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
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.
Audience Support Revitalizes ‘Phoenix Orchestras’
The rise and fall and sometimes resurrection of American symphonies has played out differently in cities nationwide. According to figures from the League of American Orchestras, 26 member orchestras have closed since 2010. The league’s public relations director, John Bence, estimates that in 2008–09, about 70 percent of member orchestras were experiencing or near financial crisis.
Even the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra, once a member of the illustrious Big Five, has felt the pinch. In April it filed for chapter 11 reorganization after administrators realized the upcoming season would put the organization $14.5 million in the red. “Our structural deficit has been created by a decline in ticket revenues, decreased donations, eroding endowment income, pension obligations, contractual agreements, and operational costs,” the orchestra’s administration noted in a press release.
That same month, both the Syracuse Symphony and the 77-year-old New Mexico Symphony Orchestra filed for Chapter 7 liquidation.
For classical music fans, and the symphony players who are losing jobs, it may seem like the sky is falling. But “phoenix orchestras” are rising from the ashes. And the rehabilitation is due, in no small part, to a hardcore base of community support.
Case in point: in December, the 110-year-old Honolulu Symphony filed for Chapter 7 liquidation in bankruptcy court and blamed the meltdown on a lack of donations and being displaced from the 2,100-seat Blaisdell Center Concert Hall by a three-month production of The Lion King. But a few months later, a group of civic and business leaders formed the Symphony Exploratory Committee and bought all of the old organization’s assets. In April, the committee and 64 symphony musicians signed a contract for three seasons. “Very few communities want to go without an orchestra completely,” Kurnick says.
Symphony Silicon Valley, born in 2002 of the ashes of the 100-year-old San Jose (California) Symphony, had to earn its own way from the start. Initially, 90 percent of its income came from ticket sales and small donations from those ticket buyers. Since then, the orchestra has grown healthier and will launch its tenth anniversary season in October. “The message is that classical music has an appeal in the marketplace,” SSV president Andrew Bales says. “People like classical music. They like going [to concerts]. They like buying a ticket.”
Music in Moderation May Be the Key
The problem is that orchestras often aspire to serve up more than the market will bear. “You have to right-size the product,” says the fast-talking Bales. “There is always an ambition to expand, but that’s not always possible, and you have to listen [to the audience base]. We had to look at who uses our services and who will come, pay, and donate.”
And Bales has a good sense of what audiences want. In addition to a purely classical subscription series, the orchestra plays for the San Jose Ballet, does two or three musicals a year, and a series of pops concerts. “They might not be the best thing for serious string players, but the audience loves [pops concerts] and it sells tickets,” says Christina Mok, SSV assistant concertmaster.
The SSV is also unique in that there is no music director. Instead, Bales works with a series of guest conductors to program the season. While some musicians feel that this prevents the symphony from developing its own voice, the practice keeps the music fresh.
“It’s like a honeymoon period with every conductor,” Mok says.
The flexible arrangement is also cheaper than maintaining a high-priced, high-profile conductor. “The orchestra is really going strong, despite the economic crisis,” Mok adds.
The 75-year-old Charleston Symphony Orchestra was teetering on the edge of insolvency in 2010. Then money was donated to find out what the community wanted. It turned out, Kurnick says, that the community valued the musicians’ presence in the community as teachers and performers, and what they wanted was an orchestra composed of local musicians. Back on its feet again, the Charleston Symphony recently announced its 2011–12 season.
In late May, the musicians of the defunct Syracuse Symphony Orchestra told the Syracuse Post-Standard that they are creating a new ensemble—Symphony Syracuse—and courting businesses and foundations for funding.
Giving Back to the Community
Back in Everett, the fledgling Philharmonic seems to have taken a page from Silicon Valley’s playbook and is planning a season with something for everyone: two classical concerts; one chamber orchestra; a family program, such as Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf; and a spring gala pops concert.
Its second annual gala sold out once again, with support coming from all around the Puget Sound region. “We know our audience is limited, but it’s not small,” Davis says. “In a way, we’re getting back to the old days of the community orchestra.”
The group enjoys being in charge of its own artistic vision and its own publicity. “[The music] is not different, but it’s fresh.”
After 73 years of classical music in the community, the Philharmonic is finding new audiences who were unaware that Everett even had an orchestra. Davis says she’s thrilled to hear hands clapping between movements. “It means they’re new!” she says.
These days, audience members tell Shearer, who now serves as the Philharmonic’s violinist as well as personnel manager, that the orchestra sounds better than ever. “The musicians, music director, board, and volunteers are all on the same page,” Shearer says. “It’s fun to be in the orchestra again!"