Classical music orchestras aren’t known for risk-taking.
But the Northwest Sinfonietta — Tacoma’s professional chamber orchestra that has become an award-winning export to Seattle and Puyallup — has made big changes lately.
And now it’s facing a financial crisis.
With a rare, musician-driven model and recognition from critics and state government, the 25-year-old Sinfonietta is proving itself a cultural gem.
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But with an accumulated deficit of more than $100,000, liabilities of over $250,000 and falling attendance, that gem is in danger.
The proposed solution? The whole community pulling together — led by Thom Mayes, a young CEO who signed on in July to bring back the orchestra from the brink.
“I understood (the challenges) coming in,” said Mayes, who came to Tacoma from a similar job with the amateur Whatcom Symphony, and replaced retired eight-year executive director Neil Birnbaum.
“I took it on because this particular orchestra in this region has a great opportunity to make a big impact on the cultural life here. I think it’s unique.”
“I feel like we’ve been in dire financial straits for multiple years now,” said board president and longtime supporter Wren Buck. “But now we have a leadership that’s willing to be realistic about resources, and work within them. …
“I really do think we have a way forward.”
WHY THE CRISIS?
The Sinfonietta’s troubles have been a soup bubbling for a few years, with various ingredients bringing everything to a boil.
The biggest ingredients were the departure in 2015 of co-founder and 24-year music director Christophe Chagnard, and the abrupt transition to a completely different artistic model. Now, instead of a single musical leader, three partner conductors rotate concerts and much of the decision-making comes from the orchestral musicians.
Both changes took their toll on the orchestra’s ticket sales and donations.
“Christophe had this wonderful rapport … with his verbal program notes and enthusiasm,” said Kathryn Habedank, the harpsichordist who co-founded the orchestra with Chagnard in 1991 and co-managed it for 10 years. “We know what a strong backing he had in the community from subscribers and donors.”
From the end of the 2013-14 financial year, when Chagnard announced his departure, to the end of the next, came a huge drop in ticket sales and individual donations, each of which make up just under a quarter of the overall budget (now hovering around $600,000).
Tickets sales dropped another 20 percent by the end of 2015-16, the first full season of the new model. Though giving increased, the orchestra finished the year $73,476 in the red, according to Mayes’ estimate.
Meanwhile, long-term debts have been piling up: from $132,918 in 2010-11 to $252,045, according to the group’s 2014-15 tax return.
“There was a loss of support, predictably in Tacoma,” Mayes said. “There’s been a core audience that has stepped up, but for a large part, there’s been a wait-and-see approach that’s made it challenging to fund what we aspire to do.”
Chagnard is diplomatic about the subject of supporters following him out the door, but agrees with Habedank, Buck and Mayes that classical audiences don’t like change.
“Classical music is a traditional artform,” he said. “People like to hear their Mozart and Beethoven. They rely on that. They were used to a certain Northwest Sinfonietta … with certain emotional connections.”
The other problem was that the change to the new partner model — one used only by five professional chamber orchestras in the world — was abrupt and, Chagnard says, done without much community involvement.
The Tacoma Symphony, by comparison, conducted its recent yearlong director audition process with audience Q&As and other feedback.
FINANCIAL PROBLEMS NOT NEW
As Buck points out, the financial problems predate the move to the new model.
In 2010, the orchestra began adding a Puyallup concert to its Seattle and Tacoma performances for each program — a good thing for Puyallup, but not necessarily for the orchestra.
“We didn’t anticipate how the Tacoma audience would shift,” Buck said. “The overall audience didn’t increase — we just cannibalized it.”
The orchestra’s groundbreaking musical exchange with Cuba in 2012 and 2013, which led to then-Gov. Chris Gregoire hailing the group as “international cultural ambassadors,” added to costs without adding as much to income.
Then there was the year the board and former executive director Birnbaum decided not to have a gala, instead asking for extra donations to raise funds.
Income in that category already had dropped to $91,184 from $114,064 in the previous two years. In 2013/14, the season without the gala, it plummeted to $14,516, while marketing costs rose 39 percent to $137,011.
Birnbaum was unavailable to speak with The News Tribune for this story.
In 2014, the Tacoma City Ballet, unhappy with previous performances, hired another orchestra to play for its “Nutcracker.” That was not a huge financial loss for the Sinfonietta, but a drop in attendance triggered reductions in funding such as the City of Tacoma’s Arts Anchor grant, which contributed up to $40,000 of the orchestra’s yearly budget.
Behind all that was the 2008/09 recession, which hit arts groups hard and continued to long after it officially was over while donors, foundations and subscribers regrouped financially.
Even big orchestras suffered — such as the Philadelphia Orchestra, which made history in 2011 as the first U.S. orchestra to file for bankruptcy. Without an endowment, small groups like the Sinfonietta have no safety net.
“Running a small nonprofit arts group that’s not a major entity in its city is never easy,” Mayes said. “This organization has never been flush with cash.
“When that is the norm and you have a situation (like the model transition), that’s when you run into problems.”
A NEW BOSS
Into this dire situation stepped Mayes.
Young (he’s 32), a local boy (from Edmonds) and a musician (he trained as a double bassist and still plays occasionally in Seattle), Mayes is a breath of fresh air at the Sinfonietta.
Mayes has experience with struggling arts groups, such as Mount Vernon’s historic Lincoln Theater, which he brought from a three-month closure from debt to a successful reinvention.
