Is Anybody Listening?

Maestro Hermann Michael, the new music director for the Phoenix Symphony, is a natty man who wears two-tone shoes and layers sweater vests over short-sleeved shirts, even when temperatures outside reach 100.

He beams and beckons his way through rehearsals with the orchestra, slashing out perfect Nike swooshes with his baton, flicking his fingers to convey sounds for which there are no words.

Michael's native language is German, his English is excellent, but the language he speaks to the musicians is something else entirely.

"After bar 23, be-bang, be-bang," he sings.
"After 24: tom, tom, a very heavy accent, sforzando on ze zecond quarter!"
The musicians understand. He lifts the baton and the violins soar out.
"Right!" he shouts.
The violas slide in.
"Very short!"

The strings chase each other through the hall, violins flurrying, cellos a step lower and a half-step behind, Michael pulling and poking at the notes as they fly past his podium. After an hour, when the orchestra takes a break, Michael will retreat to his dressing room to peel off his sweat-soaked clothes and put on another neatly matched sweater vest and short-sleeved shirt.

As it heads into its 50th season, the Phoenix Symphony has a new contract with its musicians--for years the lowest-paid in the business--and a relatively new CEO who has managed to balance the books for the first time in years. But Michael (pronounced MEEK-eye-el) is the great white-haired hope, the element that the orchestra's board and management think can fill Symphony Hall.

Michael's credentials are superlative: He's conducted the London Philharmonic and the Vienna State Opera, nearly every major orchestra in this country--Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles--as well as most of the second-tier orchestras. He's tremendously popular with musicians from coast to coast, and the fact that he's been landed by Phoenix is considered a coup. He's charming and talkative; when he sat for an interview with New Times, he literally had to be dragged away by his wife Brigitta to make his next appointment.

Michael has guest-conducted in Phoenix since 1988; for the past two years, he has filled in as artistic adviser while the full-fledged search for a music director dragged on. When he was ultimately chosen, he turned down offers and potential offers in Buffalo, Kansas City and Utah.

And although the maestro admits that Arizona's climate played a part in his decision, he says he was attracted by the quality and personality of the orchestra.

"There is a chemistry that you cannot explain, and that happens in abundance here," he says.

"It vas luff at first zight," he said into a microphone at the press conference called to announce his appointment.

And the feeling is mutual for the musicians.
"The energy in the orchestra is tremendous," says Richard Bock, the principal cellist and a symphony veteran of 11 years. "The level of enthusiasm, the amount of giving; I've never seen it for a concert. People are talking to each other who haven't talked to each other for 10 years. Today the conversation was, 'God, please don't let him be run over by a car.'"

But other elements play into the success of the symphony, and they all have to do with money. There has to be a dedicated board, a competent management and a willing audience, and in the 50-year history of the Phoenix Symphony, those elements have never been in place--at least not at the same time. Despite the competence of its musicians, the symphony has never been able to fill its hall and it has limped along financially, teetering on the brink of bankruptcy more than once.

Its current president and CEO, Joan Squires, seems to have turned the orchestra away from the brink of insolvency.

"If we are careful with this orchestra, we can continue to move forward," she says. "But we certainly have to make sure the financial base is there."

All it needs now is an audience.
"I've heard this question for 10 years: Why hasn't the symphony caught on?" says Dr. Richard Hill, who sits on the symphony board.

Part of the answer may be that Phoenix ain't ready for culture.

Symphonies sit high on the list of assets that distinguish sophisticated cities from cow towns. Every second-rate-city PR flack greeting an out-of-town travel writer or corporate front man will talk about that burg's "world-class art museum and symphony" right after he touts the professional sports franchise and tax-built stadium.

But often that is lip service, a municipal version of buying books by the yard to fill shelves or seeking out the finest artwork to match the living-room couch. It's supposed to be there, even if you don't care much for it or understand why it costs as much as it does.  

"A lot of the business community supports the symphony because they don't want to be in a town that loses one," says former Phoenix mayor and symphony maven Terry Goddard. "It's like losing your first string when you're going into tough negotiations with high-tech corporations that you want to relocate here."

Sacramento, New Orleans and Denver have lost symphonies; San Diego's declared bankruptcy. There is discord even in the biggest and best-paid symphonies: The orchestras in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Atlanta all went on strike within the last year, quibbling over money and media and scheduling.

Grant monies have dried up, the classical-recording market is glutted. And in Arizona, as elsewhere in the United States, legislators annually question why the government should support the arts.

