By James McQuillen
Editor’s note: This is the transcription of James McQuillen’s podcast interview with outgoing Oregon Symphony president Elaine Calder. First of two parts.
Earlier this month, Elaine Calder announced that she would resign as president of the Oregon Symphony, a position she has held since 2007. During her tenure, the symphony has weathered significant financial crises on its way to the kind of artistic and organizational success that proven elusive for many struggling American orchestras. In this, the first part of a two-part conversation, she talks about the state of the symphony when she took over, the way things stand now, and the roles of music director Carlos Kalmar, the administration and the musicians in keeping one of Oregon’s leading cultural institutions on an even keel.
James McQuillen: Elaine Calder, thank you for taking the time to chat. We’re chatting, obviously, because you’ve announced that you are leaving the Oregon Symphony; you’ve been with the symphony since 2006, first as a consultant, I understand, and then the next year formally—
Elaine Calder: President from July 2007.
I was wondering if you could describe first what you saw as the state of the organization when you were applying for the job, and your sense of what your job was when you took the job.
I remember leaving a meeting of the search committee fairly late in the process—I came down here several times; they were really careful, they did a good search. I remember leaving a meeting fairly late in the process and saying to somebody, “It looks like you need to raise three million dollars by November.” I can’t really remember why that was the number, or what terrible thing was going to happen in November if the orchestra didn’t raise three million by November—and it didn’t, and nothing terrible happened. So I guess I was wrong, but I got sort of back, “Yes, yes, you know, we’re going to, we understand.”
The August before I got officially hired—I think I was hired in September—there were massive layoffs in the office. Ten people, ten full-time people, were let go, including Carrie Kikel, who had been here for a long time doing PR and was really liked by the journalism community. And the staff were told they were now going to pay 20 percent of their health insurance premiums, and they were no longer going to get paid parking. And we were going to shut down our phone room, which we’ve since reinstated [using] outsourced telemarketers, because that was going to save money and we wouldn’t have to contribute to health insurance and all the rest. So I knew it was going to be a pretty demoralized staff.
When did I first hear the orchestra? It must have been in September. That really excited me. Even then—I say, as though six years ago they were nothing—they were really good. I was really impressed at what they were doing, and that matters to me. I had spent a long time talking with Carlos in Chicago at some point in the summer, and I really liked what he was doing. So I thought, the art is great, but I’m going to walk into a demoralized group of people and a board that was really anxious for change, and were coming up with any number of ways in which we could change, not all of which were necessarily feasible, just because of the way our business works. I suppose you could do anything, but there are things you’d better not try.
So I knew it was going to be shaky, I knew it was going to be hard. But—I said to the staff this morning, either it’s my original personality, or my personality has been formed because this is what I’ve done all my working life, but I work best when I’m struggling. That’s what I’ve done. So I wasn’t terribly worried about it. It actually got much worse later on, much worse.
‘08, ’09, it was worse for everybody then, right? But if you weren’t strong to begin with, ‘08 and ’09 really dealt a body blow.
And you said that this is what you’ve been doing all your working life, but you don’t have specifically a background in orchestral—
I’d managed the Edmonton Symphony for six years.
Oh, you did? I didn’t know that.
Yes, I managed Edmonton for six years. I was at the National Arts Center in Ottawa on a short-term contract for nine months, cleaning up a real mess there, where actually Pinchas Zukerman reported to me (although I don’t think Pinchas ever realized that). I had the orchestra there, but I wasn’t really managing the orchestra—the NAC is like a mini-Kennedy Center, you’ve got orchestra, you’ve got two theaters (both languages), you’ve got dance, you’ve got all kinds of stuff. And I studied piano for a long time, a long time, right into university, although I had no talent, and that was clear to everybody including me. But music has been a part of my life, and I have some understanding what it is our musicians do and how they go about doing it. A lot of orchestra managers in this country used to be clarinetists or French horn players, whatever, I never worked on that side.
So what were some of your insights into what it was necessary to do on the artistic side when you came in as president?
Well, of course I came in talking about diversifying the programming, and I had just done a couple of really successful concerts in Edmonton with Michael W. Smith, the Christian gospel artist. We made a ton of money, and I mentioned this to David [Stabler], and the community went, oh, you can’t do that with the orchestra.
I do remember that.
We never actually—we were doing gospel already, but…
Just to give some background for listeners, this came out in an early interview—
November, December, I think?
—with you about possible programming initiatives, and it was specifically the idea that the Oregon Symphony would back Christian rock.
That was an example I gave.
That was an example.
