How Budget Cuts, Price Cuts And The Community Saved A Symphony

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(Sacramento, CA)
Thursday, August 20, 2009

Part 2 of Capital Public Radio's 3-part series "The Show Must Go On"

Many people are surprised to learn that the Stockton Symphony is the third oldest orchestra in California, and that it has hosted star soloists Van Cliburn and Itzhak Perlman. But for the past 14 years, the brightest star in the orchestra has been its charismatic conductor, Peter Jaffe. Executive director Jane Kenworthy found that out from the city's top politician.
As the mayor of Stockton said to me in my first year, more people know Peter Jafee's face than know my face.
But Jaffe has more than just a magnetic personality. He has a musical pedigree to match.   Violinist and concertmaster, Christina Mok.

Part of the reason why we could keep the level of performance consistently high is because we're working with somebody who demands so much of us. You know he makes the orchestra players give, give their best.
Under Jaffe's leadership, the Stockton Symphony has won accolades for its polished performances and creative programming, and for commissioning new works by composers like Chris Brubeck who wrote this piece for the symphony in 2005.
Last fall, as Peter Jaffe was preparing for the Symphony's 82nd season, he soon found himself bracing for some harsh economic realities. 

You started first getting those clues during the summer of course, but I think you know during September and October you realize not only is it going down but it might not go back up for quite some time and it was really kind of a freezing wake up call for the whole organization.
The symphony's corporate and charitable donations were way down, so executive director Jane Kenworthy focused on increasing ticket sales. But first she had to ask an important question.

Are we pricing ourselves too high for what Stockton can afford?
To find the answer, Kenworthy rolled out what she called the "Pick Two" campaign.

We offered folks the chance to buy the best seat in the house, or any seat in the house, for just $19, provided that they bought more than one concert.

We sold 25 K dollars worth of tickets in six days.
It was a valuable cash infusion, says Kenworthy, but the couldn't keep pace with the symphony's growing deficit. Endowment funds were hit hard by the stock market, and the symphony had already taken out a line of credit. Kenworthy and her board decided cuts were necessary.

The thing that made most sense was to eliminate from the program that which had traditionally sold the least well. So we did choose to eliminate the family concert.
And that caught the attention of local tv news.
(KOVR) The Stockton Symphony has hit a sour note. They're canceling programs like the family concert series in Tracy and Stockton. It's likely the symphony's first cancellation in its 82 year history.

One of the hardest things for me personally was seeing that family concert go.
Conductor Peter Jaffe

Because I think it had so much value to it, educational value, artistic value, community value, outreach. Ultimately I think all the decisions we made artistically were the right ones, but that was really tough and I want to see us bring that back.
Programming wasn't the only casualty. The symphony's already small staff was further reduced by cuts and attrition.

It was really hard to lose our fund development position, resignation of our marketing director and our education director, and they left under the most amicable circumstances, we loved all of those people, but when you have organizations that can hire those people away, what can you say?
And how were orchestra members like Christina Mok dealing with the crisis?

I am an optimist. (laughs) I never actually doubted that we will make it through this tough time. I think we're strong.
Ultimately the symphony stopped the bleeding. But the turnaround didn't happen overnight, nor is it over. For executive director Jane Kenworthy, survival hinges on one thing.

You have to be responsive to your particular community and if you are not, you're going to be gone.
That's why Kenworthy sent out numerous audience surveys last year. She and her staff made personal phone calls thanking subscribers. Jaffe opened his rehearsals to audiences, and orchestra musicians dined with patrons. In the end, the community responded in a big way. Ticket sales were up, with a number of sold out houses. That made a big difference to Christina Mok.

It just gives us meaning to what we do, you know to see a full house it feels good, it gives us energy.
For  Peter Jaffe, that's a feeling that has stayed with him as he prepares for the start of another Stockton Symphony season.

Well I feel almost inexplicably energized, you know this is a time when every single indicator would say, you know, where is that energy gonna come from? But I guess the energy comes from a. enthusiasm for our art, but b. an incredible sense of gratefulness to all the people that keep it going… the board, the staff, and the musicians, but even more the audience… the community.