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Finances take toll on orchestra

By JOHN FLEMING, Times Performing Arts Critic
Published March 16, 2004

TAMPA - Despite slashing musicians' pay and bringing popular new music director Stefan Sanderling onboard, the Florida Orchestra's financial woes continue. A promised endowment campaign has yet to be announced, and the strain is starting to drive some players to other orchestras.

"We're going to mount another challenge," executive director Leonard Stone said Monday, when asked how the orchestra planned to cope with a projected deficit.

A year ago, the orchestra embarked on a fundraising campaign built around a $500,000 challenge grant that ultimately brought in $1.7-million. It pared down last season's deficit to about $500,000.

The new campaign "won't be as aggressive as last year," Stone said. "If we did nothing, the deficit would be as much as $600,000. But there are some very positive things that we know are going to happen, and I don't want to jinx them by talking about them now. I think we have a shot at breaking even."

The orchestra's budget is $7.5-million, $1-million less than it was the previous fiscal year.

An endowment campaign was promised in the renegotiated musicians' contract that cut base pay by almost 20 percent at the start of the season. As part of the agreement, the orchestra was obliged to have the endowment campaign under way by now, with a lead pledge in place.

"The gift has not yet materialized," Stone said. "We have many irons in the fire, and hope springs eternal."

An endowment generates interest income to keep institutions running in the black during tough times. The industry rule of thumb is that an endowment should be about three times annual expenses, which would mean about $25-million for the Florida Orchestra. Its endowment currently is about $7-million.

"This orchestra is never going to balance its budget until an adequate endowment is in place," said bass trombonist Harold Van Schaik, chairman of the orchestra committee that represents musicians.

By failing to announce the endowment campaign, the orchestra technically has violated its contract with the musicians. The union hasn't filed a grievance, but the members are grumbling.

"We've lost a year now, and it's a year we couldn't afford to lose," Van Schaik said.

Raymond Murray, a Clearwater businessman and former orchestra board chairman, heads the endowment committee. He thinks the orchestra underestimated the amount of time it will take to find the lead gift or gifts, which would ideally total $3-million to $5-million. The lead gifts are vital because they attract more money.

"You don't raise that kind of money overnight," Murray said. "I'm looking at old money, in-between money and brand-new money."

The uncertainty is beginning to take an artistic toll. Principal flute Demarre McGill has requested and been granted a leave of absence for next season, when he will join the San Diego Symphony Orchestra. McGill won the audition for principal flute in San Diego, whose music director is former Florida Orchestra music director Jahja Ling, and will play a season there before deciding if he wants to stay.

Concertmaster Amy Schwartz Moretti is in the running for the same position with the Oregon Symphony.

"Probably Demarre wouldn't have taken the San Diego position if we hadn't taken the cuts," Van Schaik said. "Amy wouldn't have sent in her resume to Oregon. They're both basically lateral moves."

At least one other musician has requested a leave of absence in 2004-05. Under the labor agreement, as many as four orchestra members may go on leave in a season. Another departing player is longtime English hornist Joyce James, who is retiring.

Even Sanderling caused concern when the Omaha Symphony Orchestra announced recently that he was among seven finalists for the position of music director. "He's no dummy. He's covering his bets," Van Schaik said.

It's not uncommon for a conductor to hold several music directorships, but Stone was concerned enough to call Sanderling's management about the announcement.

"His commitment to us is as strong as it can be," the executive director said. "There is no doubt in my mind that his name was just tossed onto that list."

Stone, over breakfast Monday, emphasized the positive. "From a historical point of view, this orchestra has now got more donors than it ever had before," he said, putting the total at 4,200.

He was planning a lobbying trip today to Tallahassee, where, he said, the Legislature is poised to restore the arts funding that was taken away in last year's session. If so, the orchestra could stand to gain almost $60,000 in additional state money next season.

Stone, 68, who has also run orchestras in Dallas; Syracuse, N.Y.; Winnipeg, Manitoba; and Edmonton and Calgary, Alberta, did not sound pessimistic.

"I have never lost an orchestra. I've never failed a payroll. I've never failed to pay a bill. And I'm not going to start in the twilight of my career."

- John Fleming can be reached at 727 893-8716 or fleming@sptimes.com

[Last modified March 16, 2004, 01:05:31]

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