In late April, when the Phoenix Symphony announced Hermann Michael's appointment as music director, Mayor Skip Rimsza greeted him with an Arizona Diamondbacks jersey, Michael's name printed on the back over the number 1.

The symphony is 50 years old, the Diamondbacks haven't played one inning; Michael is an internationally recognized and proven musician, the Diamondbacks are an unproven and costly investment. But the symbolism beneath the seemingly friendly gesture showed what this town thinks it can produce, and it isn't longhair music. That stuff comes from back East somewhere.

Last month the National Symphony Orchestra came to town for a "residency," angering Phoenix Symphony musicians, because the National Symphony--say critics who should know--is no more competent than the Phoenix Symphony. And furthermore, its mission is to bring culture to pagan and philistine outposts that don't have it already. Governor Fife Symington proclaimed "National Symphony Orchestra Week." The local dailies prominently placed photos of the visiting musicians.

Last December, the Boston Pops sold out a Christmas concert at America West Arena; the Phoenix Symphony is lucky to have a three-quarters house at Symphony Hall.

In February 1996, the Greater Phoenix Economic Council hosted what Terry Goddard calls "the Forbes super-duper corporate giants of the world. Instead of hiring the Phoenix Symphony," he says, "because apparently they were showcasing the city of Phoenix and what we had to offer, they hired the Martha Graham Dance Troupe to come in from New York to entertain these people--and I went ballistic."

If the symphony felt the slap, so did Ballet Arizona, which had to strike its sets from the Herberger Theater Center to make way for Martha Graham. And when the ballet managers asked former GPEC chief Ioanna Morfessis why they were not asked to perform--which they would have done for free--they say Morfessis told them, "Like it or not, Phoenix is not known for its arts." Ironically, Ballet Arizona this year received more than $600,000 in grants from national foundations who somehow managed to know who it was.

Despite the lack of respect at home, the Phoenix Symphony has put out well-reviewed recordings and is still considered fondly by those musicians who have gone on to more prominent orchestras.

"The musicians in the Phoenix Symphony, for the most part, are fabulous performers," says Steve Witser, a former symphony trombonist who now plays with the Cleveland Symphony. "On any given day, they can do a fine performance, especially with Michael conducting."

"Phoenix Symphony is a wonderful orchestra," says Li-Kuo Chang, who played in Phoenix in the 1980s and is now assistant principal violist with the prestigious Chicago Symphony.

"The woodwinds and brass out there are as good as anywhere else," says Holly Katz, now a violinist with the well-regarded Pittsburgh Symphony.

And Maestro Michael points to the "rich and luscious sound they can produce because of their very strong brass section," making the symphony particularly adept at late Romantic works, especially Brahms and Mahler compositions.

"It's constantly been a far better group of musicians than we deserved for what they're being paid," says Terry Goddard.

The national mean salary for orchestra musicians is above $40,000 annually. Orchestra musicians in Chicago and New York make $60,000 to $80,000 a year--but so do musicians in more prosaic cities like Cleveland and Pittsburgh. But in Phoenix, even with their new raise, the musicians made just $21,700 this past season, less money than they could make teaching clarinet in the elementary schools. Of the 44 major orchestras tracked by the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, only the Honolulu Symphony pays less.

For all of its promise, the Phoenix Symphony has spent the better part of five decades destitute and wandering in search of leadership. Until recently, its managers were mostly retired businessmen assuming they could apply their corporate skills to the arts and make them produce. They assumed wrong.

The Symphony was founded in 1947, an amateur diversion for musical Phoenicians who performed four concerts a year; it grew into a part-time orchestra staffed largely by ASU music faculty. Then in 1978, the symphony board hired conductor Theo Alcantara to turn it into a major symphony--which basically means a full-time symphony with a multimillion-dollar budget.  

As Alcantara remembers now, the board members were stunned when he told them it would take at least five years and a big budget jump to reach that status, but by the start of the 1983 season, the American Symphony Orchestra League had bestowed its then-coveted but now defunct "major" designation upon the Phoenix Symphony.

The board pulled out all the stops to celebrate. Alcantara had hired top-quality musicians from all over the world to come to Phoenix. Among the visiting soloists that year were Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman and Alicia de Larrocha--which, in pop terms, would be like hosting Bono, Sting and Madonna.

"That was the most memorable year of my career," says Chicago violist Li-Kuo Chang of his tenure in Phoenix.

