March 13, 2019

New Haven Symphony marks 125th anniversary

PHOTO | File
PHOTO | File
NHSO performing with Music Director William Boughton

Maybe it was the "Beer & Beethoven" promotion. Or perhaps it was the "bushy-beard" contest that celebrated a concert of music by the famously hirsute Johannes Brahms. Both New Haven Symphony Orchestra events were hits, attracting a diverse and younger audience and reflecting the changing times of professional classical musical organizations.

But Elaine C. Carroll, CEO of the fourth-oldest symphony in the United States, attributes the current health and vitality of her organization not just to creative marketing and programming but rather to a wide variety of factors, among them: the NHSO's partnership with its union musicians to work with the organization during economic hardships; the financial support of the community, the symphony's sizable endowment, its outreach efforts and a game-changing grant that stabilized the orchestra in tough economic times.

About 15 years ago the NHSO, along with several other "anchor" arts organizations in the city, qualified for sizable grants from the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven — if they could demonstrate and deploy new fundraising initiatives on their own. The symphony did — and that maneuver put $440,000 in the bank for the NHSO as a strategic cash reserve for the inevitable "rainy day."

That deluge came sooner than expected in 2008 — when the U.S. and global economies virtually collapsed. The new reserve allowed the symphony to weather the significant drop in contributed revenue through some tumultuous and trying years.

"We didn't have to cut concerts, programs or musicians," explains Carroll, who has been with the NHSO for eight years. "Our musicians were also tremendous partners as we went through the reserve and things hadn't quite turned around yet. That was a period when they gave us more flexibility in our contract."

When better times did arrive, the NHSO's reserve was replenished through fundraising and a string of annual surpluses.

This happened just as many orchestras around the country faced strikes, lockouts and bankruptcies. Just up the road the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, a larger mid-size orchestra with an annual budget of $5 million, grappled with years of labor conflicts and red ink.

"We've had some trying times in the last decade with many years of six-figure deficits," says Steve Collins, executive director of the HSO for the last three years. But there's been a fiscal turnaround with modest surpluses during the last few years. The HSO is also halfway through a new endowment campaign that has already gathered $7.5 million in pledges.

"It's kind of a brave new world in a lot of ways," says Collins. "Simply producing traditional orchestral concerts the exact same way orchestras have done is now absolutely not enough."

Audience buying habits, tastes and the appeal of more "experiential" events have changed things dramatically, Collins says.

While there are major economic and programmatic trends among many if not most American orchestras, approaches and tactics varies from place to place, explains Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras (LAO), the umbrella organization for the nation's symphony orchestras.

"While there's a commonality of circumstances orchestras encounter, the pathways to navigate them are often very local," Rosen says, "and orchestras the size of the New Haven Symphony Orchestra often have a greater degree of flexibility. One of the hallmarks of successful organizations dealing with change has been a readiness to experiment and take risks. Those that do is where we see promise and signs of health and vitality."

This year's overall positive data may be a result of the special attention the NHSO is receiving for 2018-19, the 12th and final season for Music Director William Boughton, along with the celebration of orchestra's 125th anniversary season.

But next season should also get a boost when it launches its inaugural campaign under the baton of Boughton's successor, Alasdair Neale, who will be formally introduced at a June 22 performance on the New Haven Green, part of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.

So, what keeps Carroll up at night?

"The stock market," she acknowledges. Carroll explains that 70 percent of the budget is contributed income, which means the generosity of donors and interest income from the $14.8 million endowment — no small factor in the orchestra's stability — and which is tied to the performance of the U.S. economy at large.

Building new audiences

But most important of all to the NHSO's continued viability is the imperative to attract new audiences.

"You need to find ways to throw the doors open wide," says Carroll, pointing to 2016's "Beers & Beethoven" promotion, which featured six craft brewers offering samples in the lobby of Woolsey Hall to ticket-holders with wrist bands and food trucks out front of the venue. That event attracted a new wave of young people, especially from downtown and area colleges."They bought their ticket, they had their beer, they came to the concert but they also stayed for the whole concert," Carroll says. "Younger people are looking for an experience."

Older audiences have also welcomed new marketing ideas, she says. "They want it to keep the symphony going, and they know that won't happen if there aren't young people, too."

Says the LAO's Rosen: "Fifteen years ago it was thought that baby-boomers would flood the concerts as they got older. Well, that didn't happen because when they were younger they were going to concerts less often than the generation before them at that age. Each generation is now participating at a lower rate than the generation before them."

Rosen says there's more urgency to develop new audiences than ever before. And to reach them, orchestras have to be responsive to what they like — and how they wish to experience it.

"We know they have different tastes and expectations than the people who are currently going, and that's where the creativity has to come in cultivating this audience," says Rosen, "while not alienating older audiences which still constitutes the core in terms of volume and revenue."

Carroll says part of her efforts to expand audiences also includes being aware of New Haven's diverse community, which is made up of approximately one-third each of whites, African-Americans and Latinos.

"One tremendous challenge is that we are so white onstage [the musicians], and we can't back away from admitting it's a problem," she says.

The NHSO received an $80,000 national grant allowing it to recruit and support young instrumentalists of color from around the country who are looking to break into the rarified air of professional symphonic performance.

"For children of color to see faces onstage like themselves is really important," Carroll says. "If we don't, they're going to think this is an art form for 'other people' — and that's not right. It's their orchestra, in their town, and we want to play music that they'll respond to and to see themselves reflected onstage."

It's a continuing balancing act to be an American symphony orchestra in the 21st century.

''You've got to be financially stable, otherwise you can't do the work," Carroll says. "And you have to be responsive to the community. If you're not relevant to your audience, you're not going to make it."

The NHSO as a business

Essential facts and figures about the New Haven Symphony Orchestra as a business — one of Connecticut's premier institutions in the industry of arts and culture:

• The orchestra's annual budget is about $2.1 million, and the NHSO has posted modest surpluses for five of the last six years.

• The NHSO's 66 core musicians are paid only when they play, with certain minimum guarantees — 35 services per year — as opposed to being a salaried orchestra.

• Attendance has actually been on an upswing, with 36,234 concert-goers attending last season (2017-18), of which 18,734 were young people.

• The NHSO's "Pops" series of four performances of two separate programs has generated an increase in both subscribers and single-ticket buyers.

• The "Classics" series in 2,600-seat Woolsey Hall featuring eight concerts now generates more single-ticket buyers than subscribers. Other series include a young people's concert series presented in four area communities, and a family concert series performed in New Haven and Shelton.

• Ticket sales over the last five years have increased by 30 percent, with single-ticket sales rising from 7,349 tickets sold in fiscal 2014 to 11,999 in fiscal 2018 — and 9,090 so far in the 2018-19 season, with four months remaining on the musical calendar.

• The NHSO realized significant cost savings when ticketing was transferred to the Long Wharf Theatre box office and its more sophisticated online software. More than half of NHSO tickets are now sold online.

• Subscriptions are down, mirroring a national trend. In fiscal year 2014 there were 6,845 NHSO subscribers. The present subscriber role is 6,419 (as of Jan. 30). But the figure is up from the previous fiscal year, which had 6,026 subscribers.

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