility and artistic reputation of the symphony by bringing in impressive talent, insisting on touring and expanding the group's recordings. Working with Eschenbach was a professional musician's dream, and even now those who played under him talk about his risk-taking, vision and musical interpretations like schoolkids with a crush.

"His sheer determination created something," says Kirk. "We were the only major U.S. orchestra that hadn't made a tour of Europe, and we were of the mentality that that would never happen. Then this guy showed up and the sky was the limit."

"To be number one, like Berlin, Vienna or Chicago, [an orchestra] needs financial involvement," said Eschenbach in 1997. "If the folks in Houston don't want that, I'm ready to leave."
Scott Kohn
"To be number one, like Berlin, Vienna or Chicago, [an orchestra] needs financial involvement," said Eschenbach in 1997. "If the folks in Houston don't want that, I'm ready to leave."
Dallas Symphony president Fred Bronstein is leading his organization out of debt.
© Giddings 2002
Dallas Symphony president Fred Bronstein is leading his organization out of debt.

But despite Eschenbach's advances, despite recordings that might be mistaken for some of the greatest orchestras in the world, Toeplitz says he's not sure that Houston appreciates the quality of its orchestra. In fact, it can be difficult to get people to appreciate any symphony. Jack McAuliffe, vice president of the American Symphony Orchestra League, acknowledges that in this fast-paced culture, attention spans are shortening every day, and the symphony is not amusement for the lazy.

"I think for some people the lack of visual stimulus is a challenge," he admits. "But the beauty of it is the fact that you as a listener are a participant. You provide the picture."

Of course, Houston Symphony musicians are quick to defend their role in the community. Their music is part of joyful celebrations, such as the annual Fourth of July concerts. It's also the city's balm: After the recent explosion of the space shuttle Columbia, the musicians played a free concert at Jones Hall. And just days after September 11, 2001, the players opened a free performance at Miller Outdoor Theatre with Aaron Copland's appropriate "Fanfare for the Common Man."

The symphony also has a community outreach program that provides free performances at homeless shelters, schools, hospitals and drug treatment centers. Cellist Jeffrey Butler remembers a shelter audience once asking the players to improvise "Amazing Grace."

"We came up with this amazing arrangement on the spot," he says. "It's a real pleasure to get out there and connect with people."

Besides providing an emotional backdrop, classical music may hold a more tangible importance for the city.

Joe Nelson, president of the Houston Endowment, believes a strong symphony is crucial to Houston's reputation in the business world.

"Regardless of the number of people who avail themselves of the concerts, their existence is good for recruiting employees," says Nelson. "Symphonies are a tremendously valuable asset -- they, like our other arts organizations, are so critical to our quality of life."

In fact, there are many people availing themselves of the concerts.

"The last decade was actually quite healthy for orchestras," notes McAuliffe. Despite the bad economy, symphonies across the country have seen attendance grow.

The Houston Symphony is certainly not alone in its financial struggles. The Pittsburgh Symphony is facing contract negotiations this summer, and it's already $2 million in the hole. Symphonies in Fort Worth, Dallas and San Antonio are facing shortfalls as well. The recession has delivered a sucker punch to many arts organizations' endowments, which rise and fall with the stock market. The Houston Symphony's tumbled from $56 million at the end of May 2002 to $45 million today.

Houston has also had to deal with a unique set of circumstances -- namely, Tropical Storm Allison, which caused an estimated $6 million worth of damage. Precious sheet music and irreplaceable instruments were lost, and the symphony staff was without permanent office space for nearly a year. Time better spent fund-raising instead went to rebuilding. And, while Enron was never a major donor to the Houston Symphony (although it did provide workspace after the flood), the collapse of the energy giant added to the malaise of the national economy.

Still, bad times are bound to come, say arts leaders, and a lousy economy can't always be an excuse for a financial crisis. Simply put, organizations have to save.

"You've got to have a bunker mentality," says Paul Tetreault, managing director of the Alley Theatre, which also suffered $6 million in damages from Allison but has rebounded to the point of being halfway to its $30 million capital campaign goal. "I don't mean slashing staff and cutting programs. I mean by being smarter, by being thrifty…When the good times are there, you better put the reserves away and build up those reserves for a rainy day, because eventually it rains."

The Dallas Symphony is certainly making a run at being smarter. President Fred Bronstein says the symphony is attempting to turn around its budgetary shortfall by ramping up fund-raising efforts and cutting expenses. It seems to be paying off: Donations are up about 7 percent from the previous year, and the organization has even been able to give its musicians a 4-1/2 percent pay increase.

"The way I always say it," says Bronstein, "is you've got an artistic vision you build, but you've got to build your institutional infrastructure on a parallel track. When those things get out of alignment, that's when you get into trouble."

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