john cox

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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