And then yesterday, Barry [Johnson] credited me with Antony and the Johnsons, and Rufus Wainwright, and who else? Thomas Lauderdale’s gonna go, “Wait, those ideas all came from me! Those are my friends!” But my point was, coming in, I looked at what we were doing, and was surprised at how little entertainment we were providing—meaning, concerts for different segments in the community, where people are coming to see a major artist, a band, and the symphony is making that possible for them, and supporting the band or the major artist, but it’s not a classical program with Carlos. And in fact, when I dug in a bit, Don Roth had been doing that back in the ‘90s here. We had been doing special concerts, single-ticket concerts, two decades earlier, but we stopped doing that. So I was probably focused much more on the popular side than on the classical side, which is very much Carlos’ responsibility.
I was able to do a couple of things. Somebody had laid down a law somewhere that you couldn’t spend more than x on a major artist, and I went, no no no, that’s crazy. There aren’t many major artists—there’s about five—but you bring them in, they go away with a lot of money, and they leave you with a lot of money. And people are really happy to see them. One of the things I did early on that I’m still really proud of was the first concert of 2007—we presented Van Cliburn. That was one of his last concerts anywhere, and it was wonderful to have him here. People were outside the Heathman Hotel clutching LPs for him to sign. The national pride in that man was still alive, 50 years later, in Portland. It was wonderful. To me it’s those kind of community connections that will help make music accessible to a large number of people, a much larger number of people than we sometimes think.
So when you talk about doing pop-oriented specials—and, frankly, doing pops—you were basically operating within a niche that had already been carved out. Did you feel like people were comfortable with that, that there was no potentially moving into resources that should have been devoted to classical programming?
No, I didn’t get that sense at all. One of the things I did when I got here was I ate a lot. I was taken to breakfast, I was taken to lunch, I was taken to dinner, and basically what it was was board members introducing me to people who felt very strongly about what we were doing, and what we were doing wrong, who wanted to have a chance to tell the new president, so she could get it right. And one of the things I heard over and over again, at that time we were doing 17 classical weekends, and November would roll around, and there would be three classical concerts in November, three weekends out of four. And what I heard was, “Elaine, there’s a lot going on in this town. I want to go to the opera, I want to go to the ballet, I want to go to the theater. Sometimes we like to go to a football game, or have dinner with friends, and I can’t go to every one of your concerts. If you wonder why you’re losing audience, it’s because maybe you’re giving people a lot of choices, and they’re picking as much as they want to do.”
So you’re taking your audience—I think when Jimmy was here we used to do 12 classical programs, then it got up to 17—so you’re taking that audience and you’re spreading it across a greater number of concerts. We were playing to 54 percent houses the first year I was here. That’s awful. That’s the other thing I kept hearing, “Do anything you can to fill up the hall, because there’s nothing more depressing than sitting in a 2800-seat cavernous hall that’s half empty.” And it can’t be great for the musicians either—it wasn’t, the musicians told me that.
So in fact—these are from the list of achievements presented in the press release about your leaving—38 percent increase in ticket revenue, and average paid attendance up from 54 percent in ‘07 to 74 percent in 2012. How did you do that?
In some cases, choked off supply. We were doing 50 classical subscription performances when I got here, we now do 40. That gives people less choice, and that fills up the hall. We did a lot of various forms of onboarding. The last couple of years we’ve been working with a terrific guy in New York, Jack McAuliffe, who works as a marketing consultant to orchestras across the country for a really reasonable fee, and he took us through what he calls the onboarding process.
There was a big study done, probably now about eight years ago, that involved a number of major orchestras, mostly in the East, and when the consultants were through studying, they found that on any given night, 38 percent of the audience was there for the first time. It was a staggering number—this was the so-called Churn study that went, you’re actually really good at attracting new people; what you’re not very good at is keeping them. And the reasons you aren’t keeping them are all kinds of things, some of which have absolutely nothing to do with the music, but what you’ve got to do is get them coming back, and once you’ve got them coming back two or three times, they turn into—a percentage of them, not all of them—but a reasonable percentage will turn into regular subscribers or attendees.
So we started formally onboarding with Jack about three years ago now, I guess, but before that I was doing my ticket stub offer, especially when the recession hit.
Specifically, that was to invite people to bring back the stub from a concert—
For another ticket, either to come and hear it again for yourself, which some people did, or give it to a neighbor, a friend, your cleaning lady, I don’t care who, and invite them to come and hear this concert if you enjoyed it.
What was your sense of how successful that was?
