Orchestra League Visit Sheds Light on DSSO's Success

Kyle Eller

Duluth Budgeteer

October 3, 2004

Andrew Berryhill says hiring a consultant of the quality of Henry Fogel would have been beyond the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra's budget, and finding people of his quality would be very difficult anyway.

But Fogel came to them.

His visit provides a unique glimpse into the workings of one of Duluth's real arts success stories.

Fogel was president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for nearly two decades and has served for more than a year as president and CEO of the American Symphony Orchestra League. He increased the endowment fund in Chicago from $19 million to $160 million and saw attendance at classical subscription concerts increase by more than 20 percent during his tenure.

And while in Duluth, he went over the DSSO with a fine-toothed comb, talking to its administrative staff, the orchestra members and the board, as well as a Budgeteer reporter, in a whirlwind series of meetings that included taking in the season-opening concert, his fourth of the year already, Saturday night.

All told, he's seen 88 American orchestras perform, including Duluth's — a number that has grown sharply in his short time as ASOL president. He decided that part of that role should be visiting the organization's 900 member orchestras. “He knows the American orchestra business better than anyone,” Berryhill said.

Berryhill, Music Director Markand Thakar, the board and the orchestra's musicians must have Beethoven's “Ode to Joy” ringing in their ears after hearing Fogel's response.

“It appears to me that the organization is exceptionally well-managed,” Fogel wrote in an e-mail after his trip. “Andrew, working closely with Markand in what appears to be an ideal executive director-music director relationship, has worked to build the audience to a remarkable degree.”

What does remarkable mean? The typical orchestra earns 43 to 47 percent of its budget from earned income, mostly ticket sales. For the DSSO, that number is 60 percent, making it “among the most successful in the country” in that department.

And he walked away from Duluth with a very good idea why those audiences have grown. It's not just the themed concert seasons, although that marketing strategy has helped.


“If you make good music at a high level, you'll find an audience for it,” he wrote.

“My honest appraisal is that I was very impressed with the concert I heard,” he wrote. “I have heard many orchestras in larger cities, with significantly larger budgets, that did not play as well as the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra.”

He said he doesn't believe in a numeric ranking. “But I can say that I haven't heard any orchestra in a community this size or at this budget level that plays any better, and very, very few that play as well.”

In particular, he cited the ability to play with a full-bodied sound at soft dynamic levels. “This range of color and dynamics is what you usually do not hear in smaller community orchestras,” he wrote.

Hear that Beethoven playing in the background yet?

Fogel also pulled out kudos for Thakar. “In addition to the technical level of the orchestra's playing, I frankly found Markand Thakar's conducting to be imaginative, convincing, stylish and completely engrossing.”

Fogel also spoke to the orchestra members at a rehearsal, dealing with ways it could participate in the organization beyond playing the right notes on stage. He wrote that he was “taken with the musicians' positive feelings about the institution, about its management and its musical leadership.”


Bolstering the board

The access Fogel was given to the DSSO organization was striking itself and went from the tiniest nitty-gritty to the grandest long-term plans.

“He loves looking at tiny little numbers on spreadsheets, and he's good at it,” said Berryhill, who worked with Fogel in Chicago for six years.

He gave a 45-minute presentation and discussion at the orchestra's board meeting.

“He's not here to be polite,” Berryhill said. “He's here to be very specific, and he was wonderfully generous and very kind.”

“It was a good meeting,” said Bill Gravelle, president of the all-volunteer board.

“I think first of all, the orchestra is very pleased to have a person of Henry's stature in the music industry visit us,” he said, a visit he attributes to the relationship Fogel has with Berryhill.

Fogel told them much of what he mentioned in the e-mail about the quality of the orchestra's executive and artistic leadership, as well as its musicians.

“I think he pretty much reinforced what we already knew,” Gravelle said.

However, Fogel also offered some advice. For one thing, he said it's as important to work hard when things are going well as it is when they are going poorly, a point both Berryhill and Gravelle got loud and clear.

Berryhill said that point makes the timing of his visit just right. “It was a great time for him to come,” he said.

Gravelle said Fogel also asked some questions about staffing. The organization, with a budget of about $1.2 million, is right on the borderline of needing to hire a development officer, particularly in light of a still-recovering grant market.

“I had some questions about the size of our board,” Gravelle said, noting theirs is large at 28 members. “He thought that was appropriate, that you need a large board.”

But the function of the board should be setting a long-term vision around which all of the smaller management decisions will be based. It's a point Fogel raised during an interview while in Duluth — an organization like Duluth is board-governed, even if the musicians, conductor and staff are the most visible pieces. Berryhill said one of the important things he got from Fogel's visit is how he can improve on helping the board to fulfill that leadership function.



Putting Duluth in context

As the head of a service organization including 350 professional orchestras, Fogel finds part of his task when visiting is simply educating people about what the organization offers. That package includes training for staff, for music directors, for musicians and for board members. Another interesting function is a series of e-mail lists that act almost as a repository of knowledge for orchestra leaders. If, for instance, Berryhill runs into some complicated logistics involving a soloist, he can send an e-mail to a list of people in similar positions and get some solid advice back probably before lunch.

“The feedback we get is that's one of the most important services,” Fogel said.

The ASOL also lobbies government and, in a role that has grown significantly in a post-9/11 world, helps smooth out the bureaucratic hurdles of getting foreign musicians on American stages.

Fogel's involvement with the ASOL dates back to the difficult days of the recession that hit around the year 2000 and particularly hammered orchestras across the country after the 9/11 attacks, a situation he described as the “perfect storm,” saying it hit every source of revenue, from the endowments damaged by the stock market to individual ticket sales when people understandably didn't have an evening on the town on their minds.

In fact, he has a rather pointed personal anecdote that illustrates. He was still president of the Chicago Symphony after 9/11, and an annual mailing that normally generates more than $1 million of ticket revenue in a month was sent out — on Sept. 9. It sold $85 worth of tickets.

But for all that, it was never as bad as it looked. Orchestras declaring bankruptcy made headlines, but out of 350 professional ones, only eight closed their doors, and some have already re-opened.

“I suspect that's not a worse track record than any other industry,” Fogel said. “... I'm actually surprised it was only eight.”

Orchestras across the country have had to adjust to new levels of funding, particularly from endowments that are still recovering, and in some major cities conflicts with musicians unions are looming. But things are getting better.

“It does seem to me that the pendulum is swinging back,” he said.

Gravelle says Fogel told the board it is among only about 40 percent of orchestras that are “in the black” financially.

Artistically, things are terrific in the world of American orchestras, and ironically, that's providing one of Fogel's challenges. While his praise of Duluth's orchestra was especially high, he said patrons genuinely don't understand how good smaller and mid-level American orchestras are.

“There's a national inferiority complex,” he said.

It comes from a variety of factors. Part of it is simply old stereotypes — even the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a giant organization, only started to receive wide attention after it had received raves on a European tour.

But other factors are more mundane. Because of differences in pay structures, smaller European orchestras are more often recorded, meaning they are more often heard by an audience outside their own cities.

Fogel said he has a public radio project in mind that will hopefully get more smaller orchestras heard.

Fogel said the success being experienced in Duluth is not typical and relates to the marketing strategy, which he says he thought was clever from the very first e-mail Berryhill sent him, most of all to the good music.

The two work together.

“We are, after all, competing for the discretionary dollar of the audience,” he said.

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