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AN UNFINISHED SYMPHONY

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Well, it looks as though the Utah Symphony has bought itself a little more time - eight months, to be exact.

That's the net effect of last week's vote by the board of directors to go ahead with the orchestra's 1994-95 season - an outcome that was in doubt as recently as two weeks ago - but hold the door open on next summer. Which is another way of saying that, depending on finances then, that door could be shut.It isn't the first time. Last August the board and the musicians reached an 11th-hour compromise that ensured '93-94 would take place pretty much on schedule. (Earlier, the musicians had officially been put on notice that it might not.)

The effect then was to buy the orchestra another year, during which time the board promised to hire a new executive director and launch a major endowment drive. Until recently progress on each had been minimal, though, according to board chairman Ken Knight, another $50,000 has been added to the endowment, boosting the total to just over $7 million - right around the orchestra's current annual budget.

In addition a major step forward on the executive-director front was taken last week, when the board voted to offer the job to Nan Harman, currently president and CEO of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. Tuesday she told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle that she planned to decide within a week.

If the answer's yes, she'll have her work cut out for her.

In her year and a half in Rochester, Harman has already had some experience with an orchestra in financial distress. She has seen the RPO's budget slashed from $6.7 million a year to $5.8 million, then bumped back a bit to $6.1 million. She has seen the orchestra's season trimmed from 47 weeks to 41, with corresponding reductions in pay. And she has seen contributions from a once-thriving corporate community - including such recently hard-hit giants as Eastman Kodak, IBM and Bausch & Lomb - dwindle to around $560,000 for '93-94.

In that time she is generally credited with firming up the RPO's administrative structure and helping draw up a plan to build a $20 million endowment for the orchestra over the next two years. Reportedly, however, the first phase of that endowment campaign met with a less-than-spectacular response. More alarmingly, the organization was forced to dip into ticket sales for '94-95 to meet its payroll last May.

If all this sounds familiar, it isn't just because it resembles some of the storms the Utah Symphony has weathered in recent years. Orchestras all over the country seem to be in trouble these days, something acting executive director Warren K. McOmber - the man Harman would replace - had brought home to him at the American Symphony Orchestra League's annual conference in Dallas last June.

"This is a national problem that is facing many symphonies, even the very top ones," he says, "but particularly those in our revenue bracket - around $6-to-9 million in annual operating expenses.

The big guys like New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago have huge endowments, but some of them are also running huge deficits. But in our tier group, if you take their endowments down, they're dead."

In that respect, McOmber points out, the Utah Symphony is in better shape than some, for two reasons primarily.

"One, we still have that $7 million-plus in the donor-restricted fund that we can't touch, which gives us the ability to move forward. A lot of other symphonies have gone through their entire endowment, or taken them down so far they can't do anything. The other thing is we do not owe money to external sources - we have borrowed from ourselves, so to speak."

McOmber is referring to the fact that previous deficits have been met with money from what is referred to as the board-restricted portion of the endowment, as opposed to money from banks or other lending institutions. But that still leaves the orchestra with a cumulative deficit of close to $3 million, with an additional anticipated shortfall of $259,000 for next season.

"They say they need $250,000," says a longtime member of the orchestra. "Then all they would need to do is find 250 people who would give $1,000 each."

What they tried to do a little more than a year ago was find more people than that - namely the taxpayers of Salt Lake County, by way of an arts-tax referendum that was resoundingly rejected at the polls.

"It was our hope that, had it passed," McOmber says, "we would not only have met the terms of our contract with the musicians but over a period of time would have been able to pay back those borrowings."

Hence the mutual concessions of last August, involving pay cuts of approximately $2,100 per musician. Last month, by contrast, the musicians overwhelmingly rejected any further compromise talks, voting to hold the board to the current contract.

The problem this summer, however, hasn't been finding people willing to support the Utah Symphony at the polls - it's been finding people willing to support it at the box office.

"We've been seeing a downward trend in the summers the last few years," acknowledges the orchestra's marketing director, Jeffrey G. Paris. His personal view is that several things have contributed to this.

