Friday, September 5, 2008

Elaine Calder talks about her work with the Oregon Symphony

I recently talked Elaine Calder about her job as the president of the Oregon Symphony, because I just wanted to know more about what she does.

What is your work day like?

Calder: My work day usually starts at 9 in the morning. Since I live at Jefferson and 10th; so on the way to work I usually stop in at the Schnitz when there are rehearsals. One of the things that I do throughout the season is take in an up-to-date box office report which I post for the musicians so that they can see how the next few performances are selling. A lot of them really count that down.

This morning I went in and put that up, and I posted a memo of I had written with the results of a survey that I had them do last season. I gave them a survey on 14 classical programs and the four inside the scores program. And I asked them to rate each from 1 to 5 where 1 was “How did this happen, don’t let this ever happen again,” and 5 was “This was one of the greatest experiences in my performing career.” I also gave them the guest artists and guest conductors, and asked them to circle y or n to indicate if you want them back.

That’s interesting to have them evaluate the season.

Calder: Well, apparently no one had ever asked them to do this before. I wrote them a two-page memo that summarized the survey. There was real unanimity around some things. And they were completely split around a couple of people. Some responses left me completely puzzled. I thought the performance by Elina Vähälä of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons was one of the greatest performances of that piece that I had ever heard. And they were like ‘oh yeah, okay, no big deal.’ Anyway, they wrote lots of comments, and I’ve got them all. So, I’ve given their feedback to Carlos, Gregory, and Charles Calmar.

So, I’m often here at the Symphony offices until 6 or 7 pm.

My glib answer about my job as a senior manager is that I’m the decision maker that people seek out frequently. You spend a lot of your time with the door open saying ‘Yes, great idea, run with it. Yes, great idea, but don’t you think that we should think a little more about it. Or No, please don’t do that, and here’s why. But that’s the glib answer to your question.

I do a lot of fund raising. I was at lunch today with a major donor. A couple of ideas came out of it. I was at a planning meeting with a group of board members and the development vice president talking about the coming season. So I do a lot of fund raising work. I make a lot of calls, write a lot of letters, and stay in touch with people.

Since you work with budgets, are you an Excel expert?

Calder: Excel is my second language. Just the other Friday, I spent an hour over the cash flow forecast with the controller, and saying ‘this looks so good, there must be something wrong here.’ This morning I figured out a way to check that.

We don’t have a CFO here, but it’s me. Fortunately, I like numbers and am happy with numbers.

So do Carlos Kalmar and Charles Calmer take care of the artistic side?

Calder: I get involved in the artistic side, too. Charles heads up an artistic planning group that meets on Wednesday mornings. The group includes me, Charles, Carl Herko, Jessica, representing the marketing people, and we usually ask Charles Noble to attend. We keep trying to get more musicians involved. A lot of them bring back good ideas from summer festivals where they are playing. John Cox, our principal French horn player, brought me the program from the Mozart Festival in San Diego because he thought that he had some really good fund-raising ideas.

So we have weekly meetings almost all through the year. One board member suggested that we do to our classical series like we’ve done to the Pops. We had too many Pops programs. We had seven Pops programs, and we’ve taken them down to four. The audience is actually thrilled. And now we are doing very specific concerts for various niches in the marketplace. So instead of trying to do a seven concert Pops series that pleases no one, we’ve created a much tighter Pops series with Jeff Tyzik that is traditional Pops. And then we are programming Bluegrass, Fado music, the recording with Pink Martini, we have Norman Leyden coming back for Memorial Day weekend. We will put in as much as we can that’s different.

So, this board member thinks that we have too many classical programs, because even though we are doing better at the classical concerts, there are still too many empty spaces. I’m worried about November, because we have three classical programs in November and that seems like too many. But we have a 41 week season and three weeks we can’t program anything at all. We have to work around Carlos’s schedule, the Pops programs, we have to work around Portland Youth Philharmonic’s concerts in the Schnitz. So sometimes too many concerts get bunched up during one month. I’m worried about that. It’s unfair to our audiences. It’s not as though we are the only thing that’s going on in Portland. There are conflicts with the scheduling of other groups.