Oh, we’d have Monday nights after a Saturday and Sunday where there were 500 to 700 people using ticket stubs. That’s almost a quarter of the house. I don’t think it hurt at all—I don’t think that we were giving away tickets that would have been bought, and I think we were giving away, and getting in return, an enormous amount of goodwill.
Carlos and I have worked together very closely; I think in the last couple of years he’s really got the programming right. I think he’s really figured out how to program for this—or any—community; he’s been doing the same thing at Grant Park.
That leads to a question I wanted to ask you, and that is that the relationship between the management side and the artistic side, in people’s shorthand perception, is that the artists want to go out on a limb and experiment, and the management points to the box office and points to the checkbook, and that’s it. To what extent is that true, to what extent is it not in the development of your relationship with, specifically, Carlos?
I’ve worked with oh, six or seven really, really good artistic leaders. I won’t go anywhere where I’m not working with a good artistic leader. And I figure even if we’re jointly responsible for the company, we both report directly to the board, my job is supporting—although that’s not always the case with orchestras. In a lot of cases now, the music director reports to the president. It’s not my job to say no, ever. It’s my job to say, maybe not now? Maybe not until we’re ready? Let’s think about how we can do that differently, can you postpone it for a year? We’re looking at a couple of things next season, and we went through the exercise of, should I go to Carlos and say, can we make changes to the program next year?” Because these are looking really expensive. Then, of course, he came out in the program book talking about the things he was most looking forward to, and there they were. And I went, okay, I’ll tell him about that, just so he knows that that goes through my mind, and the management team’s mind, and then we decided not to, and it’s now our job to make it really successful.
There has to be mutual respect. More than that, there has to be mutual understanding. Respect is one thing; I can respect nuclear physicists, I don’t have a clue what they do or how they do it. You’ve got to have some understanding of how the partner is thinking and working, and what they’re trying to achieve. And you’ve got to have an artistic leader who understands at a high level the relative severity or not of the financial situation, and how much they can hope to push.
Both of you are strong personalities, and to a certain extent that’s necessary for a thriving relationship for a major institution like this. I’m wondering if you can describe—not necessarily give specific examples, but describe your interactions with Carlos and how they’ve resulted in the organization functioning the way that it does now.
We rarely have taken worries about the other one’s role or responsibilities in the organization to each other, but there have been a couple of times when we have. One I can’t speak about in detail, but he came to me and said, “I’m just hearing too much unhappiness about something that is basically not getting done.” It doesn’t mean that it was getting done badly, it was just not getting done. “Elaine, you’ve got to deal with that.” And I did, not because he asked or told me to, but because he put his finger on a problem that basically I’d been avoiding. And that can be helpful.
I like these relationships of equals, and I describe it two ways. You got a right brain and a left brain working together, which most organizations don’t have, and it’s the one person in the organization that you neither report to nor reports to you. So you don’t scare them if you say, “I’m worried about something,” and you don’t have them go, “My gosh, she can’t be any good” if you say “I’m worried about something.” You can actually talk fairly candidly with each other. I’ve always worked—almost always, not quite—I’ve mostly worked in these relationships, and I’m used to them and I like them. We’ve been in and out of each other’s houses a lot; I’d say we’re good friends.
The transformation in the orchestra that I’ve most frequently written about is the quality of the sound and the quality of the programming. On the artistic side, that has come partly because Carlos is very talented and very demanding. He has a reputation as a tough boss—and, I believe, so do you. So I’m wondering if there’s a similar transformation going on in the office as there is on stage.
I think so. I think the similarity is that we both have really high standards, performance standards, and we want to work with the best. The group of people I have in the ofice, I’m just as proud of them as I am of the orchestra. They get much, much less recognition, of course, and that goes with the territory. But this is a really, really good team of people. They’re all really smart, they all know what they’re doing and they’re all here because they support what’s going on out there. Did I upset a few people along the way? Sure. Sure I did. But that’s my job.
How does the staffing compare? You mentioned the layoffs at the time you came on—how does the staffing compare to the way that it was at that time?
There’s been a lot of turnover, although the artistic operations group is pretty well intact. The development team, I don’t think any of them were here when I got here. The graphic design office, that was here, that group was here. One of the great things about impressing people like you who write about us is that we become a much more attractive place to work, both on the platform and in the office. And getting out of debt, that was another thing. Most people have more sense than to join an organization with a nine million dollar accumulated deficit, that people think is a black hole and is going to close any moment. It doesn’t look like long-term security.
So let me jump ahead to that question, that there was 7.2 million dollar—
When we erased the debt, that’s what it was.
—and you largely drew on the endowment?
