Nashville Symphony's Near-Foreclosure is a Warning to Orchestras

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville (flickr/therichardlife)

A symphony orchestra gets a gleaming new concert hall. It’s a symbol of cultural ambition, civic pride and even a centerpiece of urban renewal. Or, is it an albatross and a money pit whose costs ultimately come back to bite the organization?

As we hear in this edition of Conducting Business, the recent history of orchestras in Philadelphia, Detroit and now, Nashville, has led to questions about the "build it and they will come" philosophy. Some argue that, in the push to build or renovate halls, orchestra administrators and their patrons succumbed to an irrational exuberance that proved particularly disastrous when combined with the 2008 financial crisis.

This week, the Nashville Symphony narrowly averted a foreclosure on its concert hall, the $123.5 million Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Only with the help of a major donor was it able to reach a last-minute deal to pay off its lenders and keep the hall out of the banks' hands.

Nashville's situation is particularly unique in that it experienced a natural disaster on top of man-made ones: in 2010, a severe flood caused some $40 million in damages.

But at times, orchestras sometimes build or significantly renovate halls when they aren't sure what else to do, said Adrian Ellis, principal of the firm AEA Consulting. "You often find museum extensions and new facilities are not so much the result of deep imagination but the result of actually thinking 'well, here's something we can all get around.'"

Arts organizations can also suffer from delusions of grandeur. Some orchestras have looked to the example of Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles, which used award-winning architecture (by Frank Gehry) as a way to lure tourists and economic development while generating excitement around the orchestra. "But what you can do in an L.A. or a New York or a global city you can't necessarily do in a Nashville or a Minneapolis," said Ellis.

The Minnesota Orchestra is currently undertaking a $50 million renovation of Orchestra Hall, the ensemble's home in Minneapolis, in an effort to improve onstage acoustics as well as public amenities like an expanded lobby. But the orchestra just lost an entire season to a lockout of the musicians, who are balking at steep pay cuts demanded by management.

Photo: Design for the renovated Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis (KPMB Architects)

"[Management's] argument is this is important to their strategic plan because they need a better facility to generate more money, to monetize more off-nights, to bring in more community events and concerts from outside," said Graydon Royce, the classical music critic of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "The hall is supposed to open in August. But what are they going to open with?"

The orchestra also runs a real risk "of completely alienating their audience and you're going to have this new hall and I'm not sure what the value of that will be," added Royce.

Ellis sees a pattern in the U.S., "around a lot of civic ambition and very expensive concert halls combined with either static or declining audiences, and critically, patterns in philanthropy."

In Nashville, the immediate crisis is past but the orchestra has told subscribers that it needs to take aggressive actions to improve its finances. "What we have seen in the last few days is a reprieve, not a solution," said Nina Cardona, a host and reporter at Nashville Public Radio, who covers arts and culture.

"Yes, they keep their hall now and that is great for them. But they've still got to operate the hall. They've still got to pay for the staff that it takes to keep a place of your own running. That's the real expense. The debt payments are not what have driven them into the ground. It's operating the building."

Weigh in: have orchestras over-invested in concert halls? Or do halls bring in audiences who might not otherwise attend a concert? Share your thoughts below.


Brian Wise


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Comments [5]

John Dzialo

This is a disgrace. A simple thing is to spend that much which you are able to spend. This is not a good thing for our society. And what about the singers and musicians who perform there.

Jul. 01 2013 12:41 AM
Peter V. Fiorentino from Rosendale, NY

When these decisions to renovate or upgrade are made, the musicians and conductor must come first. To me, it is utterly shameful that so many millions have been spent - largely at the expense of the salaries of the orchestra members!

When it comes to music, performance is paramount! In deciding whether to attend a concert - I will anticipate the quality of the performance - rather than the "bells and whistles" of the concert hall. This reminds me of the famous slogan in the restaurant business "you can't eat atmosphere".

Jun. 28 2013 05:07 PM

Seems to me there are crucial points to be examined before any orchestra renovates or builds a concert hall. One is whether a new hall or renovation is really needed (or is it 'just a want'?). If a renovation is called for, does the hall need more seats or less; better backstage facilities or more modern ones, more comfort for musicians and guest artists and whether there is the audience for this for the foreseeable future. If a new hall is arrived at solution, can the community support the venue with activity even when the local orchestra isn't there to play. The NY Philharmonic, for example, is reportedly planning on renovationg Avery Fisher Hall. That hall's back stage area, public bathrooms as well as audience amenities are all in need of updating and refreshing. Additionally, a replacement pipe organ has promised since the 1970's renovation that removed it from that venue. If the NY Phil is to avoid Nashville's dire straits, they must not only insure the funding is there but also that the programming is there as well. This being New York and that hall being on the Lincoln Center campus, I do not foresee any problem with any renovation UNLESS the changes should make the acoustics unusable by the performers.

Jun. 27 2013 05:44 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

The multifarious factors as cost of sheer operation, declining philanthropy, cyclonic change in the tastes o0f the current culture as opposed to the classic models of the mores and the cataclysmic financial uncertainties determine all judgments anjd the outlook is depressing. Like Nashville,the disastrous financial situation in Greece and Brazil is a sad situation for it involves all individuals and companies and marginalizes even educational and cultural activities. When culture is considered unimportant there is little hope for a motivated enlightened people. Today's uncertain economic future and the current governmental takeover of the airwaves and the print media favoring cutbacks will inevitably cause huge confrontations with the populace. The status quo will collapse and leave open the control by an organized group that will destroy any democratic movement. We have seen such a development many times. History repeats itself.

Jun. 27 2013 08:29 AM
Marcelo Marchesini da Costa

Being a PhD student in Public Administration I think that orchestras are a kind of nonprofit organization with a lot of special characteristics. Thus, there are some common issues, like conflicts between boards and musicians, or the struggle for fundraising, and there are some particular cases like the ones that involve the construction or reform of concert halls.
I would be particular interested in verify the differences in dealing with these issues between orchestras in which the musicians participate in the management and decisions, and the ones in which they do not participate.

Jun. 26 2013 07:55 PM

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WQXR looks deeper into the issues affecting the classical music landscape. 

Conducting Business is hosted by Naomi Lewin and produced by Brian Wise.

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