Elaine Calder, the Oregon Symphony's newly named president, has her work cut out for her.
Portland's beloved Oregon Symphony is in real trouble. The 112-year-old organization is hemorrhaging money, senior staff have been cut or reshuffled in the past year, and Symphony musicians are worried about the future.
But Calder, a 60-year-old arts administrator with more than two decades of experience, doesn't mince words as she expresses confidence about her ability to turn things around quickly.
Seated in her large corner office in the downtown Oregon Symphony offices—a half-full Venti Starbucks coffee cup on her desk—the self-proclaimed "former classical-music snob" detailed her vision for the Symphony. And she also talked about escaping the long shadow of Laureate Music Director James DePreist, and hunting down Portland's new money.
WW : DePreist was revered as a fine musician and conductor, and a community leader. His successor, Carlos Kalmar, has improved the overall quality of the orchestra's sound, but he's also criticized as being distant and unconnected to Portland. Fair or unfair?
Elaine Calder: Carlos and Jimmy are two very different individuals with two very different approaches to music. If ever you had the great black Dionysus as opposed to the elegant Apollonian, there's the difference. Jimmy worked very hard in the community to establish this orchestra. The brief to Carlos was this: There are some weaknesses and problems in the orchestra, and the orchestra needs someone to come in and do some hard work. Carlos has done that. So, the relationship between the organization and the music director—and the city and the music director—has changed.
So, what does Carlos do best?
He's a really terrific musician, a very interesting programmer, and a great finder of talent.
You made a comment early on that the Symphony does "a lot of classical programming," suggesting the symphony should "find niche markets" and bring in more diverse music. These statements angered many players and Symphony supporters. What sort of new programming ideas are you bringing?
I said the word "gospel" and drove everyone crazy! I still want [Christian pop-music sensation] Michael W. Smith here at Christmas… that man's a sensational musician and he's got a huge following—duh! And he has great orchestral charts and he comes with David Hamilton, who's a really good conductor—duh! The biggest problem financially is not the classical programming, but it's the Pops. We, like every other orchestra, are trying to figure out what to do with the Pops. That's where you're going to see greater changes.
The traditional Pops audience—still great fans of Norman Leyden [the Symphony's Pops laureate conductor], who celebrates his 90th birthday this year—many of them are pushing up toward that number as well. There are at least two generations behind those people who have a whole collection of artists, mostly from the '60s and '70s, that they're happy to go and hear. And then there are younger people for whom the word "pops" is anathema. They run screaming, with visions of sweaters and suede shoes…that audience doesn't want to subscribe, to pin themselves down to programming we've chosen —they want choice. We're talking with Thomas Lauderdale, because if anybody's got his pulse on Portland, it's Thomas. And if anybody has replaced Jimmy, it's Thomas.
How do you plan to increase Symphony revenues after several years of crippling deficits?
We get very generous support from "the [philanthropic] families." We haven't been as good at tapping into new money. We're just starting to explore those opportunities. From talking to my colleagues, every one of those organizations is struggling. With us, it's our debt capacity; with the Art Museum and Center Stage, it's capital campaigns still unfinished; the Opera and Ballet have ongoing operational balancing issues. There's not a lot of corporate support here. State and municipal support is not as generous here as it is in other parts. So it comes down to individuals. In a relatively small community like Portland…these donors get tapped over and over again, so they have to spread their philanthropy. There's not a lot of philanthropy left—it's much more about marketing and business development.
What are your own musical interests?
I'm an opera nut. I used to be a real classical snob. I studied piano as a kid, and I used to hate musicals. But now, as long as it's good, I'm usually interested in just about anything. I went once to Portland Baroque, but I'd rather eat while listening to baroque music—I don't get wrapped up in the complexities of it, I just find it kind of pleasant music.
What do you feel is the Symphony's responsibility to program and promote the work of Oregon composers?
It's part of our responsibility. I think like a lot of orchestras we are still trying to figure out how to do that in a way that meets our responsibility to our composers and the responsibility to our audience. I was really gratified in the late spring when we did Symphony No. 12 by… [pause] Robert Kyr. And I felt the audience response was really strong. Respectful, but also enthusiastic.
While the Symphony has cut and reshuffled staff positions in the last year, you and Symphony VP Mary Crist negotiated new contracts with Symphony musicians that included a retroactive pay increase of 1 percent as well as total of 6 percent increase for the coming season. Why?
I was expecting a really difficult negotiation, and the musicians were, too…we run these organizations on the backs of our resident artists, and I don't like using wage cuts as a tool to solving financial problems. When they found out that we weren't asking for a wage cut, I think they breathed a big sigh of relief. I think the players are cautiously optimistic, but I think there are deep reserves of anxiety, and I don't blame them. Hell, I have deep reserves of anxiety…I brought my furniture down from Edmonton, and I'm like, "Oooh." This organization's got to work—financially, it's got to work, and we don't have a lot of time left before we run out of borrowing capacity. We've kept going for the past six or seven years basically by increasing our debt, and there's a limit to the amount of debt any organization can take on, and we're getting very close to the limit of our borrowing capacity. So you've got to do something that stabilizes that situation and reduces the debt dependency—cut your expenses, increase your revenues.
Calder worked with the Symphony as a "strategic consultant" for about nine months before being appointed president last month. She came here after managing the Edmonton Symphony from 2001 to 2006.
Calder is married and has one daughter. Her husband, a retired lawyer, is an avid bicyclist and accompanies her to every Oregon Symphony concert.