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Florida Orchestra balances budget, and that's saying something

ST. PETERSBURG

The Florida Orchestra expects to report a balanced budget for the fiscal year that ended on June 30. That is a significant achievement in a terrible economy.

"I think our board, our team, did extraordinary things,'' president Michael Pastreich said. "We had a phenomenal year. The question now is, are we going to repeat it?''

The figures are not audited, and there were accounting moves still in the works last week, but Pastreich said the orchestra will essentially break even in its budget of $10.2 million for 2008-09.

Since Pastreich arrived in October 2007, the orchestra has raised an impressive amount of money in an effort to reverse decades of financial problems. More than $14 million has been pledged as part of a sustainability campaign to pay off debt and stabilize the organization. The campaign's goal is $30 million.

To finish in the black, the orchestra had to resort to some creative measures, such as asking one donor to move a $300,000 gift designated for 2012-13 into this past fiscal year. But the board had little choice because it promised a balanced budget.

"We've told donors that if we fail to make our goals this year you don't need to pay your future pledges, which in essence could bring about the end of the orchestra,'' Pastreich said. "But I believe in hard-core economics. If we can't demonstrate our viability over time, we don't deserve to exist.''

This past year, the orchestra paid off $525,000 in bank debt, leaving it with long-term debt of about $2 million. That's a lot, but it could be worse. The North Carolina Symphony, a comparable orchestra, closed its books on 2008-09 with $4 million in debt.

To project a balanced budget for next season, the orchestra has cut costs of $550,000 since January, including laying off three management staffers and reducing pay and benefits. In July, Pastreich said there was still about $250,000 in cuts to be found. He declined to comment on whether the musicians' labor contract would have to be renegotiated, though it seems likely.

Fundraising won't get any easier as the recession drags on. For example, the city of Tampa appropriated $320,000 to the orchestra last fiscal year, but that has been cut by 20 percent. Less public funding will probably mean fewer free outdoor concerts.

"I think government money is going to vanish,'' Pastreich said. "I think corporate sponsorship is going to be really hard to come by. That means more pressure falls on raising individual support.''

Along with a balanced budget, the orchestra has promised donors that the number of subscribers to its masterworks series will grow by 5 percent a year. "Masterworks is the center of our economic engine,'' Pastreich said.

The best attended masterworks programs last season included Verdi's Requiem and Mahler's Resurrection Symphony, both with the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay.

In mid July, masterworks subscriptions were 2,358, or about 2 percent ahead of a year ago. "We're ahead of the curve, but we're not ahead enough,'' Pastreich said. "Are we able to pull off a 5 percent increase in this environment when almost no orchestra is doing that this year? We've got some tricks up our sleeve, and several months to work on it, but it's a risk.''

The season opens Oct. 9 with music director Stefan Sanderling on the podium for a Latin-themed program featuring guitarist Manuel Barrueco in Astor Piazzolla's concerto for guitar and bandoneón, a type of accordion.

A bright spot is the series of morning coffee concerts, conducted by Alastair Willis at Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. A seventh concert has been added, and subscriptions are running 9 percent ahead of last year.

Though the masterworks and coffee series are growing, the pops series is not. Pops subscription sales are off more than 7 percent from a year ago. They are way down in Tampa, where half of the eight programs will not be played because the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center is unavailable, primarily due to its heavy Broadway schedule. Pops sales are also off at Mahaffey.

One possible reason for the falloff is that leadership of the series is in flux, with Richard Kaufman leaving after five years as principal pops conductor and no replacement named. There are a couple of potential successors on the schedule this coming season — Jeff Tyzik and Matt Catingub — but Pastreich indicated that the orchestra will probably go another season or two without a principal pops conductor as it tries to determine a new strategy. "Part of the debate is whether we have a pops conductor,'' he said.

Pops programming can be terribly hit and miss. Last season had some successes, including the movie music of John Williams and the virtuoso string trio Time for Three, but too often the concerts rely on the tired old formula of show tunes and variety acts.

More innovative programs lately have been nonsubscription specials such as a Pink Floyd tribute or the orchestra playing the score during a screening of The Wizard of Oz.

John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or fleming@sptimes.com.

Florida Orchestra balances budget, and that's saying something 08/01/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 1, 2009 5:30am]

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