It's an American holiday, but it's still a sentiment worth celebrating the world 'round: gratitude. Quite simply, to live in a state of gratitude is to live in a state of happiness, to see your cup as half full and not half-empty. To count your blessings is to feed your happiness. So I'll start my list of blessings, and you are welcome to continue it, right here or just for yourself!
Fall leaves, rain storms, first snow, Chestnut soup, vanilla lattes, long walks, long talks, and of course: music, music, music.
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Violinist, fiddler and composer Mark O'Connor isn't just a crossover artist – he's a bridge.
The man has an open mind, and also a full and creative one, which spins out new projects, compositions and collaborations at a pace I'd compare to the speed of his bariolage.
Take for example, his collaboration with violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. He came backstage at intermission during her performance with the Chicago Symphony and asked her, on the spot, if she'd like to perform a double concerto with him. "I had the part within the month," Salerno-Sonnenberg writes in the cover notes for their 2003 recording of the work with the Colorado Symphony. "At this point I found myself extremely impressed with this man and his ability to turn an idea into reality."
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Why are the Orchestras of Pasadena in such a desperate situation? Last week I talked to Jean Horton, Interim Executive Director of the Orchestras, in search of an answer to that question, and he gave me a pretty thorough picture of the group's financial troubles, which are considerable.
But there's a bigger picture. Board members, and Pops conductor Rachel Worby, have a false idea about the needs of the community, namely that its public schools have a dire lack of music education, which needs to be filled by the Orchestras. This simply is not so and it should not be the organization's primary mission.
As an education administrator who works closely with the district said to me: "If you have an excellent orchestra in town – that's what our kids need."
Yet there is a perception that the group's artistic direction has been watered down; LA Times music critic Mark Swed this week called its shortcomings not just a failure of finances but a "failure of imagination."
I can't completely agree; our first concert of the season was mighty innovative. But is Symphony Artistic Director Jorge Mester routinely given leeway to make bold artistic decisions? It's a fair question, and if the orchestra is to survive – and thrive – the answer better be "yes" for the future. Because if we aren't offering anything artistically special – in the city of Los Angeles – then who cares?
First, about financial condition of the Orchestras: For the last three years – even during the economic good-time bubble - the symphony was not meeting its fundraising goals. Horton described the convergence of insufficient development on the part of the Orchestras and the sharp downturn in the economy as "the perfect storm."
"We needed to get our development act and our contribution base improved in any case," Horton said, "but we wouldn't have had to cancel concerts and we wouldn't be in the straits that we are in today if we hadn't seen the financial fallout."
"The endowment [was at] $6 million, and we're required by law to maintain that," Horton said. "But we can't do anything about the market going down. So the market went down to the point where we only have about $5 million."
"The way that works with the restricted endowment is that we can spend the yield – either capital gains or dividends and interest that we got off of it – but we can't spend the principal. We have to get that back up to $6 million before we can ever take anything out of it," Horton said. The symphonies are getting a legal review of the situation, "but I don't believe we can even use that as collateral on a loan. We're exploring that right now."
The institution has been depending in large degree on its board-designated funds. These were not endowment funds, but these were the funds that had been saved up over the years: from the yield on the endowment, or through contributions that were made. The board decided they wanted to put these into a restricted fund, to use only on a rainy-day basis.
"We'd been permitting ourselves all along to take roughly $400,000 a year out. Most non-for-profit boards will take about 5 percent out of the average 3-year balances in the endowment for designated funds. That amount would have been about $400,000," Horton said. "But we overdrew that for two or three years to make up for losses that we had in ordinary operations. The primary reason for that wasn't so much on the cost overrun side as the fact that we just didn't have the contributions coming in that the board had hoped for. We didn't get the traction in the development area that we needed."
Generally, about 25 percent of a concert is funded by ticket sales, and the remaining 75 percent has to be made up from other funding. The problem came with that 75 percent the Orchestras needed to find.
"We didn't find enough," Horton said. "So we starting eating into our board-designated funds."
