Utah Symphony musicians have voted 63-1 to support all of the recommendations in a consultant's report designed to help Utah Symphony & Opera avoid financial collapse.
But does the Friday night vote also indicate that the musicians want Anne Ewers replaced as CEO of Utah Symphony & Opera?
"We want the [Tom] Morris report implemented," said Joe Hatch, attorney for the musicians. "If the CEO can live with the Morris report, we are comfortable. If she can't, I would think that the musicians would prefer that she go."
Morris, former executive director of Boston Symphony and Cleveland Orchestra, calls for restructuring of Ewers' duties and administration. He recommends that an "oversight task force" be created to supervise the process, led by "a committed chair -- a champion." His report says that "will not happen if left to Executive Committee and Board."
US&O's board of trustees adopted the financial recovery plan from the Morris report Thursday, and named Wells Fargo executive Patricia Richards to chair the task force. Richards was not available for comment Saturday night.
In a statement Saturday, Hatch said US&O management is "basically reconstituting its current executive committee," which includes two members of the orchestra, to serve as the oversight task force.
"That's like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," he said.
Morris' report does not stipulate that the task force be chaired by someone outside the US&O organization, but that is what musicians want -- "a community leader with 'fresh eyes' . . . in the mold of a Mitt Romney."
Rick Horne, a member of the task force, said it will "review and thoroughly digest the report and make recommendations to the board." He said the task force is willing to consider Morris' recommendation that outside consultants advise the board -- a sticking point for the musicians.
Ewers was not available for comment Saturday night, but was her unflappable self Friday despite this week's revelations that US&O is in deep financial trouble.
Ewers was the pivotal figure in the 2002 consolidation that turned Utah Symphony and Utah Opera into a joint entity. It was her strong performance as general director of Utah Opera that prompted the controversial merger as a way of spreading her managerial and fund-raising skills to the Utah Symphony.
And Ewers was more than willing to take on the job of wrestling the two prickly arts groups into a cohesive package. Back then, she proclaimed the promise of the consolidation with evangelical zeal, preaching a gospel of "synergies," "economies of scale" and "opportunities for artistic enhancements."
Ewers didn't know then how hard it would be to combine two unlike organizations while maintaining revenues and pursuing fund-raising efforts. She knows now, and admits it with the blend of toughness and finesse that earned her the nickname "The Iron Butterfly."
"There is no question that we had deficits far larger than I ever would have hoped," Ewers said. "I take full responsibility for the fact that we struggled to put a staff in place and restructure. There is no question that it took away from the fund-raising effort."
The result was a precipitous drop in corporate and individual giving in the Salt Lake City area. Meanwhile, ticket sales for operas and orchestra concerts dropped off.
Concerns that US&O was foundering sharpened when accounting errors that obscured a mounting deficit were revealed as the 2003-04 fiscal year closed last August. When incorrect entries of in-kind contributions and other mistakes were discovered, "what we thought was a $700,000 shortfall all of a sudden went to $1.6 million," Ewers said.
Core values: It was that jump in US&O's deficit that prompted orchestra musicians to ask that a consultant be hired to study the symphony-opera's business practices. The musicians were due to sign new contracts last August, but entered a "Talk and Play" agreement instead for the duration of Morris' study, which he presented Monday.
Though Ewers said she received useful help from Morris, she disagrees with some aspects of his report. She stands by the $1.6 million shortfall figure for 2003-04, though Morris' report states that "the basic structural deficit is even worse" -- $3.3 million.
The difference arose because Morris considered expenses from the Deer Valley Music Festival and US&O's upcoming European tour as "subsidiary" instead of a part of US&O's core product, Ewers said, adding that Morris' perception that US&O lacked a business plan for the first year of the Deer Valley Music Festival led to the discrepancy.
"We had a plan for [DVMF's] first year," Ewers said. "The plan had been to see how the first year went and evaluate . . . We are putting together a group of specialists to create a business plan [for future years of DVMF]."
