elaine calder

Outgoing Oregon Symphony president Elaine Calder

Editor’s Note: In June and July James McQuillen and outgoing symphony president Elaine Calder sat down for two interviews, during which she talked about the problems she faced when she arrived at the symphony, what she did to address them and how things look going forward.  We posted those interviews in two separate parts. This post unites the two and adds a slightly edited transcription of the second interview. 

By James McQuillen

In June, Elaine Calder announced that she would resign as president of the Oregon Symphony, a position she has held since 2007. During her tenure, the symphony has weathered significant financial crises on its way to the kind of artistic and organizational success that proven elusive for many struggling American orchestras. In this, the first part of a two-part conversation, she talks about the state of the symphony when she took over, the way things stand now, and the roles of music director Carlos Kalmar, the administration and the musicians in keeping one of Oregon’s leading cultural institutions on an even keel.

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The balcony, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall/Courtesy Wikimedia

By James McQuillen

Editor’s note: This is the transcription of James McQuillen’s podcast interview with outgoing Oregon Symphony president Elaine Calder. First of two parts.

Earlier this month, Elaine Calder announced that she would resign as president of the Oregon Symphony, a position she has held since 2007. During her tenure, the symphony has weathered significant financial crises on its way to the kind of artistic and organizational success that proven elusive for many struggling American orchestras. In this, the first part of a two-part conversation, she talks about the state of the symphony when she took over, the way things stand now, and the roles of music director Carlos Kalmar, the administration and the musicians in keeping one of Oregon’s leading cultural institutions on an even keel.

James McQuillen: Elaine Calder, thank you for taking the time to chat. We’re chatting, obviously, because you’ve announced that you are leaving the Oregon Symphony; you’ve been with the symphony since 2006, first as a consultant, I understand, and then the next year formally—

Elaine Calder: President from July 2007.

I was wondering if you could describe first what you saw as the state of the organization when you were applying for the job, and your sense of what your job was when you took the job.

I remember leaving a meeting of the search committee fairly late in the process—I came down here several times; they were really careful, they did a good search. I remember leaving a meeting fairly late in the process and saying to somebody, “It looks like you need to raise three million dollars by November.” I can’t really remember why that was the number, or what terrible thing was going to happen in November if the orchestra didn’t raise three million by November—and it didn’t, and nothing terrible happened. So I guess I was wrong, but I got sort of back, “Yes, yes, you know, we’re going to, we understand.”

The August before I got officially hired—I think I was hired in September—there were massive layoffs in the office. Ten people, ten full-time people, were let go, including Carrie Kikel, who had been here for a long time doing PR and was really liked by the journalism community. And the staff were told they were now going to pay 20 percent of their health insurance premiums, and they were no longer going to get paid parking. And we were going to shut down our phone room, which we’ve since reinstated [using] outsourced telemarketers, because that was going to save money and we wouldn’t have to contribute to health insurance and all the rest. So I knew it was going to be a pretty demoralized staff.

When did I first hear the orchestra? It must have been in September. That really excited me. Even then—I say, as though six years ago they were nothing—they were really good. I was really impressed at what they were doing, and that matters to me. I had spent a long time talking with Carlos in Chicago at some point in the summer, and I really liked what he was doing. So I thought, the art is great, but I’m going to walk into a demoralized group of people and a board that was really anxious for change, and were coming up with any number of ways in which we could change, not all of which were necessarily feasible, just because of the way our business works. I suppose you could do anything, but there are things you’d better not try.

So I knew it was going to be shaky, I knew it was going to be hard. But—I said to the staff this morning, either it’s my original personality, or my personality has been formed because this is what I’ve done all my working life, but I work best when I’m struggling. That’s what I’ve done. So I wasn’t terribly worried about it. It actually got much worse later on, much worse.

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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.”

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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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