So, I wrote a position paper on taking down the Classical series from fourteen concerts a year to twelve. What could we do with those two extra programs. What who do we do with the Inside the Score series? Are there enough major works for that series – which is what people going to that program seem to explore. Should we be meeting the demand for Sunday afternoon, full classical programs. That’s the big question. We are one of the only orchestras that don’t do matinees as part of our regular classical series.

Do you do the negotiating with artists?

Calder: Charles Calmer does the negotiating with artists’ agents. Everything is looked at closely, but, of course, fees for young artists are affordable. The big fees for the big names are that way for a good reason. What gets more scrutiny are the fees for artists in the middle rank. Their fees are not cheap. Will they bring in more people than a young unknown. That’s a difficult decision, we talk it over a lot. This is especially crucial in the single-ticket shows. Sometimes you have to get on the phone or email and find out how someone did elsewhere.

Last week I talked with Doug Jenkins of the Portland Cello Project. We are looking at working with them sometime in the future. So many people are down about classical music and younger people, but he said that’s true at all. Anyway, tickets for our concert with Antony and the Johnsons is selling very well; so we are looking forward to that.

How do you acquire the knowledge that you have? Is there a finishing school for arts managers?

(Calder laughs.)

Can someone come out of a corporation like a bank and run an orchestra?

Calder: That happens quite frequently. Some people can do it and others can’t. I have an MBA from a business school It wasn’t an Arts MBA, but the real deal, and while my fellow graduates went on to work for international banks, I chose to work for a theater company. Before I got the MBA, I ran a little community theater in the town where I lived, Woodstock, Ontario, for about ten years.

Anyway, after I received my MBA from the Ivey School which is part of the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, I still wanted to run a theater company, so I got a job with a theater company in Toronto. I went from there to the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario, which was about a 3 million dollar company, and then I went to the Shaw Festival at Niagara on the Lake, which was a really big thing. Then I went to the Canadian Opera Company, which was a bigger operation.

I always resisted orchestras, even though I had an orchestra at the Canadian Opera Company and Pinky’s (Pinchas Zuckerman) orchestra at the National Arts Centre when I worked there for ten months. We are hoping to get him here.

But I always thought that orchestras were tough, then I got headhunted by the Edmonton Symphony. And it took six years to fix that situation.

So, is this your first time to work in the US?

Calder: No, this is the second. I worked for two years at the theater company in Hartford, Connecticut.

Are orchestras a bigger challenge than theaters?

Calder: Everyone complains that there are so many musicians to deal with, but they aren’t the problem although they are a huge fixed cost. I mean at the Shaw Festival, when we got into a financial difficulty the year that GST, a national tax, became introduced in Canada. And it came at the same time that Ontario went into a recession. And we had this one horrible year. That year the acting company was 85; the next year it was 65. You do smaller plays; you hire fewer actors; you make fewer costumes. Well, you can’t do that here. You can’t say ‘oops, sorry guys, twenty of you aren’t coming back next year.’

So to me it’s not he musicians. Instead, it’s the whole marketing challenge. You have no word of mouth at all, and you’ve got to draw huge numbers of people every night. And with us it’s all over in a weekend. And you have to get people excited about the next weekend.

I couldn’t imagine going out and helping to raise funds if I didn’t believe in the orchestra. Sometimes I have to overcome skepticism.

We are going to be accountable to our donors. We are not going to take a pledge from them for five years and then hold them to that when they are unhappy with the way things are going. They are going to get a lot of reports from me as to what’s going on and if they don’t like what’s happening or if they don’t think that we’re making progress then they can give your money away somewhere else. There’s lots of good places to give money in Portland. So we are keeping people informed, and they can re-up their commitment according to their evaluation. We are will to open the books, keep people up do date, make things transparent. Explaining to people how things work is part of fund raising.

So, I’ve got a lot of things to do – from strategic planning to the budget and many other things. It’s a great job, and I love being here!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

James, great article! and it's great that Elaine brings business sense to the arts world!