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PULLING BIGGER STRINGS

It is a weekday in early October _ less than a month until the Florida Orchestra's next absolute, last-ditch, live-or-die deadline _ and executive director Kathryn Holm gives the impression of someone whose Rolodex is running out of names.

On this day, Holm's first appointment is with a beefy, bespectacled bandleader from Melbourne, whose business card identifies him as head of Save Our Orchestras Now.

"I'm presenting a concept that will soon furnish you with large amounts of money," he says. "First you have to find someone with $10-million."

He describes an improbable scheme that involves an offshore trust in Aruba, commodities trading, Swiss money markets and no taxes. After about 10 minutes, Holm excuses herself from the meeting.

Later, Holm goes to the Mayors Council of Pinellas County, holding its monthly luncheon at the Wine Cellar in North Redington Beach. Her speech on funding for the orchestra is received with almost comical indifference. A clatter of dishes comes from the nearby kitchen. A piano player pounds out America for a sing-along in the next dining room.

Even more discouraging is the conversation Holm has with people at her table, a contingent from South Pasadena that sings the praises of their community orchestra. They don't make a distinction between a volunteer band and the Florida Orchestra.

These are critical times for the harpist turned executive who will either save the orchestra or deliver its requiem. Not all her days are as unsatisfying as this one, but a sense of desperation pervades her efforts.

To underscore the crucial obstacles facing the organization, Holm and the board of trustees have abandoned a tradition of semi-secrecy and are talking frankly about how things are.

The view is not good.

The board's recovery plan, largely prepared by Holm, paints a picture of an organization perhaps seduced by its ambitions to take steps that now clearly look to have been imprudent.

And as they scramble to rebuild credibility with prospective donors, Holm and the trustees are being forced to face troubling questions of past management decisions.

Despite high artistic quality under music director Jahja Ling, the orchestra has not come close to breaking even financially over the last six years.

Things got so bad that music director laureate Irwin Hoffman, had to sue to get money owed him by the orchestra _ an embarrassing tiff not disclosed until the Times researched court records.

John Hyer, the previous chief executive, drove an orchestra-leased Audi, had a salary of more than $100,000 and ran up high cellular phone bills while musicians and staff were going without pay.

Bold efforts to move the orchestra into new markets flopped. A concert series in Orlando, a performance of The Music Man, a show with Mickey Gilley, a Nutcracker with Bay Ballet Theater, a Messiah with the Master Chorale, a "conductorless" concert _ these non-subscription programs and others yielded losses of more than $300,000.

The orchestra's core programing also had problems. Subscription concerts were $110,000 short of projections in 1993-94.

Nor was the fund-raising side of the ledger any better. There was a $418,000 shortfall in support from government, private and corporate sources.

Altogether, last season's deficit was $1.3-million _ an astonishing figure for an organization with a budget of $5-million.

In speaking engagements, government hearings, fund-raising meetings and media events, Holm's rhetorical strategy has been to be upfront about the orchestra's woes.

"It's not intended manipulatively," she says. "It's the truth, and if we don't tell the truth, we're through. There has been too much "Everything's fine, everything's fine' when that's not true at all. For too long, there was a sense of laying low, of hoping we could fix it quietly."

There's nothing fancy about the orchestra office in a West Shore business park in Tampa. Holm's decor runs to music posters and pictures of cats, and on her computer is a small portrait of St. Catherine, compliments of a violinist in the orchestra.

Holm has been perhaps the busiest person in town since August. That's when she and the board announced that the orchestra would shut down if it wasn't put on a sound financial footing. The recovery plan calls for raising $3-million by the end of the year.

On Sept. 1, Holm and the board exceeded their goal of raising $500,000 to open the season. They raised $600,000, with much of it committed in the week before the deadline.

"I'll never forget that week," she says. "I talked practically non-stop for four days. I went home that Friday and my tongue was raw."

The next deadline is Monday, when an additional $1-million is the goal. Last week, there was $850,000 to go, with scant prospects on the horizon. Trustees will meet Tuesday to decide the next step.

Once the season got under way, Holm was pulled into daily operations _ finding a tenor to sing in Verdi's Requiem, fixing fouled-up subscriptions, struggling with cash-flow problems, soothing stressed-out staffers. Instead of looking for financial angels, she was putting out fires.

Holm, 43, has been in orchestra management for several years, but she is first and foremost a musician, from her callused fingers down to her medium-heeled pumps whose backs are scuffed from harp pedals.

Early this month, the orchestra played Mahler's Symphony No. 4. Not many composers write well for harp, in Holm's opinion, but one who did was Mahler. She missed being onstage with her colleagues.