Pittsburgh violinist Holly Katz had turned down a position with the Detroit Symphony, which would have paid her $20,000 more than the Phoenix gig.

"They had Theo," she says. "He had plans and a board willing to make tours and recordings. It was going to go up and up, and I caught that dream."

Steve Witser, now a trombonist with the Cleveland Symphony, says, "I would still be there if they had kept their promises."

But money, or, rather, the lack of it, got in the way of fulfilling the promise.

Theo Alcantara still keeps a home in Paradise Valley, though he now serves as music director for the Bilbao Symphony in Spain and as principal conductor for the Pittsburgh Opera.

"Euphoria is a wonderful feeling, but also a dangerous one," he says. "The fact is that the euphoria led to some letting down of the guard to meet the financial obligations."

One year after going major, the symphony was $1.5 million in the hole and asking the Phoenix City Council for an emergency $650,000 donation to stay in business. Then-mayor Goddard thought it was "a hell of a lot of money," but he was able to provide it.

The symphony then clamped down on its big-spending ways, and turned to a succession of retired corporate executives, some of them board members, to run the symphony instead of hiring professional orchestra managers.

Alcantara resigned in 1989, frustrated at not being able to deliver on his promises to the musicians who had come from all over the world.

The board assembled a search committee composed partly of musicians to find a replacement for Alcantara. The committee assembled a list of candidates--including Hermann Michael--but then the board dropped a piano on the orchestra. While the search committee was convened for the summer, the board promoted assistant conductor James Sedares to music director--again to save money--allegedly even surprising Sedares.

In the stiff and formal tradition of orchestral bureaucracy, such floutings of protocol are considered to be off-key, and whether the criticism was valid, Sedares was neither liked nor respected by the musicians he was supposed to lead.

"That's an understatement," says trumpeter Chuck Berginc. "We had a better sense of how a piece was supposed to go from beginning to end. And the reality is that we are only supposed to know our own part."

If the discord was not visible to the community, it was visible in the musical world.

"There was so much frustration in this orchestra," says Maestro Michael. "There was not freedom. A conductor can fail to bring the potential out, and I think that was the case."

Repeatedly, the length of the symphony season was shortened, another cost-cutting measure since musicians' pay is calculated on a weekly scale. In 1992, to stave off bankruptcy, the musicians took an additional pay cut that amounted to about $800,000 in savings for the symphony.

"I do think we have suffered musically during the last few years, and there have been several factors," says principal percussionist Bill Wanser. During recent salary negotiations, a board member asked Wanser what his day job was. "Being the lowest-paid orchestra in the country is very demoralizing," he continues. "We're still doing the same number of concerts; they've just taken that amount of activity and crunched it into a smaller time frame, eliminating a lot of rehearsals and breather time in between performances. It's not uncommon for us to do three, sometimes four different programs a week, when most major orchestras will do one, maybe two performances."

Chuck Berginc agrees. "We ended up being distracted, and I would say distracted is how we played a lot of performances. You can only summon your own inspiration so often."  

Still, the band played on.
oan Squires came to the Phoenix Symphony in August 1994, with a rock-solid resume: stints with the Utah and Milwaukee symphonies, master's degrees in music and business administration from the University of Michigan, and an internship with the American Symphony Orchestra League.

The musicians and board members alike view her as a messiah, but in Milwaukee, she was the devil incarnate. Musicians and music writers there still recall a negotiating session in which she reportedly dropped the board's offer on a table and walked out, and when she moved to Phoenix, the Milwaukee press gave her a vicious sendoff.

She has a reputation as a good businesswoman and good ally but a formidable and inflexible adversary, and that, apparently, was what the Phoenix Symphony needed.

Richard Bock, the symphony's principal cellist, tells friends in the Milwaukee Symphony, "It may have been bad for you, but it's real good for us.

"This is the first time we've had professional management who are really orchestra management people who have been through it and know how it works, as opposed to someone who has just done well in some other enterprise. We have a fabulous CEO; she is the best thing that has happened to us."

She made a checklist. In the Phoenix Symphony Strategic Plan, adopted in 1995, the board set out strategies to transform the organization. The first five: "Build effective board of directors; realize balanced budget; maximize revenues from fundraising; achieve appropriate compensation of musicians; acquire best music director possible." She has checked those off as she addressed them.

