The Oregon Symphony after Elaine Calder: an introduction

The Oregon Symphony’s executive director, Elaine Calder

When the news that Oregon Symphony executive director Elaine Calder was resigning reached my email queue on Thursday, I was already getting into my Island Head on the beach. I read the press release, perused David Stabler’s elaboration on OregonLive and wrote the ArtsWatch classical music team. They are at work on various stories about Calder and the symphony, which will unspool here in the near future, if all goes well.

Not that there’s any particular mystery about why Calder is leaving. She joined the symphony as a consultant at the end of 2006 and became executive director in 2007, and she leaves for the prestigious Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, (think Oregon Shakespeare Festival before Bill Rauch arrived and without the magic crystal shops nearby), where she was executive director from 1990-1994.  The Shaw festival has been operating with substantial annual deficits recently, which makes Calder’s turnaround skills quite useful.

“I have personal family reasons for returning to Canada at this time in my life, and I do so with considerable regret,” the press release quoted Calder. Stabler reported that Calder’s mother lives in nearby London, Ontario. “It’s time to go home,” she told Stabler.

Calder’s departure, though, is a good time to start thinking about the recent history of the symphony and what its prospects are going forward. Both of these are connected to the general state of orchestras across the country, large and small, many of which are struggling, if they haven’t already packed away their sheet music for good. And that’s what we’ll be working on in the days and weeks to come: a good description of where the Oregon Symphony is now, possible future courses it may set for itself on both musical and business fronts and how the experiences of other orchestras may apply.

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My own first cut on Calder and her tenure at the symphony is pretty positive. When she arrived in 2006, the orchestra itself under Carlos Kalmar (who succeeded James DePreist in 2003) was in fine form musically, but relations between management and the musicians union were tense, and the orchestra seemed headed in a downward financial spiral, both because attendance was shrinking and donors of all sorts didn’t have confidence in its future. And then, of course, the Great Recession hit.

Calder successfully negotiated a new contract with the musicians (at lower cost to the symphony, both by shrinking the full-time orchestra from 84 to 76 and shrinking salaries and benefits), and she began a series of small moves to that had some big results, shrinking the annual deficit from $1.6 million in 2006 to small surpluses the past few years. Under Calder, the number of purely classical concerts per year shrank, but ticket revenue increased 38 percent as  special events were added to the schedule. Calder eliminated a $7.2 million long-term debt with money from the endowment, which shrank during her tenure from $24 million to $10 million. All of these numbers come from the press release and Stabler’s story.

The 2009 union negotiation, which I wrote about for The Oregonian, was especially fraught. The Great Recession had eroded the endowment and donations were way down. The symphony was asking musicians for big concessions, adding up to $1.4 million or so over the next two years, much of it in steep reductions of musician pensions and health coverage.  Both Bruce Fife, president of the musicians union, and Calder called it “save the orchestra” situation, and Fife praised Calder. “Elaine has taken the organization and has it on the right track,” he told me. “The level of communication has been pretty open, and that helps in the process.”

That sense of confidence that Calder projected and instilled may be her greatest achievement, because it was key to stabilizing the organization. The symphony stopped wobbling and vacillating and emerged with a clearer focus and direction. This is pure metaphor, of course, and reality is always a lot more complex than the metaphors we use to describe it. How many thousands of conversations did it take to develop and project that confidence among staff, board of directors, foundations and large donors? How many small defeats and periods of depression were involved? How many false positives were there? How many toes were stepped on and feelings hurt? How many errors were committed, misjudgments, wrong guesses? How much micro-management that drove staff crazy (if you’re a manager, either you are too aloof from the actual action or you are a micro-manager, I sometimes think)?

I emphasize the negatives here, simply because Calder didn’t “solve” the symphony’s central problems, which are demographic and cultural even more than they are financial. That meant the orchestra was always in scramble mode, even though Stabler wrote that it isn’t scrambling the way it was before Calder arrived, not scrambling for its immediate existence.

For ArtsWatch purposes, think of this description as provisional? Maybe in talking to Calder herself and other insiders at the symphony, we’ll learn some things that change our ideas about the last 6 years completely. In which case, we’ll do some serious re-describing.

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Cultural and demographic. The Oregon Symphony has the sixth-oldest orchestra in the country, the oldest in the West. But it didn’t have a full-time, professional orchestra until the early 1980s, when maestro James DePreist landed in town like a great whirlwind and whipped the city into a temporary frenzy that created Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and temporarily filled the symphony’s coffers and the new hall, even through a terrible national recession, which reached Depression proportions in Oregon.

