Elaine Calder may be departing as Oregon Symphony president at summer’s end, but her performance in the six years she led the orchestra will help shape the search for her successor. And coming as it does at a pivotal moment in the organization’s history, that decision may determine the orchestra’s future.
Calder joined the orchestra at a critical juncture when its very existence, like that of other American orchestras, might have been in jeopardy, thanks to the recession and long-term changes in the classical music ecosystem. During her six years with the symphony, the orchestra saw a 38% increase in revenues from ticket sales, an increase in average paid attendance, a return to radio with broadcasts on Portland’s all-classical radio station and a new record deal. Most important, she helped get the organization out of a financial crisis that threatened its future, paying off its $7.2 million debt and turning an annual $1.6 million operating loss into small surpluses in the past two years.
To do so, Calder dipped into the symphony’s reserves and negotiated a contract with the musicians that shortened the season and temporarily reduced in the number of players from 88 to 76, primarily in the string section.
“I have tremendous respect for her for being able to sell the orchestra to the funding community in a dark time when it was in the midst of financial difficulty and on the edge of something worse,” says violinist Ron Blessinger, an orchestra member since 1990.
“When we did that search [for a new president in 2006], Elaine was unique among all the candidates we looked at,” says OSO principal French horn player John Cox, who participated on that search committee. “She did the job she was hired to do — cajole, coerce, plead, sometimes all of those at the same time — whatever it took to hold it together and reach stability.”
Strategy for Survival
At a time of tremendous discord between some American orchestra musicians and their organizations, Calder was able to negotiate a contract that enabled the organization to survive, without alienating its principal asset: the musicians, Cox says.
“Elaine has been a tough negotiator, no doubt, but with clear purpose in mind: reaching a final outcome and contract that all parties could live with,” he told ArtsWatch from San Diego, where he’s playing in the Mainly Mozart festival.
“That is not common within the industry. The outcome we desperately needed was a way to get out of our financial turmoil and meet the real financial needs of the musicians to be able to live in Portland and continue to attract the top talent we have.” Cox explains that the board probably wanted deeper cuts to make the fundraising challenge less daunting, while the musicians lamented the reduced performances (and thus paydays). “Neither side got everything they wanted — she didn’t get everything she wanted from us — but she made it possible for the organization to reach a sustainable agreement maintaining realistic musician salaries and high artistic standards..”
Calder’s success came from her credibility as a sharp financial manager and from “her genuine interest in music and art,” Blessinger says.
I’ve seen Calder at many concerts by Blessinger’s Third Angle New Music Ensemble, the FearNoMusic ensemble, and other adventurous local groups featuring OSO musicians. “That’s not just out of a sense of duty,” Blessinger says. “She genuinely wants to know what’s going on, as a civic-minded person. As a result of that, when she needed the musicians on her side, by and large they were there for her. It was easier to make the case for difficult choices like a pay cut. She understood both sides and that gave her a lot of credibility.”
Blessinger also noted that the concrete evidence of the orchestra’s success at raising the quality of its playing (as confirmed by the rave reviews it earned in Portland and by the national press at its Carnegie Hall appearance) “facilitated the discussion because at the end of the day, it was clear that we’re all on the same page about quality, and we just needed to come together on a road map of how to maintain it.”
Calder offered other assets that will be hard to find in a successor. Though some staffers reportedly found her to be a demanding boss, Calder served as an engaging public representative of the orchestra, whose conductor lives in Portland only part-time.
Her theatrical background made her a charming, comfortable speaker onstage. I still remember the orchestra’s first home appearance after the Carnegie Hall triumph. Usually, the musicians wander onstage with the house lights up while the audience is getting seated. Then they chat as they warm up and tune until the lights go down and Calder or the evening’s conductor enters to applause. Instead, Calder entered a bare stage alone, and after heartfelt remarks about the Carnegie experience and thanks all around, she arranged for the orchestra to enter en masse. “Please welcome the Oregon Symphony,” she said as they strolled onstage to riotous applause. “Your Oregon symphony!” It’s hard to imagine many other symphony executives seizing that moment so perfectly.
