Why Utah needs the Utah Symphony

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah Symphony head Melia Tourangeau knew just what to do with the million-dollar gift her organization received last month from the Eccles Foundation. "I delivered it straight to our CFO so that we could make payroll," Tourangeau said. As the recession drags on, no one wants to think about what might have happened without the timely gift. But if Utahns don't think about it, we might not do enough about it.

With new music director Thierry Fischer about to take the helm, a glowing, new musical chapter could await the Utah Symphony. Yet the recession, which has hit all of Utah's arts groups, is squeezing the orchestra's revenues from several sides at once.

Recent gifts may have staved off immediate demise, but without more support, the Utah Symphony's music could fade away before the economy recovers.

The domino effect that would follow such a loss could devastate the arts scene Utahns treasure, as the orchestra provides the foundation upon which many other arts and education opportunities throughout the state are built.

By its nature, a symphony orchestra can't react with nimbleness when ill economic winds erode financial support. Throughout history, orchestras have relied on support from arts patrons, governments and churches; no professional symphonies survive on ticket sales alone. So, even though the Utah Symphony's ticket sales increased over the past year, revenues declined in the aftermath of a stock-market plunge that harmed portfolios of donor organizations and lowered interest revenues from its endowment.

To make matters more dire, the amount the orchestra receives from Salt Lake County's Zoo, Arts and Parks program declined by more than $1 million per year after the sales tax on food was eliminated in 2007.

"This is an industry based on having 80 people in place to do something," said Utah Symphony | Utah Opera board president Pat Richards. "When your revenue declines by 30 percent, you can't cut costs enough to meet that."

Richards, a former senior vice president of Wells Fargo Bank in Utah, understands how businesses deal with declining revenues: They cut budgets, salaries and staff, and work existing employees harder.

US | UO has cut staff and administrative salaries, and orchestra players have donated $1.3 million in salary and benefits for the 2009-10 season, after accepting a $445,000 salary cut the previous year.

Further reductions aren't practical, she said. "The orchestra can't become any more productive," Richards said. "You can't just play faster."

Recent donations are helping, but Tourangeau isn't sighing with relief -- yet. "We still have a long way to go to fix the immediate crisis and to continue through the next few years until the economy recovers," she said.

The Eccles gift is part of a three-year initiative to raise $10 million in bridge funding that would cover estimated needs for the next three years. "We have very small reserves left," Tourangeau said. "If we don't meet our revenue goals this year, there won't be an orchestra or opera company in this town. The next step will be a total reorganization. If we have to go that route, neither the symphony nor the opera will come back with the caliber we have now."

Arts advocates argue the professional orchestra is essential to the health of Utah's capital city's downtown. The Utah Symphony is especially vulnerable, because Salt Lake City is the nation's smallest and most isolated market to support a major full-time orchestra, symphony officials say.

"People can take their treasures for granted," Richards said. "They can be lost to us if we fail to recognize the unprecedented challenge these economic conditions represent through no fault of anyone."

A reorganization would cancel the orchestra's contract with Fischer, Tourangeau said. "His contract is for a full-time, 85-piece orchestra," Tourangeau said. "Losing his leadership would be devastating at this point."

The orchestra's musicians, most recruited from outside Utah, would likely leave if they lost their full-time contracts, Tourangeau said. Other losses would surely follow.

The University of Utah, Brigham Young University and Westminster College would lose adjunct faculty members drawn from the Utah Symphony, and the level of music instruction in Utah would diminish. Chamber series and arts groups staffed by orchestra members would disappear. Educational activities that serve 170,000 Utah students per year would cease.

Musical quality would decline in other groups. Although Utah has other orchestras, they are staffed with part-time volunteers -- trained, in many cases, by members of the Utah Symphony. None share the Utah Symphony's mission to provide a full season of masterworks and accompanying educational activities, Richards said.

Salt Lake City would sustain a heavy blow as symphony patrons stopped coming downtown for dining, shopping and entertainment, city officials say. Utah's proud arts scene could begin to resemble a dying mall whose anchor tenant has departed.

Abravanel Hall, proclaimed by many visiting artists as one of the world's finest concert halls, would sit idle, depriving Salt Lake County of its rental revenue and staring blankly across West Temple at the new, billion-dollar City Creek Center project, now under construction.

Abravanel was built specifically for the orchestra "and has no other purpose," Richards said. "I think it would be one of the biggest tragedies if this community, which has funded such a fine hall, didn't have a fine orchestra to go with it."

The threat that Utah could lose some of its power to draw new residents and businesses isn't imaginary, Richards said. For her, it's personal. "I would not have stayed in this community myself if we didn't have these opportunities," said Richards, who moved to Utah from Chicago.

The orchestra's woes are being mirrored around the United States -- although each organization has its own structure and challenges, said Judith Kurnick, the League of American Orchestras' vice president for strategic communication.

The Honolulu Orchestra Symphony recently declared bankruptcy and is reorganizing. Orchestras in Charlotte, S.C., and Baltimore came perilously close to the brink before their communities rallied in support. Several other well-known orchestras had already reorganized before the latest downturn.

"We're seeing the kinds of cutbacks that Utah has had to take across the board," Kurnick said. "We call it shared ownership and shared sacrifice. Administrators, musicians, guest artists -- everyone is pitching in."

Tough times are forcing orchestras to think more creatively as American culture shifts the way people use their leisure time and technology. "There are bigger things going on than just the specific economic challenges," Kurnick said. "Orchestras recognize this is an adaptive time and are thinking more broadly about what is changing around them and how they can be more responsive."

Tourangeau said she won't be asking the Utah Legislature to increase the symphony's funding. "We don't want to be looking like we are more special than anybody else out there," she said. "The whole state is in a serious situation. If we could just hold onto the funding we've got, I would see that as a huge accomplishment."

Tourangeau took the helm of US | UO in January 2008, and barely six months later, the organization was rocked with financial crises. Yet the administrator and musician claims she doesn't regret the move from Michigan, where she was CEO of the Grand Rapids Symphony.

She believes her organization will survive -- and thrive.

"If I could be anywhere, I would want to be here, just because of the value that's placed on the arts in this community," she said. "I've got such an incredible board that is committed to getting us through this, and it's an incredible community. I have faith that we're going to get through it."

Utah Symphony | Utah Opera by the numbers

$17 million budget in 2009-2010, cut from $19 million in previous years

85 professional musicians (five positions currently vacant)

51 administrative staffers; cut from 60 previously

Appointed Swiss conductor Thierry Fischer as music director in October; he'll conduct his first concert Jan. 29

Merged in 2002 with the Utah Opera (annual budget $4.8 million), established in 1978

Opened Abravanel Hall in 1979

Maurice Abravanel, hired as conductor in 1947, led the orchestra until he retired in 1979

The Utah State Sinfonietta, the foundation of today's Utah Symphony, was formed in 1935 under the Federal Music Project and played its first concert in May 1940