james mcquillen

The balcony, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall/Courtesy Wikimedia

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.


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