“She’s an acknowledgment that the orchestra needed a public face who could articulate for us and get us through tough times,” Blessinger says. “She should rightly be proud of the job that she’s done in bringing us to this point.”
Seeking a New Vision
Now the orchestra faces a challenge in finding a successor whose job will be different from Calder’s. “I think the organization is ready for a different kind of president,” Calder said in her resignation statement, “one who can now be less focused on operational reorganization and able to work with the board and the broader community to ensure a brilliant future for this dazzling orchestra.”
But Cox and Blessinger say that her successor should have many of Calder’s qualities. “She has shown us the type of person we want in that job,” Blessinger says. “That makes it easier to draw up a job description. I hope she’ll be instrumental in advising on the search. She’s the model, so we know that’s what we’re seeking. It’s important to find someone who can talk to business people and understand bottom lines and making tough choices, but who also has her heart in the right place and a passion for the product we’re putting out. She is the complete package in that regard. That’s gonna be hard to replace.”
Cox wants to see many of Calder’s qualities in her successor. “We’re in a position now where we can truly start to build new things for the orchestra,” Cox says. “She brought tremendous strengths, and the person that inherits that position is going to need strength of artistic vision as well as fiscal soundness and organizational and financial vision.”
Cox, who served on the musicians’ committee in all five of the last contract negotiations, says that Calder’s background in entertainment presenting rather than orchestra management gave her a unique perspective that helped her persuade the board to take some difficult decisions, knowing that they would be better for the orchestra’s long term health, beyond the current crisis.
“One of strengths Elaine did bring was the ability to think outside the box,” he says. “Classical music presentation is 30-40 years behind the times, and public attitudes toward the arts have changed since 1980. The challenge will be finding someone that’s going to recognize that there’s no cookie cutter, one-size-fits-all solution for orchestra management [and] finding someone who’s going to be able to truly look at how things have changed and are changing rather than how things have always been done.”
Calder’s successor should also be sensitive to Portland and Oregon’s unique qualities, Cox says. I have to admit that I was skeptical when she arrived, making noises about perhaps bringing in Christian rock concerts backed by the orchestra as a way to broaden the pops audience. That might draw audiences in other places, but it hardly seems a recipe for success in Portland, and we heard no more about that after she arrived and assessed the local scene. Some of the OSO’s pops and other so-called “crossover” offerings — Pink Martini, Storm Large, Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons), Rufus Wainwright —have been a lot hipper and less formulaic than many other orchestras’, and more appropriate to Portland.
“Part of Elaine’s genius has been her ability to adjust to the market and try to make the organization fit what our local market needs,” Cox says.
Blessinger (who, like Cox, emphasizes that he can’t speak for the entire orchestra) says that he’s “open to anything else that will help us connect and build an audience — educational initiatives, pops, bringing in a new resident conductor, developing experimental programs. The players are eager to connect with the community.”
But Blessinger and others primarily “want to maintain and improve on the high artistic standards Carlos has led us to. We want to continue that trajectory.” That means rebuilding the orchestra to full strength — “a full section of strings sounds better than a half section; eight stands of cellos sound better than three stands.”
It also means boosting musicians’ pay. Most OSO members have other gigs, including teaching, which adds to the time demands of rehearsal, practice and performing in dozens of concerts each year. “We want to have a salary level commensurate with the level of playing we’ve attained,” Blessinger says. “We live in a city that’s not cheap, and we want this to be a full time job. We’ll do everything we can to support that path.”
However, what the musicians want from the OSO is only one factor that the new president must consider, and raising performance quality is only one priority. For example, the new president should also consider ways to broaden the OSO audience, including through the programming of works from our own time and place — something Kalmar says is not so important to the current audience. ArtsWatch will have more to say about this subject this summer.
Elaine Calder did a superb job of bringing stability and helping increase the artistic quality of the Oregon Symphony, and the orchestra and the community owe her considerable gratitude for her accomplishment. Her successor will face a different challenge: creating a new, 21st century vision that will enable it to not just survive, but to thrive in a rapidly changing cultural, economic, and demographic environment. The OSO’s choice of a new leader next year will give us a good idea of what that vision will be.
Here’s a story I wrote for Willamette Week early in Calder’s tenure at the OSO.