Tales of financial woe come with the territory in the symphony orchestra world, but the news over the summer seemed more dire than usual. The recession has taken a toll on ticket sales, donations and endowment income for orchestras nationwide.
• Musicians of the Detroit Symphony, asked to take a 28 percent pay cut to help narrow a budget deficit as high as $9 million this season, authorized their union to call a strike on Sept. 24.
• The board chairman of the Philadelphia Orchestra warned of possible bankruptcy.
• Saying it faced its "most difficult financial year in decades,'' the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra proposed a budget this season with a deficit of $876,000 — its third consecutive year in the red.
• The Dallas Symphony CEO resigned, with the orchestra running a $4 million deficit.
• The Naples Philharmonic dipped into its endowment for the first time to balance the budget.
So, amid the wreckage, how is the Florida Orchestra doing? Not surprisingly, it has financial problems of its own.
"We had a significant deficit,'' Michael Pastreich, president and CEO of the orchestra, said in a recent interview. Financial results from fiscal year 2009-10, which ended June 30, are still being audited, but Pastreich estimated the deficit could be as much as $750,000. He said final figures would be available in October.
"It was a wild year,'' Pastreich said. "That we've been able to make it through the recession without a deficit until now is a testament. But it caught up with us last season.''
The orchestra CEO pointed to several bright spots — single ticket revenue was up 44 percent over the previous year; individual giving increased 3 percent — but said the orchestra couldn't overcome steep declines in government and corporate support.
"Corporation and government funding was a wasteland,'' he said.
Last season, the orchestra managed to maintain its number of masterworks subscribers, a total of 2,631, but the revenue was down. In other words, masterworks subscribers on average bought ticket packages of fewer concerts, predictable behavior in tough times.
The orchestra has a new board chairman, Thomas H. Farquhar. Farquhar is a St. Petersburg resident whose resume includes a finance career in Massachusetts. The board has asked the orchestra's musicians to renegotiate their labor contract. This season, musicians will receive base pay of just under $30,000 for 29 weeks of work and three weeks of vacation.
Harold van Schaik, a bass trombone player and spokesman for the musicians, said they were not obliged even to respond to the request for renegotiation, since the contract has two years to run. It was renegotiated just a year ago.
"An orchestra like this has no place to go,'' van Schaik said, in reference to its pay scale already being among the lowest in the business.
Pastreich promised that the orchestra would unveil some new strategies for survival in October. In the meantime, he said he was "losing sleep'' over the prospect of a change in management at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg.
As he said during last year's election campaign, St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster is not happy with SMG, the national theater management firm that has run Mahaffey for several years with lackluster results. The company's contract, up for renewal in October, was recently extended as a transitional measure, but the city is asking for new proposals.
The orchestra is at the mercy of its landlords — not just at Mahaffey but also at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater and the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa — and Pastreich worries that it might be shut out more at the St. Petersburg venue under a new operator. Foster has said he would like to take another crack at having Mahaffey present a Broadway series, a conspicuous failure in previous attempts.
"My concern is that the city is going to follow Shangri-La forever, while the organizations that are here take it on the chin,'' Pastreich said. "What happens if someone comes in and wants to cut back on our dates at Mahaffey? The symphony could be in a world of hurt.''
Along with concerts at Mahaffey, the orchestra has many of its rehearsals there. Presentations like Broadway tours and pop shows compete for dates with the orchestra, which has long been the hall's No. 1 tenant and has a loyal audience.
The season opens Oct. 8, with Thomas Wilkins returning to conduct The Pines of Rome. Wilkins, the popular resident conductor of the orchestra in the 1990s, has gone on to be music director of the Omaha Symphony and principal guest conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.