The Orchestras haven't been straight with the community about its financial situation, either. At the end of last summer, the Pasadena Pops performed a benefit concert with conductor John Williams. Sold by Pops conductor Rachel Worby to donors as a concert to create an educational endowment to allow the group's educational concerts to continue in perpetuity, the actual aims of this concert, Horton said, were to retire a loan made by a board member to the Pasadena Pops organization before the merger of the Pops and Symphony, and to support educational activities.
Unfortunately, the benefit accomplished neither. "We found ourselves sitting on a lot of bills around here, and we used that money to pay the bills. I'm not happy about that, to say the least, but that's sort of where we are," Horton said.
The Orchestras' educational programs, which include some 63 concerts in the Pasadena Unified School District as well as other outreach programs, are in fairly good shape, and Educational Director Jerri Price will remain on staff, Horton said.
"We get a lot of grants that are earmarked for education," he said, though a component of these programs still relies on the symphony's general funds. The Pasadena Youth Symphony Orchestra is a tuition-based program, and "tuitions and fees are quite close to breaking even," Horton said.
"One of our problems, in my opinion, is that we haven't explained to this community how much we are part of the fabric of the community, by being in the public schools, by supporting a youth orchestra, and a lot of other programs we have in the schools. Right now we're at every level, we're in the grammar schools, in middle schools and high schools, and it's almost fair to say that we are the musical educational component of the public school system, there's not much else out there," Horton said.
Horton is correct to see a problem in this area. But the problem is as much the board's perception of the community as it is the community's perception of the Orchestras. Certainly the Pasadena Symphony provides an important component for the public schools, training classroom teachers in early elementary music instruction and recorder in most elementary schools.
It isn't, however, fair to say that it is the sole provider of musical education in PUSD, as Worby also suggested from the podium at several Pops concerts this summer. Independent of the Pasadena Symphony educational programs, all 20 Pasadena Unified School elementary schools have instrumental music programs, starting in the third and fourth grades, with five instrumental music teachers rotating through assigned school sites, according to Karen Klages, PUSD District Music Specialist. All PUSD secondary schools have orchestra, band, and jazz programs, and this year three districtwide festivals are planned for students participating at every level, in choral, band and orchestral music. Also the schools incorporate music programs from other organizations, including Southwest Chamber Music, Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Pasadena Conservatory of Music.
In other words, without the Orchestras of Pasadena, public school children will still have music in their schools. They just won't have the excellence of a symphony orchestra in their community, and that would be a considerable loss.
On Wednesday, a group of staff, board members and musicians met with Paul Jan Zdunek, the executive director of the Modesto Symphony, who came to talk about crisis management and to help the organization map solutions to its problems. Orchestras of Pasadena Personnel Director Polly Sweeney emerged from the meeting with optimism, reporting to musicians that "this looks like a coordinated, well-thought-out attack on the problem, and we want to help in whatever way possible."
At this point, with half of the symphony's eight concerts canceled, Horton has re-deployed the remaining staff – now reduced to seven people -- to get out into the community and raise funds. Horton will meet with Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard, who attends symphony performances on a regular basis, to talk about ways to approach the community.
"We're really outward focused now, and we need to be," Horton said. "The aim is to get back closer to normal operations, if we can, by about January. And it is our aim to keep the remainder of the classical season and the summer reason. I think we're going to get there. The board, the musicians, everybody wants this to happen."
Horton said he would like to avoid compromising its strengths for the sake of commercialization and/or the economy of using a smaller orchestra, though there will have to be a balance between all those needs.
"Jorge Mester's forte is to do the larger pieces," Horton said. "If you go hear him do a Mahler symphony (a work that involves a large orchestra), you're seeing something that's as good as it gets --- on any stage anywhere in the world on any night . And I know it sounds perhaps a little Chamber of Commerce-like, but this guy is an inspired conductor. We don't want to take that away."
"We could be in the position of having to do smaller programs as a way of getting through this period, but I would hope that period would be the remainder of this season, and that as soon as next season we could find enough traction to move back (to larger orchestras)," Horton said. "But to be honest about it, until we know how much traction we get, I can't answer that question. But that is our goal."
It is heartening to hear the orchestra's new administrative leadership talk about allowing its musical director to do what he does best, but there is a public perception that Mester's talents have been underutilized for some time.