And he’s got the support of Simon Woods, Seattle Symphony CEO, whom Mayes counts as a mentor.
Above all, he’s good at making friends — something the orchestra needs.
“I love Thom,” Buck said. “He’s a numbers nerd … and such a friendly and open person. He’s really straightforward and optimistic, and great at reminding people what they love about music. He reminds me why we’re doing this — to make Tacoma better, to make Puyallup and Seattle better.”
Mayes says he came into the Sinfonietta job with eyes wide open about its financial situation, and believes he can turn it around by tightening the budget and winning back the community.
“We need to look head-on at the problems, and I think we’re doing that,” he says. “Yes, there will be cuts … (but) we’ll also renew the focus on what we offer, and deepen our roots within each community.”
Already cuts have been made. One full-time staff position has been eliminated and budgets trimmed for marketing, fundraising and production. At a meeting in August, the musicians agreed to a pay cut of $10 per service —about 7 percent.
In addition, the organization switched offices, and overall, expenses for 2016/17 are down to a projected $618,786 — $70,000 less than last year.
Meanwhile, Mayes is budgeting for overall increases in tickets, donors and gala earnings to balance the bottom line, as well as expecting $100,000 by end of 2016 from the rest of a 2011 bequest by Tacoma lawyer and arts patron Anita Moceri.
He’s approaching new donors, and those who left in recent years, to convince them the orchestra has something worth supporting.
He’s playing up programming, such as the opening concerts Sept. 23-25, which will feature co-concertmasters Brittany Boulding and Denise Dillenbeck in a program with two double-violin concertos. He’s looking to collaborations, such as the March 2017 concert with the Museum of Glass, to ease some costs.
He’s also looking ahead to engage with each city’s audience via specific programming: concerts in alternate venues, smaller and unconducted chamber music.
“Thom’s done a great job of putting everything on the table,” said Judson Scott, the orchestra’s principal trumpeter and personnel manager. “There’s no sacred cow. … And he’s young enough with energy enough to throw himself into this.”
Chagnard, though out of the financial picture, has been helping by talking to former supporters and being a kind of “middleman” for the orchestra, as he puts it.
THE SINFONIETTA’S NEW FACE
Mayes’ role will really lie, at least initially, in supplying something the orchestra has lacked since Chagnard left: a public face.
“We know from the Tacoma Symphony’s success how important it is to have a figurehead in the community to help raise support,” said Habedank, the Sinfonietta’s co-founder.
The orchestra’s three artistic partners — Eric Jacobsen, David Lockington and Joseph Swensen — come to the region for just the concert week, then leave.
The orchestra also might engage different partners in the future.
The musicians, meanwhile, are based in a variety of places: 13 live in Seattle, seven around Tacoma, others anywhere from Bellevue to Vashon Island to Ellensburg. Board members come from Seattle, Tacoma and Puyallup.
The one person in the Tacoma-based orchestra who’s in Tacoma full time is Mayes.
“I am the face of the Sinfonietta insofar as I’m the curator for the community of the interesting art that we do,” he said. “I hope people get to know me, and through me get to know the players who really make up the Sinfonietta.”
Mayes has plans for that, too, including a social media strategy for highlighting musicians personally. Boulding and Dillenbeck, for instance, have hundreds of Facebook friends and budding Instagram accounts.
“My hope is that the actual musicians of the orchestra will be in the forefront,” Boulding said. “It’s an exciting change and unique to the region — we work together as if there were no conductor.”
And, as Seattle Symphony CEO Simon Woods points out, it takes all hands on deck.
“It takes a village,” he said. “When people realize what’s at stake, what a beautiful asset they have, they come together: the musicians, the board, institutions, banks forgive loans, newspapers talk about it. You find out if the community has the will to support the orchestra.”
For now, Mayes is the one who will try to pull together that community.
“It’s all on his shoulders,” Chagnard said. “It’s a formidable challenge.”
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568
Grew up: Edmonds
Studied: University of Colorado
Loves: Traveling, especially road trips and hiking; playing double bass
Favorite composer: “Hard to choose one, but I’d go with Mahler and Tchaikovsky.”
Northwest Sinfonietta 101
Begun in 1991, the Sinfonietta (pronounced sin-fon-YET-ah) is a professional chamber orchestra — 34 musicians playing music of all periods. It’s about one-third the size of a symphony.
It plays five or six concerts a year in Tacoma, Puyallup and Seattle, often collaborating with dancers, artists and guest musicians. It features regional and international soloists and has toured Cuba.
In 2014, the Sinfonietta moved to a model of musician-led decisions and three artistic partner conductors who rotate concerts — one of just five such models in the world. Current artistic partners are Eric Jacobsen, David Lockington and Joseph Swensen.
For information, see northwestsinfonietta.org
Northwest Sinfonietta opening concert
What: Bach and Ysaye double violin concertos, plus Stravinsky and Schumann.
Who: Northwest Sinfonietta, directed by David Lockington, with Brittany Boulding and Denise Dillenbeck, violins.
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 23 in Seattle; 7:30 p.m. Sept. 24 in Tacoma; 2 p.m. Sept. 25 in Puyallup.
Where: Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; Rialto Theater, 310 S. Ninth St., Tacoma; Pioneer Park Pavilion, 333 S. Meridian Ave., Puyallup.