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July 29, 2022

‘Overnight Success’: New Haven Symphony Orchestra plans major changes after historic $14M gift

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED The New Haven Symphony Orchestra, which performs both indoor and outdoor concerts, will be taking up residency in the Southern Connecticut State University campus for the 2022-23 academic year.

Transformative changes are ahead for the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, fueled by a historic multimillion-dollar gift that will create new outreach initiatives and a new home for its performances, as well as long-term financial stability.

The nonprofit arts organization is also searching for a new music director.

Thanks to this summer’s $14 million gift from the estate of James D. English, the NHSO is undertaking new initiatives that will boost musicians’ and staff salaries, make its presentations more accessible and offer opportunities for underrepresented communities and artists.

The gift by English, whose grandfather was a symphony founder and who died last year at the age of 88, is the largest in the organization’s history. English’s brother, Richard English, made a $6 million gift 11 years ago.

The English family has historical ties to Connecticut. James English was descended from noted Yale scientist James Dwight Dana on his mother’s side and two Connecticut governors on his father’s side. His mother was also an accomplished cellist for the NHSO and a prominent leader at Neighborhood Music School in New Haven.

“It’s one of those stories where we’re an overnight success after 128 years,” says Elaine C. Carroll, CEO of the symphony, the fourth oldest orchestra in the country. “The English family was literally there at our founding. Now thanks to the family, there will always be an orchestra in New Haven.”

The late James D. English.

The English estate also left gifts that will benefit the New Haven Museum, Neighborhood Music School, and Clifford Beers Community Care Center. All gifts will be managed by the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven on behalf of the cultural organizations.

The orchestra has received $22 million in gifts over the years that will generate more than $1 million annually in perpetuity.

The no-strings attached, million-dollar gifts are a major departure from recent philanthropic arts giving, which typically ties donations to the naming or renaming of buildings — or even the institution itself — for the donor. That was the case last year after David Geffen donated $150 million to the Yale School of Drama, which was subsequently renamed the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale.

NHSO Music Director Alasdair Neale called the English gifts “a shining example of the best kind of philanthropy, which is truly from the heart and not driven by ego.” He adds he hopes it will inspire others to create similar legacies.

Carroll says the money generated from the latest gift will allow the nonprofit arts organization to grow its annual operating budget from $2.2 million to $2.7 million.

The new money will be targeted at “investing in our people,” with increased wages for musicians and staff. She says the contract with the symphony’s musicians expired June 30, and negotiations are now under way.

The new funds will also support a James D. English Fellowship in cultural advocacy, adding to the initiatives already in place to increase opportunities at the musical, administrative, and board levels for traditionally under-represented groups in the classical music industry.

Money spun off from the new gift will also help facilitate artistic projects between the NHSO and artists and organizations across New Haven, she says. The new funds will also help diversify NHSO’s audience to make performances “as accessible as possible to all populations in New Haven. That could mean bringing more people in from the neighborhoods.”

SCSU residency

Those audience members will now be heading to the orchestra’s new home at Southern Connecticut State University, which is where the NHSO will be for the 2022-23 academic year.

The residency will include on-campus concerts, classroom visits, hands-on learning experiences, and internships. The orchestra’s eight-concert “Classics Series,” will be performed at the Lyman Center for the Performing Arts, SCSU’s multidisciplinary, 1,500-seat performing arts venue.

Other features of the Lyman Center include free and easy parking lots, modern facilities, and access to nearby restaurants, highways and public transportation.

SCSU President Joe Bertolino says the NHSO concerts and administrative work will become a classroom for the school’s new arts administration and cultural advocacy minor.

“The partnership is part of the vision to provide students a special opportunity through the residency in arts administration and nonprofit management,” Bertolino says.

Bertolino also says it's a further opportunity for the New Haven community to connect with the university.

“Far too many times, I’ve heard from folks that they’ve never been to our campus so this is a new way to share this hidden gem with the public and opens the door to more engaging with the community,” he says.

New music director to be named

Another major change ahead for the NHSO will be a new music director.

Neale’s three-year contract, which began in the pandemic shortened 2019-20 season and was renewed for two years, will end with the 2023-24 season.

Three finalists to take over the job are expected to be announced in August. They will conduct and interact with the orchestra during the 2022-23 season and a new director will be named next summer.

Carroll says she expects the new director will continue the NHSO’s long-term goal of becoming more relevant to New Haven.

Carroll says even before the English gift, the NHSO was in a solid fiscal position, with surpluses for seven of the past eight fiscal years. It recorded a $697,335 surplus in the fiscal year ending June 2021, up from a $168,443 surplus in the year-ago period.

Surpluses are directed to the orchestra’s stability fund, which acts as a reserve and can currently sustain the organization in an emergency for at least three months. Carroll credits the government’s financial support during the pandemic for the latest surplus.

Still, she notes, audiences have not returned to pre-pandemic levels,

“We have a fairly risk-averse audience,” she says. Though attendance numbers started to grow at the start of the 2021-22 season, a new wave of the COVID-19 virus at the end of last year brought the numbers down again.

“Our box office was 40 percent of what we usually had,” she says.

The good news, however, is “that almost half of our audience last year was brand new to us.”

Carroll says she hopes more new fans will be found within the community and beyond thanks to its outreach programs, the new residency and the excitement of new artistic leadership.

“The gift makes us more stable and stronger in perpetuity but it's part of a long-term goal of becoming more and more relevant to the community of New Haven,” she says.

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