I lived through that time, but even then, I didn’t think that Portland was a real classical music hotbed, not like cities in the East, even smaller ones, like Cincinnati, where the moneyed classes  committed to funding great orchestras that paid their musicians and conductors well. Just as an illustration:  In 2009, as the Oregon Symphony was pinching its pennies, Louise Nippert gave $85 million to the Cincinnati Symphony and Cincinnati, mostly the symphony (Nippert is a Procter & Gamble heir).

The Oregon Symphony draws huge crowds to its end-of-summer outdoor concert.

Portland was never as rich as Cincinnati (it’s amazing what being the birthplace of a great old-timey American consumer products corporation can do for the wealth of a city), though maybe it’s now closing the gap a little. But even in Cincinnati, with its long and illustrious tradition of classical music-making, orchestras have their troubles. Nippert’s gift was a response to the Cincinnati Orchestra’s own financial problems.

We’ll be spending some time in weeks ahead talking about culture and demographics, how orchestras have adapted to the aging of their audiences, to the marginalization of the music in the culture, and why that remains such a daunting task. We’ll try to figure out the specific dynamics at work in Portland, where indie culture is becoming the dominant mode, especially at the younger end of the spectrum. And we’ll have to talk about the money, because symphonies are expensive: I think it’s safe to say that no one in Portland supports as many resident artists as the Oregon Symphony.

Why are we going to bother? Because so many American cultural institutions, from newspapers to ballet companies to Harvard Classics (which just went online, in a free eBook edition) face the same issues, and though the shells may be crumbling, we think the contents of those institutions have great value to the culture, not as instruments of cultural control or expressions of superiority (as they’ve so often been employed) but as something much more dynamic and interesting than that. Can Mozart or Euripides set you free? Just maybe they can help. (Chet Baker? Most definitely!)

Right now, I’m listening to Spotify, specifically the Brad Mehldau “artist radio station,” which channels music that Spotify’s algorithms have determined to be congenial to Mehldau’s inventive jazz creations. The last five song progression: Tom Waits, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Chet Baker and now Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations. And when Gould’s idiosyncratic (in a genius kind of way) Bach came on, I smiled and thought, this fits perfectly. (I also thought, that’s a lot of dudes in a row, better dial up some Esperanza Spalding.)

The point is that our cultural life is interconnected, historical, and losing individual expressions let alone entire sections of our cultural library is a loss unfathomable in so many ways.

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So that’s why we’ll be digging into the Oregon Symphony this summer, even as we attend Oregon’s great summer music festivals, from Astoria to Jacksonville. We’re not sure what the vehicle that carries art music from our past should look like or what the best way to pay for it might be. But Calder’s resignation leads us to begin the consideration; maybe it will be a great parting gift.

The symphony press release said that someone on staff now will likely be named interim executive director while the board conducts a national search for Calder’s permanent replacement. Because the symphony had just poached Diane Syrcle from Oregon Ballet Theatre, where she’d been executive director, I immediately asked Jim Fullan, the symphony’s VP in charge of communications, marketing and sales, if  she was a likely interim at the very least, especially as she had led the Portland Youth Philharmonic from 2003-2010. He recommended that I shouldn’t speculate in this area. So I won’t. (Or did I already?) Here’s what he wrote:

“Regarding an interim, it’s way too soon to even speculate . . . Elaine has given us a nice long period of time in which to organize this end of things.  Assumptions as to whom this might be or how it will be handled would be unwise at this time.  We’ll have plenty of input from our committed  board of directors.  Another nice thing about Elaine’s accomplishments is the rock solid administrative team she’s put together.  The interim will be much easier because of the professionalism and poise of the team she’s put together.”

So, we’ll wait to see what happens on the interim front, remembering that Calder will be here through August. Which gives us plenty of chances to say thanks to her for her commitment to the symphony and the city.  She deserves them.

Tomorrow, look for a piece by Brett Campbell that looks at Calder from the perspective of a musician and a musician’s representative.

5 Responses.

  1. Jane Jarrett says:

    Looking forward to see what y’all come up with her. I’m a huge Calder fan, and am nervous about OSO’s future. I realize, however, that the work ahead is less her forte than the work she has accomplished. FYI, she is President, not Executive Director.

  2. bob priest says:

    that’s an excellent article, barry, many thanx!

    so, between stabler, bash & johnson, the flurry of features are firmly afoot . . .

    • Barry Johnson says:

      Thanks… I think Brett’s story tomorrow will be really interesting. Stay tuned!

      • Dan Rasay says:

        Looking forward to the upcoming articles!

        While I’m disappointed that Elaine is leaving PDX to save another cultural institution – the transition is a wonderful opportunity for her interim/replacement to rethink what will make the OSO sustainable/relevant in the post-EC era.

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