She knocked on the doors of private and corporate donors and got them to dig deeper into their pockets. Then with good season-ticket renewals and some modest cuts to administrative expenses, she brought the year in under budget. In 1994, the symphony's tax records claim a deficit of $340,000; in 1995, they show a net of $1.4 million. Most of that gain is on paper only, a result of changed accounting methods, but even using the previous accounting methods, they still would have shown a profit of $166,000. This fiscal year has not yet ended, but the symphony is predicting another year in the black--though less dramatic than last year, given the musicians' salary increase.

Squires and other board members point out that one part of the budget missing from Phoenix's spreadsheets is an endowment. Older, more prominent orchestras have old and prominent endowments that provide a sizable portion of monies annually--some of them were in existence when dead white composers were still live white composers. Squires commissioned a study of the feasibility of establishing an endowment in Phoenix, which, like most plans at PSO, is top secret, but has been presented to the board for consideration. Next goal, music director: James Sedares resigned in 1995, and although neither Sedares nor Squires will comment, it was not a happy parting, considering that Sedares is suing the symphony for vacation pay. Allegedly, when he left, he even took with him the orchestra's file photos of him.

Squires acquired a $136,000 grant from the locally based Flinn Foundation to conduct a search for a new music director. The search committee, under board member Dr. Richard Hill, narrowed down the wish list to an undisclosed number of candidates, Michael among them; Michael also served one year as principal guest conductor and the next as artistic adviser. Ten guest conductors were invited; which of them were candidates and which were not was another top secret, to protect the job hunters from being outed in case they were already employed. One cynical music-industry wag speculated that it was also a nifty way to use grant money for a year's supply of topnotch guest conductors. Michael's appointment was announced April 29.

"We were not going to find a better musician than Michael," Hill says. "You might find somebody who's more flamboyant; somebody a la Leonard Bernstein."

Somebody, in other words, who could be marketed as a community personality as Bernstein was, as Michael Tilson Thomas is in San Francisco (and has been everywhere he's conducted).

Michael is perhaps more charming than flamboyant, with a grandfatherly gentle manner.

"We wanted an individual who not only brought a very high level of artistic quality, but a person who would have a stabilizing influence on the symphony at this time," Hill continues. Someone who could calm what he describes as "turbulence" within the orchestra.

Part of that turbulence, of course, goes back to musicians' frustrations. Regardless of board and management assertions that the musicians are underpaid, finding room in the budget for salary increases was another matter altogether.  

The musicians' contract expired last August. Terry Goddard served as their legal counsel while they negotiated a new one.

"Joan would say, 'I'm sorry, this is the best we can do,'" Terry Goddard relates.

And although no one mentioned the word "strike," it was on everyone's mind. In January, they reached agreement: a modest $20 a week raise then, with another $40 a week, effective next November, which will bring them up to an annual salary of $23,537--raising their status from the second-lowest-paid full-time orchestra in the country to the third-lowest.

But given the promise of a new conductor and a competent management team, the musicians were willing to take it, thinking that Theo Alcantara's dreams might yet come true.

The remaining goals of the symphony's 1995 strategic plan, summed up, were to go out and build an audience.

But what audience? The market for symphonic music is already divided into two camps with little apparent crossover: those patrons who come for classical music conducted by Hermann Michael, and those who come for Doc Severinsen's pops.

Severinsen, the former Tonight Show bandleader, has been principal pops conductor since 1983. And although his easy style and jazz-band work ethic are well-liked and respected by the orchestra musicians, they still consider classical music to be their main fare. According to the symphony, the two music styles generate about the same amount of ticket sales.

Yet when symphony board members and managers talk about reaching out to new audience segments, they often bring up pops, as if the hoi polloi were not sophisticated enough to appreciate the classics. But neither can the purists tolerate more daring symphonic works.

Joan Squires says, "If we do a work that is a little more--what is the word I want?--modern, or atonal, or a little bit more challenging, they let us know. When we do it, we have to make sure that people are prepared to listen to it or understand in what context we offer it, and not to have a steady diet of it."

Traditionally, symphonies are rigid, elitist and patriarchal institutions, closed to the outside world, and the Phoenix Symphony is no different; Joan Squires is way too terribly busy to sit for interviews. And whereas most "entertainment" groups happily flog the publicity machine, throwing open doors to rehearsal halls, dragging performers from print interview to radio show, the symphony could only spare Maestro Michael for a half-hour interview, chaperoned by a symphony publicist who took copious notes.

