JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, saving the symphony. All across the country symphony orchestras are struggling to survive. Lee Hochberg of Oregon Public Television tells the Oregon Symphony's story.
LEE HOCHBERG: The annual Mozart Festival is one of the biggest nights of the year at the Oregon Symphony, but on this night something appeared to have gone terribly wrong. A corpse lay in the Music Hall lobby, police tapes sealing it off from concert-goers. It was a night at the symphony 1990's style. The cadaver was actually a dummy of Mozart, the Austrian composer who died mysteriously in 1791. Delighted concert goers in the lobby sent e-mail to the orchestra conductor with theories about the death, all part of the packaging that Oregon Symphony president Don Roth says has become necessary in most American symphonies.
DON ROTH, Oregon Symphony President: For us to succeed we've got to bring excitement into the concert hall. If we don't do that, then we're not going to happen just as an automatic. We don't take that for granted.
LEE HOCHBERG: Innovations like Oregon's come after a decade of sour notes in the symphony world. Eight American orchestras have gone bankrupt in the last 10 years, including those in Sacramento and San Diego last year. Fourteen of the top twenty-four orchestras in North America are running deficits. A 1992 American Symphony Orchestra League report concluded that unless changes are made in the way orchestras do business, the future health of the orchestra industry is in serious jeopardy. Much of the money problem dates to the 1980's, when many mid-sized orchestras evolved from part-time to full-time. The sheer size of orchestras make the expensive. In Oregon, going full-time required luring 90 musicians to the region, with full-time salaries averaging $40,000 a year. The annual budget for Oregon's symphony is now more than $10 million. Music Professor David Schiff of Portland's Reed College says that's more than many cities can support.
DAVID SCHIFF, Professor/Composer: It was a very expensive move, and many of the orchestras I've spoken to acknowledge that they were beyond themselves in making this, and a number of orchestras have just--have gone broke because of this; that it was really a kind of expansion they couldn't have done.
LEE HOCHBERG: The Oregon Symphony still carries the million dollar debt it incurred when it expanded in 1984. Six other orchestras are more than $1/2 million in the red. Most are also trying to offset reductions in state and federal funding. Atop all of this many orchestras are battling an image problem, the feeling that the symphony is stuffy, the domain of the wealthy. Oregon's symphony conductor James DePriest.
JAMES DE PRIEST, Oregon Symphony Conductor: We have to counter the elitist image that symphony orchestras have. Symphony orchestras have in some cases cultivated that image.
LEE HOCHBERG: DePriest, an internationally heralded conductor, who also leads the Monte Carlo Philharmonic, says lazy, out of touch symphony administrators have allowed some orchestras to become staid and dull.
JAMES DE PRIEST: Why should anyone want to come to a concert? There's so much competition for, for the leisure dollar. You don't get their attention by saying, ah, yeah, we're the symphony orchestra, the same orchestra that's been over here for a hundred years.
LEE HOCHBERG: Oregon's symphony has instituted a plan that looks like a model for success in the face of all the problems. The symphony drew 250,000 listeners last year in a community of only 1.3 million people. That's second in Oregon only to the Portland Trailblazers, the city's professional basketball team. The symphony has begun building a $16 million endowment to help fund future operations, and it's spending a million dollars a year on marketing, like a sports team promoting its top star, conductor DePriest.
SPOKESMAN: Now, therefore I proclaim Thursday, November 21st, to be James DePriest Day in Portland. (applause)
LEE HOCHBERG: The popular DePriest is ubiquitous in Oregon, appearing in newspaper ads and posters, on a mural at a downtown Portland hotel, even being named the second sexiest man in the state by Oregon's largest newspaper.
SPOKESMAN: You've got to have that image of this strong artistic leader that people say, hey, James DePriest, that's it. We know about the symphony; they're good. We wouldn't be out there without the confidence this community has got in James DePriest and the excitement he builds.
LEE HOCHBERG: The symphony generates support throughout rural Oregon with a series of about 15 statewide concerts per year. The city of Portland invested $200,000 to stage symphony concerts in city neighborhoods.
JAMES DE PRIEST: We played at the state fair, so people coming there to essentially enjoy chocolate cake and see the greatest living examples of livestock bump into the orchestra. I think all orchestras, symphony orchestras in their communities need to be ubiquitous. You cannot exist without bumping into it.
LEE HOCHBERG: Inside the symphony hall DePriest has tried to knock down the wall of formality he believes keeps American audiences away.
JAMES DE PRIEST: Someone said, I liked the John Adams piece but I still don't understand the title. Who wrote this? Has that person left.
LEE HOCHBERG: As Leonard Bernstein first did a decade ago in New York, DePriest converses with Portland audiences throughout the show. Such tactics might be unneeded in Monte Carlo or in traditional symphonies like Cleveland or Chicago, but he says mid-sized markets require variety to keep the seats full. To that end the Oregon Symphony peppers its schedule with pops concerts, featuring artists like Randy Newman, and in an innovative experiment to bring in new, younger audiences, the symphony has scheduled a series of atypical concerts with jazz and blues musicians.
SPOKESMAN: It's something experimental, so I hope that you all dig what we're about to put down.
LEE HOCHBERG: This performance with Portland blues artist Curtis Selgado attracted hundreds of twenty-somethings, many of whom admitted they've never before been in a symphony hall. The symphony hopes 10 percent of those listeners will return for more standard fare. But while the innovations may generate money, some music lovers say the symphony is playing the wrong tunes by packaging the classics with corpses and comedy and the blues.
BETTY CRAMER-PERKINS, Friends of Chamber Music: It's as though you wanted to introduce people to an art museum and so you put art in a comic book.
LEE HOCHBERG: The past president and a 30-year member of Oregon's Friends of Chamber Music, Betty Cramer-Perkins, says the classical music form is being pillaged in the effort to be popular.
BETTY CRAMER-PERKINS: I think music is too sacred to me to be watered down like that, and I think that is watering it down. I think they should concentrate on quality, and I think the audiences will come.
LEE HOCHBERG: And musicians say they're being trampled in the effort to attract new audiences. The Oregon Symphony just added Saturday night concerts in a move to increase revenues by 10 percent. Its musicians went out on strike to demand a premium for the new concerts. In San Francisco, musicians struck over doing additional performances they claim subject them to repetitive strain injuries. Musicians in Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Shreveport also walked out over money matters. Oregon Symphony percussionist Chris Perry argues with 10 percent of symphony revenues now directed to marketing there's not enough left for the orchestra's daily needs.
CHRIS PERRY, Musician: In the interests of trying to balance the budget we continually allocate more and more money to marketing and developing new donors and producing more short-term special concerts to feed the bottom line instead of also allocating money to support the artistic effort.
LEE HOCHBERG: Symphony President Roth says there will be no artistic effort if marketing is cut back.
DON ROTH: Essentially, we're getting 75 cents for the 25 cents we're spending. We're pretty darned cost effective, and it's--it's that that's paying the salaries of our musicians. If I were a musician, I'd say keep spending those quarters.
LEE HOCHBERG: Conductor DePriest, who himself is a little leery of some of the promotional efforts, says he's guarding closely to make sure the musical stiffs are in the lobby and not on stage.
JAMES DE PRIEST: The medium should not be confused with the message. Let's say that you seduce someone, by having a stiff in the lobby, to become a subscriber. The stiff in the lobby is not with them when they're in the concert hall. And, therefore, it's the integrity of the music making that is the ultimate seller for any orchestra.
LEE HOCHBERG: The challenge will be to achieve harmony between that music making and the money making necessary to keep the music playing.