State of the union: Ewers rejects the notion that US&O is in a "crisis" situation. She said that US&O's deficits during the merger's first two years were covered by a cash reserve created by a major donation from the Loretta Kearns family.
"We could have put the money into operations. We chose to create a cash reserve knowing that the first couple of years of startup [of the merger] would need that kind of support," Ewers said. "We do not have an accumulated deficit, and prior to the merger, there was a $4 million deficit on the symphony's side."
Ewers said the financial recovery plan adopted by US&O's board of trustees Thursday will "turn this ship around. But it's not just about falling revenues and ticket sales and fund-raising," she added. "There was a 50 percent increase in the labor contract over five years." Morris' report cites the same figure.
Hatch, attorney for American Federation of Musicians Local 104, which represents the musicians, said the 1999 contract amounted to about 40 percent spread over eight years, and still leaves Utah Symphony musicians with low salaries compared to other 52-week orchestras in the United States.
The Morris report calls for the musicians to accept a two-year pay freeze.
"[The musicians] are willing to accept a contract consistent with the Morris report," Hatch said, "as long as [US&O's board] adopts the entire plan."
The present disharmony was predicted by several vocal opponents of the merger in 2002, including Carolyn Abravanel, widow of legendary Utah Symphony conductor Maurice Abravanel. Leslie Peterson, daughter of Utah Opera's founder Glade Peterson, expressed her lack of confidence quietly, but emphatically. She resigned her position as Utah Opera's director of operations in protest.
"I always felt that the reasons for merging were not based on sound fiscal analysis or a valid foundation," Peterson said Friday. "I feel that the cultural differences between the two organizations were a sign that a merger would be difficult to sustain. Even back then, there were many discussions of adding programs, indicative of plans to grow the organization too quickly."
Deer Valley too dear? Morris' plan makes recommendations against Ewers' pet project, the Deer Valley Music Festival. Morris says DVMF's financial results are "totally dependent on a few major gifts," that the festival consumes too much of Ewers' time and that Ewers is already raising money for a building at Deer Valley.
Morris says that as a new business venture, the festival must not be predicated on major contributions or dilute attention on core business, and needs to be accepted by US&O's board.
Jerry Ferraira, a former Utah Symphony marketing director who lives in Florida, said, "The most significant part of the report for me is that it insists that concert revenue projections be based on ticket income rather than one-time, big donations that allow tickets to be given away to fill seats, which can be just a smoke screen for poor paid attendance. In my career marketing American orchestras, ticket income has always been supplemented by donations, not replaced by them."
US&O board member Geralyn Dreyfous has no problem accepting Ewers' plans for DVMF.
"I find [Ewers] to be remarkably ambitious, resilient, capable of thinking outside the box and doggedly determined to fix problems," Dreyfous said. "The idea behind the Deer Valley Festival is to build a summer festival with our outstanding orchestra and conductor. It's an area of growth and potential where we can build a future. I wish there were more million-dollar gifts, but it takes time."
Hatch thinks the time should be spent elsewhere.
"A merger requires a ton of work, a learning curve, a whole variety of things that require a lot of energy," Hatch said. "[US&O's board] hired Anne Ewers to do all that to make the merger work and to build the core base of the opera and symphony so they could realize their potential. But she doesn't deal with the merger. She does Deer Valley, does all kinds of enhancements and spends all her time on it. That what's strange about this."
Ewers' passion for DVMF signifies something basic about her management style. She doesn't shy away from bold ventures. Paraphrasing words of Kennedy Center executive Michael Keyser, Ewers puts it this way:
"When you are in a situation of struggle, you want to put your biggest and best thing forward, keep yourselves visible and create a splash."
For all her bravado, though, Ewers will accept much of what Morris recommends to set things right at US&O. She intends to stop giving away free tickets to create the illusion of a full house, better promote the established "brands" of Utah Symphony and Utah Opera instead of Utah Symphony & Opera, win back donors and season-ticket buyers alienated by the merger, communicate better with the musicians and change Utah Opera's upcoming seasons to cut costs and attract more audience.