Lester (Chip) U'Ren, who is an executive at SRP and the board's treasurer, admits he doesn't know a lot about classical music. And probably because he's not stuck in the traditionalist backwater, he realizes that the future of the symphony may require some modern thinking to "make the experience more than just sitting in a seat and listening to the music."

What is the symphony? U'Ren asks.
"Is it a museum? Does it house artifacts from the past? Is there a sufficient market for that? Is it a zoo that houses a richer flora and fauna? Or is it a revolving contemporary theater?

"We're in an Internet age, in which even older audiences are accustomed to quick entertainment value. So to me, the question is not, 'Do you play the old war-horses?' as much as, 'Do you create an experience that captures a market that might not otherwise do it?' Until orchestras and their organizations see themselves as contemporary--opportunistic about the mechanism and execution of its offerings--it really will not be regarded as a community resource."

But just how does a symphony go about doing that?
A marketing committee recruited from Phoenix corporations by the symphony has talked for almost a year about how to build public awareness, about ways to capture downtown after-work crowds, to package deals with restaurants, to tie into convention crowds and get corporations to sponsor more individual performances.

Joan Squires, in her guarded way, hints that the orchestra is looking into billboards and banners, classical chats, and outdoor venues, either here or in Sedona; this is an outdoors-lifestyle kind of community, after all, and outdoor concerts in such apartment-locked cities as Chicago are tremendously popular. Mountain music festivals such as the one in Aspen are hot tickets; why not do the same in Sedona?

The major symphonies, like Chicago's, have become such a part of the social fabric of the city that they don't have to reinvent themselves; yuppie scum brandish their season tickets as proudly as their BMW keys as badges of their success.

But the vast majority of symphonies in the United States are scrambling for new markets and new marketing tricks. They dress musicians in casual clothing, recruit ethnic audiences, stage multimedia events and team up with rock stars. Soloists market themselves on the back covers of trade magazines with movie-star photos that say that classical music can be sexy.  

In Minneapolis, the orchestra board got its new conductor's face on Wheaties boxes. The San Francisco Symphony puts its conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas, on prominent billboards and has so engrained his face and initials into the community as to make him a celebrity even to people who might not otherwise see him as such.

"My wife and I were in San Francisco about a year ago, and we decided to hear the San Francisco Symphony," recalls Dr. Hill. "We got within a mile of the place, and every lamppost had a banner on it saying 'Catch MTT.' We caught a cab back to the hotel and the cabbie said, 'Did you see MTT?' If we could have that in Phoenix, we'd be golden."

But Squires and the board worry that marketing costs more money than they can afford--and the musicians and some symphony supporters gripe that low-cost marketing opportunities go by the wayside.

Terry Goddard laments that the conductor search was not played up. "This was a cafeteria of the best conductors in America on successive Thursday nights," he says. "I think this competition should have been the Olympics of conducting talent, and it was never put forth."

"There was nothing in the paper for the opening of the season," says trumpeter Chuck Berginc. "Shouldn't we have a slogan? There must be creative solutions. What about doing a concert at noon? It doesn't have to be a long concert. We could do 45 minutes out on the plaza, we could do 45 minutes at the zoo, you name it, go all over the Valley."

The musicians' union does limit the possibility of giving free performances, but the musicians have offered to do so to help marketing efforts.

"Ideas are not the problem," Squires says, "getting them done is where it sometimes breaks down, because we've got a staff of two or three."

And even when the symphony does extend itself to the public, the stodgier symphony patrons speak out.

Right after Michael's appointment, he and several musicians played the national anthem at two Suns games in America West Arena. It was a step in the right direction, to get the maestro's handsome, smiling face on the big screen at the arena and little screens in living rooms all over the country. But one of the impromptu appearances delayed a symphony concert by 15 minutes.

An angry patron wrote to Squires, "Is it possible that even as you beamed your enthusiasm for the Phoenix Suns in front of your audience, that you never once thought that a large part of that audience could not care less about them, much less be willing to sacrifice their valuable time so that the symphony they paid to see could be free to indulge Jerry Colangelo and company?"

So even if they reach a new audience, how welcome will they be?

On May 9, the Phoenix Symphony played its season's last classical concert to a three-quarters-full house. Hermann Michael conducted.

The program said Liszt and Dvorak and Hovhaness, but what the audience heard was all love songs, the orchestra's devotion and admiration for its new leader, and its hope that next year, Phoenix will finally come to listen.

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