"First of all," he says, "the competition has changed unbelievably in just four years. The number of concert options that people have has just skyrocketed. ParkWest, now Wolf Mountain, has increased the number they're putting on. The Delta Center is now doing concerts in the summer. Plus there are now additional options at Snowbird, Deer Valley, even Saltair.

"Then, if you look at the artists that are being presented at Wolf Mountain this year, they are probably more in direct competition with our audiences than I've ever seen. Four years ago they were geared more to younger audiences, teenage concertgoers, with stars that you hear on the younger pop and rock stations. This year, though, it's very different, with Yanni with a symphony-like group and people like James Taylor and Harry Connick Jr., who start to creep into the age bracket we really market to."

The result is that a series that for a while looked to be the symphony's cash cow has actually lost money the past few summers. Attendance has been down at nearly every venue, indoor and outdoor, to the point where the season-finale concert Aug. 26, originally set for Franklin Quest Field, has now been moved to the Capitol Theatre.

"I sometimes wonder if we're trying to sell something people are no longer willing to listen to," laments flutist Michael Vance. "I know I'd like to see more people there. I think back to when it was hard to get a ticket and the halls were full."

He also wonders if maybe the classical community isn't providing too much competition for itself, citing the additional orchestras that have arisen locally in recent years. "(Former music director Maurice) Abravanel used to say, `There isn't room for more than one orchestra.' "

There also may not be room for more than a certain number of Utah Symphony concerts. Three weeks ago, for example, the orchestra offered three separate programs in five days - a concert with Michael Martin Murphey July 27 at Franklin Quest Field, two nights with the Manhattan Rhythm Kings July 29 at Abravanel Hall and July 30 at Deer Valley, and a classical program July 31 at Snowbird. Significantly - maybe even ominously - the last was the least well-attended of the four.

Does that make cuts in the season the logical conclusion? Musicians spokesperson Christine Osborne doesn't think so.

"It's very important for us to be a 52-week-season orchestra," she insists. Apart from the prestige, she says, "it makes us more of a full-service orchestra, because we're playing throughout the year. And the summer season really provides us with a different audience than the winter, and a different musical experience, which I think is very important."

Donald Thulean, vice president of orchestra services for the ASOL, tends to agree.

"Any movement that's going to change in a dramatic way the way the institution operates, the way it relates to its primary employees, who are the musicians, is a precarious one," he warns, adding that it's "bound to have some repercussions."

And though he points out a number of orchestras that have bounced back to a degree even from bankruptcy, he agrees that, in the case of the Utah Symphony, a unique legacy would be lost.

"I often refer to the Utah Symphony as the truly American orchestra, because even more than the repertoire it plays, its uniqueness in terms of its position in a city that is relatively small makes it archetypal. Because it exists out of the spirit and leadership of one person, Maurice Abravanel, who was able to excite a number of people and rallied the whole state around the idea of an orchestra."

Nonetheless even legacies have their price. And in recent years the Utah Symphony's has seemed just above the current level of public and donor support.

"An endowment drive is absolutely critical," Osborne emphasizes. "At the same time, maybe we need to reach out to the community a little bit more and see if we can obtain some grants to help us play for people we haven't ordinarily played for. We need to demonstrate the contributions the symphony makes to the economy and quality of life here as a cornerstone of our cultural environment."

That's a more upbeat view than some of the musicians were expressing even a few weeks ago, when rumors were rampant the executive committee had voted to scuttle the season, with the hope of eventually cutting it back to 36 weeks and/or reducing the size of the orchestra.

Ken Knight acknowledges that canceling next summer would probably do that, but denies that's his object.

"Our goal now is to let the orchestra survive," he says. "But we're going to have to figure out a way to pay for it."

So obviously this story isn't over, but neither at this point is the Utah Symphony. The problem is looking beyond the next eight months. And, as has been pointed out before, that probably involves looking into some pockets - maybe one of them your own.