Maestro Stuart Malina, who is about to enter his 15th season as music director of the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra, has no doubts about the quality of the professional orchestra he leads. The dozens of professional musicians who gather at The Forum each season for Masterworks and Pops concerts are masters of their craft.
“I’m a big fan,” Malina said, laughing. “Seriously, I think the orchestra consistently outperforms my extremely high expectations. The artistic product is just astonishing.”
And unlike many American orchestras, HSO has been able to translate artistic excellence into financial stability. While highly regarded orchestras in Atlanta and Minnesota’s Twin Cities struggle with budget deficits that have led to bitter labor strife, including musician lockouts and high-profile resignations, HSO emerged from its 2013-14 season with a bigger audience, labor peace and something quite prized in the world of classical music: a cash surplus.
And this season, an upgraded auditorium should only help the audience experience. The state-owned Forum in downtown Harrisburg is receiving a $1.8 million facelift that includes wider seats and renovated restrooms.
“We are doing great,” said William Lehr, chairman of HSO Board of Directors. “We made some money last year. Not a lot, and we still have a previous deficit to deal with, but it’s a good sign. The audience has stayed with us. We are very fortunate to have a music director who is a fixture in the community. The programming Stuart has done obviously has significant appeal.”
No one involved with HSO is declaring victory. Meeting the requirements of the annual budget, this year around $2.6 million, is a never-ending challenge.
But in contrast to major orchestras in Philadelphia, Louisville and Syracuse, all of whom have filed bankruptcies in the past few years, HSO is making sweet music on stage and financially.
“I would say we have a nice tail wind at the moment,” HSO Executive Director Jeff Woodruff said. “In most respects we are doing exceptionally well. But one has to be careful what you say. The reality is we have to raise a lot of money every year to run the orchestra on a balanced budget. We are a classical music organization, and that is always going to be a bit of a challenge. We are not in mainstream pop culture.”
Staying in tune
To keep the high notes coming, donations must continue to flow in from a variety of corporate, private and governmental sources, and audiences must continue to purchase tickets. Lehr and others said that increasing the endowment, which has grown from $600,000 10 years ago to more than $6 million today, remains a critical mission. The HSO board is able to draw a chunk of money from the endowment each year to help meet operating expenses, a vital cushion for a nonprofit organization whose ticket sales cover less than half its budget.
“I’m happy about where we are,” Woodruff said, “but we live in a world that is changing rapidly. You can never say that you’ve arrived.”
Many of the orchestra’s costs continue to rise, and a couple of years down the road is another round of contract negotiations with the musicians’ union. At a time when many musicians are being forced to take pay cuts, HSO’s hired artists have continued to receive annual pay increases, albeit small ones. That’s a trend orchestra officials hope to continue in a new contract, and there is reason for optimism: the last two negotiations between the two parties took only one day each.
“We have good relations with the musicians,” Woodruff said, adding that orchestra members enjoy playing for Malina. “To put it mildly, Stuart is respected and admired by everyone.”
HSO is helped greatly by the efforts of the Harrisburg Symphony Society, a volunteer group founded in 1989 that undertakes a variety of fundraising, education and hospitality efforts for the orchestra. This spring will feature one of the society’s big-ticket fundraisers, a Showhouse and Gardens project in which a host of interior designers and landscape architects voluntarily transform a local property for public touring. The last event, in 2012, raised about $135,000.
“They do a lot of fundraising for us, with a net figure up in the six figures,” Woodruff said. “The society deserves a lot of credit. They really do a great job.”
Such efforts are needed to continue assembling top-flight musicians for 22 Masterworks and Pops concerts per season.
The orchestra draws its professional musicians mainly from nearby cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Washington, but some come from as far away as Texas. Getting them all to Harrisburg for several days a month entails travel and lodging costs, in addition to salaries and benefits. Woodruff said that each of HSO’s seven Masterworks program, which includes two performances and four rehearsals, costs the orchestra between $1,400 and $1,500 per musician. The four Pops programs, with two performances but just one rehearsal each, run about half that amount.
Those numbers mount up over the course of a season, and the costs also rise from year to year. In 2011, the cost per musician for a Masterworks program was a little less than $1,200, according to HSO.
When most American businesses need to cut costs, they often look to increasing the productivity of individual workers in order to do the same job with fewer employees. That doesn’t really work for orchestras.
“It takes the same number of musicians to perform a Brahms symphony today as it did a hundred years ago,” Woodruff said.
HSO, comprised entirely of professional musicians, is an entirely different animal than most other orchestras in the capital region.