The unrestricted funds, not the permanently restricted endowment. Unrestricted monies.
Did that decision basically come down to doing the math?
EC: It was more than that, it was really tied to the recession, to the collapse of the stock market. This is what I talk about, ‘08-‘09, there was the morning in October ‘08 when I and the board chair at the time and the CFO all woke up going, “We’ve just breached the covenants of our line of credit.” Because we were allowed to borrow up to 70 percent of our unrestricted funds, and the value of those funds had dropped to below the value of the bank line. So we were in breach, and banks don’t take too long to figure that out. So we went to the bank and said, “We know we’re in breach. We’re going to convert to cash.” Because banks will always lend 100 percent of what you’ve got in cash, and that was enough to hold us for a bit. And then it became clear that now we’d bailed out of the market at what turned out to be probably just about the bottom of the market; it make no sense at all to do anything other than pay that thing off.
We had talked about it for a couple of years, and I had board members who said, “Look, we’ve made so much money off the stock market! Why don’t we take some of that money and pay off at least some of the bank debt?” There was always concern that this would look somehow suspicious in the community. But suddenly when everybody had lost a big chunk of their holdings, what we were doing seemed kind of inevitable, so in one respect it was the right time to do it. In another respect, if we’d done it two years earlier, we’d be so much better off today. Hindsight is terrific.
You mentioned that there’s been turnover in staff, and people have had to accept changes. The same is true on stage, and that brings me to the other major players in the organization, which are the players. They’ve had to make concessions; could you, first off, describe what some of those concessions have been?
The big ones: they gave back a big chunk of money, kind of a one-time chunk, at the end of the 2008 season, and then what we did was that we shortened the season by three weeks. The season had been 41 weeks, it’s now 38 weeks, so they lost three weeks’ work. And we were making an 8.5 percent pension contribution, and we took that down to 4.5 percent. That was actually their proposal, to do it that way. I, of course, did my lecture on, “It’s really important to save for the future,” and John Cox said, “Elaine, why don’t you let us decide what we do with our money? We’d rather do it this way.”
I had always shared these things [she holds up copies of financial spreadsheets] with anyone in the organization who wants to see them, and I’ve made a practice of having meetings with the musicians two or three times a year, explaining to them what’s going on financially. And we have musician members on the board who have access to all the information the board does, and so by the spring of 2009, when I said we were in serious, serious trouble, and “We’ve got to get a chunk of money out of the budget—out of you,” they believed me. And Bruce believed me—Bruce Fife, the head of the local. Those negotiations were really about: what’s the best way to do this? What’s the way that will do the least amount of harm and preserve what we all believe in? It was really fine on their part, and these are not American orchestras’ most highly-paid musicians by a long shot.
And you also had to—they had to—accept reducing the size of the orchestra.
That had already happened. When they moved into the Schnitz—I always call it the Schnitz, so rude to Arlene—there were 84 musicians. At some point in the ‘90s, that had gone up to 88, which is approaching, still isn’t really, full size, but it’s getting a lot closer. By the time I got here, there had been some concessionary bargaining that had reduced it back to 84. Katherine George resigned the first year I was here, she was the pianist, and I said, “Carlos, you know, you’re playing with 76 musicians.” “Oh, am I?” “Yeah, count ‘em up.”
Miraculously, the attrition had come about basically in the string sections. If you lose one of your three flutes, you’ve got to replace them. If you lose one of your 30 violinists, you can hang on. I said, “Can you go forward with this for a while?—on the understanding that when you do Mahler, or Wagner, or anything that needs a bigger band, we will hire. It’s not like, no, this is all we’re going to have forever. And when we need a pianist, we will hire” (we have several pianists that we use regularly). And he said, “Yeah, I can do that. I didn’t realize there were only 76.” So that was part of the bargaining, that we have a side letter; the contract still calls for 88, and we have a side letter that we will work from now until 2014 with 76 in the permanent orchestra.
It’s one of the musicians big aspirations, to get back to 88. It does a whole bunch of things for them. They are probably playing harder on that stage, and certainly having to dig harder, the strings, than they did at Carnegie to get the same—in fact, Carnegie is bigger than the Schnitz, though you’d never guess, but it actually has more seats. They have an easier time filling the space. SO it makes it easier for them, gives them some opportunities for rotation, and it just sounds better.
You’ve been listening to the first part of a two-part conversation with Elaine Calder, outgoing president of the Oregon Symphony. Listen next week for part two of our interview, when we take a further look into orchestra management and discuss the future—Calder’s, the symphony’s, and that of American orchestras generally.