LA Times music critic Swed, who has all but quit writing about the group, lamented this week in the LA Times that "Mester, who is an outstanding musician, seems to have lost his taste for advocacy. He focuses on standard repertory, and his orchestra performs in the dowdy, acoustically dry Civic Auditorium."
He goes on to say, "The Orchestras of Pasadena are passionately involved in music education. But the organization lacks charismatic leadership, and now the orchestras operate on the principle that they have no choice but to focus all their attention on their investment portfolios. That is a road to doom. Artists are our leaders. Organizations exist to serve them. The wisest public servants learn from them. If we hope to enter a new era of hope, we will need to keep these priorities in order."
Certainly a balance is needed, of financial custodianship and artistic vision. This orchestra has an affluent and educated community. It has a strong artistic director in Mester. It needs to know its community and play to its strengths; and to know where both are coming from.
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I'm sure that everyone has noticed by now that Violinist.com has been redesigned, with a new flag and changes in just about every section. I'd like to say a big “THANK YOU!” to my husband, Robert Niles, who lent his considerable talents to designing the flag and to custom-writing the software that renders this entire site. We had been talking about these changes for a long time, and so let me tell you about them.
First, our flag. We simply wanted to make it a little more colorful and appealing. For those of you who don't know, our little violin guy in the left corner is actually a Native American fertility god called a “kokopelli,” who normally plays a flute-like instrument and can be seen on every mug, rug and totebag in Arizona (I exaggerate only a little). Growing up in the American Southwest (Colorado) I've always liked the little guy, and so I put a violin in his hands with a little drawing I made some 12 years ago, and he's been dancing up there on Violinist.com ever since. Robert made him a little bigger and put him in the spotlight, at my suggestion.
Our blog section now will include featured blogs, and then all remaining blogs will go up on the right side of the page. As the editor of Violinist.com, I'll choose which blogs will be featured blogs, and here's an idea of what I'll be serving to readers of our blog page. The featured blogs are those that I feel are of general interest to our audience of violin performers, students, teachers and fans.
A lot of things could fall under this category, but here is just a little list of what kinds of topics might appeal: technique, performing, performances, how to practice, violin making, violins and their stories, various genres of violin music (classical, fiddle, celtic, pop, klezmer, Indian, mariachi, etc.), teaching, and of course, many other things. Various kinds of blogs are likely to be featured could include a personal discovery or story; technical advice; a description or review of a recital, concert or master class; an interview; obituary; book, record or DVD review. And then there are random things that I'd love to see: really good writing about just about anything, really good photographs of Alaska and Canada ;) lists of viola jokes; outrageously funny stories; one poignant moment, etc.
Many people use our blog feature for personal journaling, and that is a wonderful thing to do, especially if it helps you in your journey on the violin. So if you are blogging for personal enjoyment and motivation, without any journalistic aspirations, I encourage you to continue doing so. Sometimes those blogs are of general interest and will be featured, and sometimes not. But those blogs will still be available for people to read, for those who have been following your personal journey. Also, I'm not going to feature everything I just listed every time, and also sometimes a blog will be up for hours before I do the featuring.
Our discussion board now has links to all the topic categories on the right side, as well as the “create a discussion” buttons on the upper right site of every discussion page. The “News” section is now folded into the discussion board, so if you have a news item, please submit it to the discussion board under the topic category “News.” News topics will remain at the top of the discussion board for 48 hours after they have been approved, then after that they will go into regular rotation with the other topics.
For the Violin Shops page, we brought some of the content from “About the Violin” to help people who are looking for a violin and are new to it.
Also, interviews with noted violinists are now linked on the Violinists directory page. In the (hopefully near) future, we are planning to make the membership database searchable by name on the Directory page, so people can find each other more easily.
Audio and photo uploads will be re-enabled this week; needed to prevent files uploading to the server while we were changing things around, but now that we're finished, we'll restore that.
Again, a big thanks to Robert, and thanks to you for your patience during this process and for your openness to ...CHANGE!
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More news from the Orchestras of Pasadena, fast becoming a poster child for arts organizations that have hit hard times, with hardships chronicled everywhere from the LA Times to the New York Times.
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More entries: October 2008
Violinist Frank Almond tells the life story of the 1715 Lipinski Strad in his new recording, "A Violin's Life."
Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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