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Pittsburgh Symphony Faces Financial Crisis - 2003-05-18

Symphony orchestras around the country are feeling squeezed by declining attendance, and shrinking endowments caused by losses in the stock market. The situation is no different for the Pittsburgh Symphony, an orchestra that's long ranked among the best in the world. Problems in Pittsburgh are so severe that the orchestra has cancelled its 2004 Summer Tour, and put its longtime home, Heinz Hall, up for sale. These developments make the symphony's search for a new conductor more difficult, and more crucial.

The Pittsburgh Symphony threw a 60th birthday party in February for outgoing music director Mariss Jansons. For a night, the orchestra forgot its troubles, as some of the world's top classical musicians like cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, violinist Gil Shaham, and pianists Yefim Bronfman and Emanuel Ax joined Maestro Jansons on stage at Heinz Hall.

The orchestra has yet to name a successor for Mariss Jansons, who will return to Europe next year, to take over as Principal Conductor of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra. He will leave Pittsburgh with the orchestra's artistic reputation intact. But its finances are another story.

"We are at a crossroads," says board president Thomas Todd. He says the orchestra is facing a deficit of $2.5 million a year. "For the next two, three, five years we have a shortfall, a significant shortfall, that we have to make up, through increased gifts, increased funds from attendance, or reduced expenditures," he says.

Or by selling Heinz Hall, where the Pittsburgh Symphony has played for 32 years. Orchestra managers hope a city or state agency would become the new owner and let them lease the building for a song. But with a price tag of $40 million, the hall has yet to find a buyer. Proceeds from the sale would replace the $40 million that the orchestra's endowment, once valued at $133 million, lost in the stock market.

It's a stunning turn of events for one of the nation's most venerable musical ensembles.

For years, orchestra administrators say, the Pittsburgh Symphony could bank on the generosity of the city's wealthy industrialists, and the foundations they started. Since the late 1930s, a succession of distinguished conductors - including Fritz Reiner, William Steinberg, Andre Previn and Pittsburgh native Loren Maazel - helped the orchestra build a solid artistic reputation, around the country and the world.

But maintaining that reputation is expensive, especially in the current economic climate. As in most American cities, the audience for orchestral concerts in Pittsburgh is shrinking. Annual attendance is down from about 200,000 in the 1960s to less than a hundred thousand today. Individual and corporate giving is also lagging, according to Orchestra Chairman Richard Simmons. "When Pittsburgh was the third or fourth largest corporation headquarters city on the Fortune 500, we also had a large amount of support from corporations," he says.

Today, Pittsburgh is tied for seventh place, as high-tech companies have replaced heavy manufacturing. And there's been a steady exodus from its residential neighborhoods as well. Mr. Simmons admits the orchestra needs to do a better job of marketing itself to the city's smaller population. "We will survive of course, but whether we survive as a world-class orchestra will in my opinion depend on whether we are successful in becoming relevant to the community," he says.

Richard Simmons says one key to becoming more "relevant" is finding the right music director to replace Mariss Jansons. Andrew Druckenbrod agrees. The music critic at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette says that while Maestro Jansons is a great musician, he wasn't the ideal ambassador for classical music in Western Pennsylvania, with its steel industry roots. "Jansons is very old school. His father is a conductor. He was very concerned with the musical aspect," he says. "In reality I'm not sure how much he embraced American life. Of all places, Pittsburgh is the place where should be a place where the conductor's relationship with the people is unpretentious. Because this is place that built the battleships."

Mr. Druckenbrod says a music director who speaks fluent English and who might attend the occasional Pittsburgh Steelers football game would help the orchestra's marketing efforts. But this alone won't solve the group's financial problems. The orchestra faces labor negotiations with its musicians this summer.

Orchestra Chairman Richard Simmons says in spite of those challenges, he feels a responsibility to maintain the orchestra's artistic reputation, and the economic value that goes with it. "When you go out of the U.S., Pittsburgh is only known for 3 or 4 things. In Tokyo, Taipei, they don't know about the Pittsburgh Steelers. We have a major Sony TV plant just east of here, in New Stanton. They came here in part, their chairman announced, that the presence of the Pittsburgh Symphony was a major factor," he says.

Musicians will likely be asked to take a pay cut, to help the orchestra weather its current financial problems. Cellist Hampton Mallory represents the musicians union. "What this is gonna turn out to be is a referendum to the community, as to whether it's interested in continuing to support an orchestra of this quality or not. There's just no way to separate the quality of the orchestra from the expense of it," he says. With the sluggish economy creating problems for symphonies around the country, maestros and musicians alike will be watching how this celebrated orchestra handles the current dissonance.