State of the Arts: VSO raises endowment despite recession
Stefan Hard / Staff Photo
Alan Jordan testifies before the Senate Appropriations Committee at the Statehouse in Montpelier last week. Jordan is executive director of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra.
Editor’s Note: This continues a weekly series of interviews with the state’s arts leaders.
By Jim Lowe
The Vermont Symphony Orchestra, like virtually all of the state’s arts organizations, took a big financial hit with the recession. But, unlike others, the state’s professional symphony orchestra was able to fund its first endowment, lending it long-term stability.
“We raised $3.5 million between 2007 and 2011, which was somewhat counter-intuitive to what the rest of the world was doing,” explained Alan Jordan, now in his 15th year as the VSO’s artistic director.
“It was a heady time for us because while we were having all this success raising money, we were struggling like everyone else with the recession,” Jordan said. “We actually cut a quarter-million out of our (annual) budget.”
The VSO is unusual for a couple of reasons. Unlike most symphony orchestras, it has a statewide mandate. So, in addition to its five-concert series at Burlington’s Flynn and three concerts at Rutland’s Paramount, the VSO — in various incarnations and sizes — travels around the state with eight Made in Vermont Music Festival concerts, seven holiday concerts, four family Halloween concerts, nine summer pops concerts and nearly 180 performances for schoolchildren each year.
The VSO also has an unlikely music director for so small a state. Jaime Laredo is a world-famous violinist and conductor who divides his time between performing worldwide, teaching at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and living at his Vermont home in Guilford.
Laredo developed his passion for Vermont while a young violinist at the state’s revered Marlboro Music Festival. He not only offers the orchestra musical expertise and inspiration, he brings his famous friends — like cellist Yo Yo Ma — to the state as soloists, and often for substantially cut fees.
That is fortunate because the VSO creates all those concerts using excellent professional musicians on a $1.5 million annual budget. Of that, 40 percent comes from ticket sales and contract fees, 8 percent from public support — mostly from a state appropriation, some from the Vermont Arts Council — and a bit more from the National Endowment for the Arts. The remainder comes from individual gifts and income from the endowment.
“Our draw (from the new endowment) this year is almost $120,000 — that’s just 4 percent,” Jordan said. “It’s like a new appropriation, that was the point of it.”
The VSO is ending the recession with an accumulated deficit of $360,000.
“It’s an accounting number — it has nothing to do with what’s in the bank,” Jordan said. “That’s basically our years of revenues versus our years of expenses and what the bottom line is. It was down to $292,000, and went up by $68,000. But it’s manageable.”
Fortunately, the VSO was able to weather the bad years without cutting programs much.
“We did it in ways people didn’t see very much,” Jordan said. “We sometimes had smaller orchestras on stage. I joked that when we had Yo Yo Ma here, we could have cardboard cutouts for the orchestra and it would have been really cheap. But we ended up having only 47 musicians for that concert.
“What we really wanted to do was to maintain the reach of the orchestra around the state, and maintain the programs,” Jordan said. “The quality was the same, but we were limited in what we could do for repertoire.”
Different music requires different numbers of musicians. Mozart and Beethoven, as well as many modern works, can be performed with fewer than 40 players, while big Romantics like Tchaikovsky and Mahler require 65 or more.
The VSO players are hired — from around the state, and around the Northeast — only as needed, and are paid for the time they rehearse and play (plus expenses).
“Our regular string players didn’t notice it — they were still playing,” Jordan said. “Where it really hurt was for those auxiliary winds, brass, and percussion players. The piccolo player got scaled back a lot. Her hit could have been as much as 50 percent. That certainly didn’t go unnoticed by anybody.”
There was also a wage freeze for both the orchestra and staff for two years, and the staff also had to take a 3 percent pay cut.
“It was a small price we all had to pay, but it allowed us to retrench,” Jordan said. “Now the orchestra is at a higher level than it was before the recession. Staff is a little bit higher too. Now we’re starting to move toward larger orchestras for the classical programs.”
The VSO gets most of its visibility from the Flynn Masterworks Series and Rutland’s Sunday Matinee Series at the Paramount.
“It’s a big chunk of our budget, but programmatically, it’s just five of our concerts (eight including Rutland) out of 25 to 40 a year,” Jordan said. “But it’s still our meat and potatoes — it’s our focus. And it’s where we take the most risk and need the most support — because it’s the costliest.”
Recent full houses at the Flynn are somewhat deceiving.
“We do distribute a lot of tickets which we don’t get cash payment for — sponsors, for example, get them,” Jordan said.
The VSO is also most unusual in that musicians who must travel from a distance are housed in private homes.
“And one of the benefits for housing is a ticket,” Jordan said.
At present, Flynn attendance ranges from 65 to 79 percent.
“This year, we’ve seen tickets a little off from what we expected. I don’t have any evidence as to what’s causing that — I don’t think it’s programmatic,” Jordan said. “Our subscriptions were down a little bit this year, and I don’t have anything to attribute that too. I can’t blame the new sales tax.”
Conversely, Rutland’s Sunday Matinee Series has increased over the past two years.
“The Made in Vermont tour was up this year — partly because Jaime was doing it. But holiday pops was down,” Jordan said. “We just seem to be stable. We have enough balls in the air going so that when one thing is down something else is making up for it.”
One thing Jordan doesn’t worry about is the future of classical symphonic music.
“The audience is gray — but it’s always been that way,” Jordan said. “If anything we look pretty different in Burlington because a good portion of our audience in Burlington is made up of families of the Vermont Youth Orchestra. We have 150 subscriptions from VYO family members. On the other end of the spectrum, we have a busload from Wake Robin (retirement community) at every concert.”
For Jordan the future lies with the “empty-nesters.”
“If you get somebody in there in their mid-50s and they become a subscriber, you’ve got them for 25 or 30 years,” Jordan said “By the time they’re ready to retire from symphony participation, we’ll have another group that’s ready.
“I’m perpetually optimistic,” he said. “In so many ways, seeing my children and their friends, and the national growth of the youth orchestra movement, I’m not at all worried about the future of classical music.”