CSO’s New Era of Uncertainty

At last week’s annual meeting of the Orchestral Association, the governing body behind the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the board of trustees tried hard to put a happy face on the current state of the orchestra. In his brief financial report to the board, Orchestral Association trustee Frank A. Rossi said he wished to focus on “the good things” and went on to talk about the orchestra’s finances in fairly rosy terms.

But notwithstanding the optimism of the carefully choreographed annual meeting, the Chicago Symphony is entering a new and uncertain era In its 102nd season, an era in which potential financial bombshells could ultimately undermine the orchestra’s reputation as one of the world’s best. Though it was glossed over at every turn in last week’s short meeting, the fact remains that the CSO suffered a $1.8 million shortfall in fiscal 1992, the first in seven years. The deficit occurred during music director Daniel Barenboim’s first full season on the job, a season marred at the start by an ugly strike.

The $1.8 million deficit actually would have been greater–about $800,000 greater–had CSO executive director Henry Fogel and his financial officers not gone back in midseason and cut about 2 percent from the $34.3 million budget once the extent of the problem became apparent. According to director of finance Tom Hallett, the cuts involved items that did not directly generate revenue. Some maintenance was deferred and various advertising expenditures were reconsidered. Hallett says, “We looked at every line item in the budget where we could reduce.”

In the end, the $1.8 million deficit was covered by contingency funds and other moneys available to the orchestra trustees. But what about the current fiscal year and others down the line? The 1993 budget projects a modest $142,000 surplus, but already orchestra management is quietly worrying about soft single-ticket sales this fall and a 3-percent drop in subscriptions, two factors that won’t make it easy for the CSO to end up in the black this year. Last week one orchestra member bemoaned the large number of empty seats he could see in the balcony at some concerts. Hallett notes, “If the sales aren’t there, we will have to take action.”

In the opinion of some orchestra members, too much 20th-century music programming and some less-than-world-class guest conductors are additional problems that CSO management needs to address. At the annual meeting orchestra players’ representative Stephen Lester voiced his contingent’s concern that a growing number of corporate-sponsored concerts could hurt the orchestra’s overall quality. One player said some of these concerts are given with only one budgeted rehearsal.

Whatever the current season holds, Orchestral Association chairman John Richman clearly indicated at the meeting that the orchestra must take a hard look at some of the “operating practices that reflect the customary ways of doing business.” Among the practices that may no longer be practical is committing to tours before the funding to cover them is in place. The CSO says costs associated with last season’s two European tours contributed to the 1992 deficit.

Though Richman appears to be taking a hard line on the issue of tour underwriting, some CSO insiders believe it may be a tough policy to follow, because touring is so directly related to the orchestra’s international cachet. “If someone says we have to book a tour two years from now, we will have to make a decision,” says Hallett. “It could be a hard decision.”

In addition to the many other financial issues they must face in the years ahead, orchestra trustees are expected to decide early next year whether to acquire the Borg-Warner building, which is adjacent to Orchestra Hall, in order to create an elaborate symphony center with expanded office space and rehearsal and recital facilities. Whatever the need for such an edifice, with a price tag certain to be more than $100 million it won’t be an easy plan to bring to fruition.

But as insistent as he is about holding the line on expenditures, Richman sounds equally adamant about upgrading the orchestra’s physical plant. He says, “We clearly need a new facility, but it is not our intention to leave the institution financially at risk.” Good luck, Mr. Richman. We’ll be watching.

Artists in Arrears: Paying Rent Is Not Their Bailiwick

Arguably one of the city’s most ambitious theater companies, Bailiwick Repertory is in the throes of a cash flow problem that could force the company to leave the Theatre Building, which it has called home since February. Bailiwick is behind in rent payments, and Theatre Building managing director Joan Mazzonelli says the company must make good on overdue rent by the end of this week or face possible eviction. She says, “It’s not fair to the other tenants.” Bailiwick board president Randy Talcott acknowledges that the theater company is behind in its rent, but was not optimistic that it could meet the payment deadline. He says, “We are discussing with the Theatre Building our plans to bring the rent current.”

Since moving into the Theatre Building Bailiwick has maintained an aggressive production schedule with a relatively modest annual budget of $350,000. Six productions we’re mounted as part of last summer’s Pride Performance Series. Most recently Bailiwick was running Christopher Cartmill’s well-received Light in Love and Light in the Heart of the Dragon in repertory. “The audiences for these productions did not materialize in the numbers we had hoped for,” notes Talcott. He had no comment on where Bailiwick might go if forced to leave the Theatre Building.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.