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How a Blue-Collar Town Saved Its Symphony Orchestra

In Everett, Washington, a fiscally strapped symphony and its laid-off players are resurrecting classical music in their community


photo by Sarah Weiser

On the eastern shore of Puget Sound, 25 miles north of Seattle, lies Everett, Washington, a port city with a population of more than 100,000. It’s the Snohomish County seat, home of a Boeing Aircraft manufacturing plant, a US Naval Station, and the largest public marina on the West Coast. It’s a seemingly unlikely battleground for arts administrators and orchestral musicians determined to save a long-cherished tradition of classical music in their community. Yet, despite its blue-collar, maritime character, Everett has supported the Everett Symphony Orchestra for 73 years, and the semiprofessional ensemble is considered one of the better orchestras in the region. Until recently, the orchestra had played under the baton of its Viennese-trained, African-American music director, Paul-Elliott Cobbs, PhD, for more than a quarter century.

That all changed in January 2010.

With the symphony succumbing to the same type of fiscal pressures faced in recent years by scores of American orchestras, the Everett Symphony Orchestra board of directors last year laid off the music director and the musicians, and canceled the rest of the 2009–10 concert season.

It’s a scenario being played out by many classical music organizations around the country: the Great Recession has cut into endowments, cash-strapped audience members have bought fewer tickets, and support from the beleaguered local business communities has waned. “The problems are both global and local,” says Judith Kurnick, League of American Orchestras vice president of strategic communications. “And often community needs change.”

Kurnick says change includes fewer and smaller concerts—problems often arise when orchestras can’t adapt to the changing needs.

“It’s not about the music,” Kurnick says “It’s about the delivery system.”

On the local level, financial issues can be bundled with long-term management problems, struggles between boards and musicians, or changes in the community’s economy. But in the case of the Everett Symphony, conflicting visions also played a big part.

“We’re really mixing up the genres,” Everett Symphony executive director Roger Pawley told the local press at the time of its demise. “We’re trying to get away from the idea that [symphonic] music was written by dead white guys and is attended by people who look like they’re going to a funeral.”

The musicians, on the other hand, wanted to continue playing classical music in the way they felt their audiences wanted to hear it. “The board disconnected completely,” says former Everett Symphony cellist Cami Davis, citing Pawley’s quote in the local paper.

When the season was canceled, the orchestra presented a farewell concert at which the laid-off musicians offered to play for free, Davis says. The farewell concert sold out, she adds, and the ovations went on and on.

“Tell me that’s dying!” Davis says.

The Resurrection of Symphonic Music in Everett

That same night, Davis explains, the musicians formed a board and signed incorporation papers. Three days later, the Everett Philharmonic was born, with former Everett Symphony conductor Cobbs as music director.

Cobbs’ wife, Loma, stepped in as executive director, a position she also holds at the Tacoma Youth Symphony, a one-hour drive to the south.

“We were all given spots in the new orchestra,” says Davis, who also serves as the Everett Phil’s operations manager. “Everyone, including all the subs, wanted to join. Today the Everett Philharmonic is larger than the old Everett Symphony.”

With nothing in the bank account—and no chairs to sit on—the group organized a spring gala to raise start-up funds. The Everett Phil’s first concert featured Stravinsky’s The Firebird.

The concert sold out and netted $32,000.

A year and a half later, Davis says, income from both concert revenue and donations continues to exceed expectations. “These are not large contributions—$25, $100 gifts—but there are lots and lots of them,” she says.

It was proof that the community wanted its orchestra.

But what of the old Everett Symphony?

To help that orchestra get back on its feet, the local mall donated an abandoned movie triplex, which volunteers renovated, so the Everett Symphony Orchestra could resume its education programs and concerts—only this time with recitalists rather than the laid-off orchestral musicians.

“It’ll be a long time before we do a concert where we’ll need a baton,” Everett Symphony executive Roger Pawley told the Snohomish County Business Journal.

The board renamed the organization the Snohomish County Music Project, which focuses on education and what they call “artistic citizenship.”

How did the laid-off players feel about that?

“Hijacked,” is how former associate concertmaster Patrice Weed Shearer put it.

After all, the laid-off musicians, many of whom had served for decades, were no longer given access to the endowment, instruments, music library, or any other assets. Like many Everett musicians, Shearer’s connection to the orchestra is longstanding and deeply personal.

“Half of those chairs were donated out of my parents’ estate,” she says.

Still, despite the trials and tribulations, and the bad blood, in Everett and other American towns with big to mid-size orchestras that have fallen victim to financial woes, symphony musicians are pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and pulling together their own ensembles with community support.

And it’s working.

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