"It was bittersweet, sitting in the audience, knowing the Mahler, all the notes," she says. "I don't really think about not playing until I'm in a concert, listening, but then it's hard to be away from it."

Holm began playing the harp at 12, and after going on a European tour with the junior symphony of her hometown, Kalamazoo, Mich., she dreamed of becoming a member of an orchestra. The dream came true shortly after her graduation from the Cleveland Institute of Music, where she studied with the teacher she calls a "harp goddess," Alice Chalifoux.

It was 1977 when Holm auditioned for Irwin Hoffman in the living room of his house on St. Petersburg's Snell Isle. She played Hindemith's Sonata and other works on the harp of Hoffman's daughter, Deborah, then a teenager and now harpist for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York.

"I warmed up in Deborah's bedroom," Holm says. "When I was ready for the audition, Irwin dragged in Deborah _ she was out by the pool _ to listen."

The orchestra has changed plenty since the days when the music director held auditions in his living room. Rehearsals were at night so musicians could hold other jobs, some concerts were in a high school gym and principal harp pay was $4,000 a season.

In the 1980s, Holm represented the American Federation of Musicians in contract negotiations with the board that included two strikes. Today, the orchestra has 110 employees and a 36-week season of 130 concerts. The base salary is $625 a week.

Holm has had a foot in musical labor and management since 1990, when she had a stint as interim executive director and sought the job permanently, losing out to John Hyer, who had managed the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. She was associate director while continuing to play harp. Seven months ago, she put away her instrument to replace Hyer.

Holm was persuaded to take the job by board chair Jane Peppard. Holm and Peppard (publisher of the Times in Tampa) both live near the University of South Florida's Tampa campus. They get together to play recorder duets as "stress relievers," Holm says.

When driving to business appointments, Holm often takes the orchestra's Audi, which became a sore point in Hyer's tenure. Hyer was criticized for leasing the luxury car and having a cellular phone and pulling down a big salary. His deal wouldn't have raised an eyebrow in the corporate world, but it bred resentment among musicians making blue-collar wages.

Holm says the orchestra is stuck with the Audi, unable to get out of the $500-a-month lease. (Hyer paid $100 a month on the lease plus the gas bills.) Instead of the five cellular phones management and production staffers used to have, now there are two. Those phone bills have been cut from upwards of $600 a month to less than $75 a month.

Holm, whose salary is $69,000, chooses her words carefully in discussing her predecessor. "I'm not sure we needed an Audi or we couldn't have gotten one donated," she says.

In defense of the car, she points out that image counts for something in fund-raising. "You can't pick up a $50,000 donor in an '87 Chevy," she says.

Hyer alienated those with the most at stake in the orchestra. In 1992-93, instead of engaging the issue of musicians' pay by renegotiating the master agreement, he unilaterally violated the contract. That resulted in a federal mediation award of almost $600,000 in back pay to musicians.

He wouldn't work out repayment plans with artist management firms, to whom the orchestra owes money for guest conductors and soloists going back years. That's why midway through last season, Columbia Artists Management Inc. canceled the appearance of violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, the biggest box office draw on the masterworks schedule.

Another lapse involved a lawsuit brought against the orchestra by none other than Irwin Hoffman, now music director of Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional in San Jose, Costa Rica. When Hoffman left the Florida Orchestra after the 1986-87 season, with 18 years as music director behind him, he had an agreement with the board that called for him to receive $120,000. He was to get $50,000 in three payments from 1987 through 1990. The rest was to be in $10,000 annual payments due every Sept. 1 from 1987 to 1993.

Last year, the orchestra had failed to make the final two annual payments, owing its longtime leader $20,000. Hoffman hired a lawyer and filed a complaint in Hillsborough County Circuit Court on Sept. 8, 1993. A string of actions pushed the case into 1994, with no response from the orchestra's registered agent, Hyer, who was served with a summons.

How could something so embarrassing be ignored?

Trustees say they didn't learn of Hoffman's suit until it was too late. "I think it was buried on someone's desk," says Peppard. "I think management received notice of the lawsuit and it was buried."

Trustee Wally Pope, the orchestra's attorney, was finally brought in on the case. "By the time it got to me, the orchestra was already in default and there was nothing I could do," Pope says.

Some seven months after Hoffman filed the complaint he got $20,000 plus about $2,500 in interest, but not before Judge Sam Pendino had to order the money _ along with $189 in court costs _ to be garnished from the orchestra's bank account.

Hyer, now a salesman with Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance, doesn't explain why Hoffman's lawsuit wasn't dealt with in a timely manner. Nor does he really respond to questions about the Audi, the cellular phone bills and his $100,000-plus salary, except to deny he was paid that much.