Ewers also is working on undoing several controversial changes she instigated: visual enhancements to symphonic masterworks not designed for them; loss of the orchestra's Finishing Touches series; and moving some Saturday night concerts to afternoon.
She is even willing to accept Morris' recommendation that she give up some of her managerial responsibilities (she is CEO of US&O, general director of Utah Opera and executive director of Deer Valley Music Festival).
"Tom [Morris] was great," Ewers said. "He said, 'Anne, you could be God and couldn't do all these things.' . . . I expect to do some restructuring."
Looking at Lockhart: Music director Keith Lockhart was cited in the Morris report too, with the proscription that he should provide greater "institutional value" to US&O.
Lockhart, who also directs the Boston Pops, said he realizes he needs to be more visible in Utah.
"It's about me being willing to front the organization as much as possible. We are looking at high-profile ways to make that happen. I am already doing more weeks and across more series than any [other conductor] since Abravanel has done. I will continue, and enhance that as much as I am able."
Joseph Silverstein, former music director of the Utah Symphony, said board members should also care about the music, which Morris characterizes as "better than ever."
"The definition of board members for a long time was public-spirited music lovers," Silverstein said. "Unfortunately, many people are arbitrarily put on a board because they are well-connected. . . . Having people on the board who rarely, if ever, attend a concert really can't work."
Silverstein's comments also included the US&O's most important stakeholders, who are not mentioned in Morris' report, but might decide the ultimate fate of Utah Symphony & Opera:
"There is a wonderful audience in the Salt Lake Valley for serious classical music. There really is an audience there, and they have to be taken care of -- and they have to take care of the orchestra. . . . It's a great asset to the community in so many ways, and I hope the people of the area realize that."
Tribune reporter Catherine Reese Newton contributed to this article.
An expensive marriage
* Orchestra pre-merger, 2002: Utah Symphony had a $12 million annual budget and had been operating near break-even for the five years since Salt Lake County's Zoo, Arts and Park tax took effect in 1997. The symphony dipped into cash reserves (called board-restricted endowment) before ZAP, and had never paid the money back, so it carried a deficit around $4 million. The symphony's endowments stood at around $20 million.
* Opera pre-merger, 2002: Utah Opera had a $5 million budget and a projected yearly budget surplus of $390,000 through 2006. The company owned its production studio, and had about $2 million cash. Donations and ticket sales were strong and trended upward. Opera general director Anne Ewers, considered an excellent fund-raiser and manager, was growing restless.
* Merger ratified July 8, 2002: Utah Symphony and Utah Opera were combined for an annual budget of $17 million. Annual savings of up to $400,000 were anticipated in administration. A $400,000 budget surplus was projected for the first two years of consolidation with continuing smaller surpluses through 2006. The merged organization was expected to save money through efficiencies of scale, elimination of duplicate management jobs and improved scheduling of symphony musicians, and to attract donations from large national foundations. Merger opponents questioned those projections.
* Announcement of Deer Valley Music Festival, November 2003: Corporate and individual giving to Utah Symphony & Orchestra fell off sharply after the merger, as did ticket revenues. As a declining economy and shifting audience taste worried arts groups around the nation, US&O took a bold step -- a month-long summer festival in Deer Valley in 2004. Six concerts per week were balanced between classical and pops symphonic music; chamber music; and fully staged light opera. Thanks in part to in-kind ticket trades, crowds were generally large. Still, ticket revenues were lower than in past years though more concerts were played.
* Last week: Orchestra musicians became concerned when the 2003-04 fiscal year closed last August showing a $1.6 million deficit and dangerously depleted cash reserves. At the musicians' request, a consultant was selected by administration to make recommendations for recovery. Besides calling for deep financial cuts and spending reductions, the consultant mandates sweeping changes in administrative practice,
including the role of US&O's CEO, Ewers.
Sources: US&O audits; Salt Lake Tribune archives; Joseph Hatch, attorney for American Federation of Musicians Local 104; Anne Ewers, CEO of US&O; 2005 consultant's report by Thomas W. Morris.