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May 6, 2019 Arts Biz

Hartford Symphony Orchestra stages a comeback at 75

Photo | Chowder, Inc. The Hartford Symphony Orchestra recently celebrated its 75th anniversary, but just a few years ago its long-term future wasn't a sure thing as it encountered major financial issues. It's on a surer footing now, led by Music Director Carolyn Kuan.
Photo | Contributed The musicians union for the Hartford Symphony Orchestra will be negotiating a new contract this summer.
Photo | HBJ File HSO Executive Director Steve Collins at Hog River Brewing in Hartford, where the symphony has performed to try to attract new audience members.
Frank Rizzo

When asked if the Hartford Symphony Orchestra's latest managerial strategy and turnaround could be called “HSO.2,” Executive Director Steve Collins smiled, saying, “More like 'HSO.8' if you're talking about our 75-year history.”

After decades of dire fiscal fortunes, including near-bankruptcy as recently as 2015, it appears that the second-largest symphony in New England — after the considerably larger Boston Symphony — is finally on a more solid fiscal path. It has produced two fiscal years of modest surpluses ($40,000 and $45,000) and it's rounding the corner on a third.

“One year in the black is exciting, two is promising and three is a trend — and we're having a good year now,” says Collins. “But we need to establish a five- to six-year history of a responsible financial period to feel confident.”

Still, the numbers surrounding its $6 million annual budget are positive. Earned revenue is up 35 percent over the last four years to $2.5 million while total revenue is up 22 percent from $4.4 million to $5.4 million.

With the demise of the Connecticut Opera and Hartford Ballet, the Hartford Symphony for a time looked like it would be the third arts institution of “The Big Six” to call it quits in the Capital City. (The other three — Hartford Stage, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and The Bushnell — are in relatively stable fiscal state.)

The HSO, as it is commonly called, began its latest series of financial and labor issues in the late 1980s.

Since the millennium, competition in the marketplace, decreasing attendance, concertgoers' changing buying habits, institutional resistance to change, lack of arts education to nurture new audiences and labor challenges contributed to years of deficits, debt and a growing doubt a symphony the HSO's size could survive in the 21st century.

“Fifteen years ago it was thought that Baby Boomers would flood the concerts as they got older,” says Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, the umbrella organization for the country's orchestras. “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.”

Subscriptions — once the financial bedrock for nonprofit arts institutions — have plummeted. For the HSO, subscriptions went from 10,000 in the 1990s to 2,000 today. Single-ticket sales have increased dramatically but its volatility from show to show has made stability more difficult to forecast.

Problems and pressures on the HSO began to accelerate, resulting in a 2008 work stoppage. But its eventual resolution was temporary. The unsustainable mix of annual six-figure deficits and $2 million in rolling debt resulted in the one-two punch that forced HSO in 2014 to seek refuge with The Bushnell, which took over its day-to-day operations.

On the brink

“That's when we hit the reset button,” says Collins, who was brought in first as director of artistic operations from his previous positions with the Waterbury and New Haven Symphony Orchestras. (He is also a percussionist and has performed with the HSO from time to time.)

“It was always intended to be a short-term period with The Bushnell. It was a time to take a step back and look at everything the organization was doing. We had to make some difficult decisions about how we were going to structure ourselves, about our resources and our role in the community.”

The latter was key, he says, because the HSO was contractually obligated to perform a set number of services throughout the season and many of them were not being underwritten financially.

“It was a great service to the community but we were hemorrhaging,” says Collins.

In Jan. 2016, an agreement was made with the musicians' union to restructure their deal, which reduced the number of services and overhead and further downsized the administrative organization.

“The musicians created the stability [the HSO] now has,” says Joseph Messina, president of the Local 400 of the American Federation of Musicians, which represents the HSO musicians. “We took a 30 percent reduction of our work. It's the community that lost out in these services.”

When asked how close the HSO was to shutting down, Collins called it “a real crisis.”

“If we weren't able to work together and make some very difficult sacrifices, the symphony would have been forced to make some other rather difficult decisions, including bankruptcy or ceasing operations for a period of time,” he said. “It's hard for me to even talk about it now.”

Collins added: “It wasn't easy or pleasant but the orchestra stepped up and made some huge sacrifices.”

Once the new business model that matched operating expenses to revenues was in place, a Music Builds Community campaign began in 2017 with a five-year goal of raising $10 million. With Jeff Verney, president of group retiree products and services at UnitedHealthcare, as board chairman, the HSO raised nearly $8 million in two years, which allowed it to erase its $2 million debt, and increase its endowment from $4 million to $6 million.

New programming, places

The HSO now performs about 65 programs a year of varying sizes. Of the 85,000 patrons served annually, about 20,000 are from its education programs, while the rest come for concerts and special events.

The League of American Orchestras' Rosen says there's more urgency than ever before to develop new audiences, and orchestras must be responsive to what they like and how they like 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,” he says, “while not alienating older audiences, which still constitute the core in terms of volume and revenue. … 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.”

HSO has its MasterWorks series of nine concerts performed three times each at The Bushnell's Belding Theatre; four Pops programs ranging from one-to-three performances; and the Discovery series for students. During the summer the HSO also plays concerts at the Talcott Mountain Music Festival.

But there are also two chamber programs: the Sunday Serenades at places such as Wadsworth Atheneum's Avery Court and the new HSO: Intermix series, which performs a variety of music ranging from contemporary to traditional in alternative venues such as Real Art Ways and Hog River Brewing Co.

“It's an opportunity to break down barriers and find new audiences,” Collins said.

As for music director Carolyn Kuan, whose contract runs through 2022, Collin calls her “a great partner and my hope is that she'll be here for a very long time.”

As for the musicians union, negotiations begin this summer for a new contract and Messina says he expects restoration of services.

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