Told his salary is listed as $107,033 with benefits and an expense account on the orchestra's 990 form for the Internal Revenue Service, he says, "Not on any 990 signed by me." The form has Hyer's signature.

Hyer says the orchestra's predicament is not his fault. "I don't think any manager, either the wrong manager or the right one, would have made a difference," he says. "The problem has not been management. There's a mismatch between resources in the community and expectations by the orchestra."

Hyer is not about to let himself become a scapegoat. "How many nails did it take to crucify Jesus?" he asks at one point.

The recovery plan met with success in August and September, when support came from Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, the cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa, banks and corporations.

The orchestra attracted important individual donors, notably Daniel Doyle, CEO of Danka Industries, who pledged $250,000. But some traditional backers have been slow to get on board.

There are at least two reasons for skepticism. First, the orchestra has been down this road before as recently as the late 1980s, when trustees raised more than $1.5-million for an endowment. In 1988, the Florida Legislature appropriated $700,000 to the orchestra, a move that was intended to wipe out a deficit and clear the way for bigger and better things.

The endowment and the state grant weren't enough. Today, the endowment is tied up as collateral for long-term loans, and accumulated debt is greater than anyone imagined it could be. The $3-million needed by year's end is just a start; it will take $2-million more for the orchestra "to stabilize its current financial status," the recovery plan says.

The second reason for skepticism is that the plan is strong on identifying problems but weak on finding solutions. What combination of artistic, educational and business strategies can secure the orchestra's future? Outside of fine-tuning the programing _ more concerts geared to African-Americans and Hispanics, for example, or an expanded pops series _ the plan isn't very specific.

Holm calls it a work in progress. "I think all the solutions are not there," she says. "I think the broad generalities are. I think the important thing at this point is honesty."

Peppard says potential donors ask where the solutions are but also recognize the orchestra's place in the community. "They tell us it's very important to have a fine orchestra," she says. "It would be much more expensive to start from scratch if this one disappears. So it makes sense to try to figure out how to make it succeed."

Symphony orchestras are close-knit groups, and their members tend to be clannish. Trained in what is seen as an arcane pursuit, working odd hours and under the pressure of public performance, classical musicians are a breed unto themselves.

"It's not a traditional sort of personal life, not an Ozzie and Harriet life style," Holm says.

Holm has been separated two years from her husband, Peter. She has her cats, Hansel and Gretel, at her condominium. She has her volunteer work with Guardian Ad Litem, an advocate program for abused children whose lives are being decided in the courts. She has a host of non-musician friends.

To an extent, however, the orchestra is like her family, and since she became a manager, there has been a shift in her relationship with it. Many orchestra members have a spirit of class solidarity that wouldn't be out of place in the coal miners union.

"Their attitude has changed," she says. "Sometimes it's awkward. I sense they're uncomfortable when I'm around because I'm management now."

A turning point came during a rehearsal two years ago when Hyer was supposed to be there to explain why paychecks would be late. He didn't show up.

Holm, then associate director but still playing harp, took the heat from musicians. "They basically jumped me, right in front of a guest conductor, making me get up in front of them," she says. "It got very tense. It was extremely painful. I felt undermined by John (Hyer) and attacked by the musicians."

While some orchestra members regard Holm as having gone over to the other side, some members of the business community, to whom Holm must appeal for financial support, don't see it that way. They think having a former union organizer as executive director is a problem.

"I had a major potential donor, a CEO, tell me he had two concerns," Holm says. "One was about management of the orchestra, which I could understand, given the track record. The other thing that concerned him was the strike, which was eight, nine years ago. He said that indicated the musicians weren't committed to the community. I said, "Man, if they weren't committed, we wouldn't be having this conversation. The orchestra would be long gone.'

"

Holm doesn't distance herself from her union background. Frequently, it's argued that the orchestra has grown too large for Tampa Bay to support, and that the musicians' payroll ought to be scaled back.

In her view, however, something like the opposite is the problem. She thinks that the musicians' pay is inadequate, and that increased compensation will lead to a better and more popular orchestra.

"Why would you degrade your product to increase your sales?" she asks. "Does General Motors make a less attractive car when sales are off?"

Artistic quality is the one area in which the orchestra has delivered, and Holm is loath to see that slip. Still, cracks are developing in the quality because of the financial problems. Several musicians left this season to take positions in more stable orchestras.

Holm figures musicians have done their part by playing despite delayed and partial paychecks. She is uneasy about the part of the recovery plan that stipulates holding the line on musicians' pay. A freeze is on the table but not yet negotiated.

"Anything related to asking musicians for a wage freeze, I have a problem with that," she says. "I'm a musician. I'm in the union."

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