By THOMAS P. CALDWELL
Thursday, November 12, 2009
The basic premise for changes in the New Hampshire Music Festival is flawed, according to the executive committee of the group Save Our Orchestra Now (SOON), but even if ticket sales had declined by 25 percent over the past 10 years, as claimed, the solutions proposed by the NHMF Board of Directors are off-target.
That is the message Gene Bishop, Stephen Tessler and Art Albert brought to an editorial board meeting at The Citizen.
The three members of the seven-member SOON executive committee elaborated on their position as outlined in a commentary appearing in Tuesday’s Citizen and emphasized that they are just as passionate about seeing the Festival survive as the NHMF management is.
“The impression the management is putting out is that we’re an ‘anti’ organization, but we came together to support the Festival,” said Bishop.
In a cover letter attached to a new personnel policy for musicians, New Hampshire Music Festival President David Graham wrote, “We are aware that some incumbent musicians continue to work to support SOON and the objectives it stands for and continue to criticize the new direction the Festival has chosen to take. As we proceed to implement the Personnel Policy, we reserve the right to fairly evaluate whether those musicians seeking employment in the summer 2010 season can be expected to support the Festival and the new direction it is taking based on all the circumstances.”
While conceding it is the board’s responsibility to determine the artistic direction of the orchestra through its choice of musical director, Bishop said the radical approach the board is taking is likely to undermine the Festival rather than strengthen it.
In addition to ignoring SOON’s concerns, the Festival is proposing a change in the Articles of Agreement that will eliminate the incorporators’ rights to vote on policies, putting the Board of Directors in total control of the operation.
“That’s a major change,” said Albert, a former member of the NHMF Board. “It means they’re going to stop listening to their constituents entirely.”
Albert said the management’s claims of declining ticket sales are not borne out by the audited financial statements of the Festival. Those statements show ticket sales increasing from $212,322 in 2000 to $314,164 in 2006. Unaudited financial records on file at Center Harbor Town Offices show sales declining to $305,307 in 2007 and $268,600 in 2008, and a projection for 2009 shows sales of $214,600.
The decline in ticket sales over the past couple years are more likely to be a function of the economy, Albert said.
Nevertheless, SOON agrees with Festival management that it needs boost ticket sales and generate excitement about the performances. “The audience is old,” said Bishop, and the Festival needs to attract new supporters and younger audience members.
“But the radical approach should be the last resort rather than the first,” said Bishop.
SOON believes the Festival needs an aggressive marketing effort that would target the Boston area as well as the entire state of New Hampshire. Over the past few years, the Festival has abandoned both advertising and its promotional efforts on New Hampshire Public Radio, and it eliminated the volunteer support group Friends of the Festival.
Additionally, since doing a member survey to determine the most popular composers, the Festival has limited itself to music by those composers. SOON believes that, by broadening the range of music, it would reinvigorate the concerts.
The organization does not object to experiments with the “collaborative model” that Festival management is proposing, but it objects to an abrupt switch that abandons the traditional approach entirely, fearing it will alienate those who currently support the orchestra.
“Introduce collaborative music gradually, and let the audience decide,” said Bishop. “Don’t destroy the Festival on the way to fixing it.”
“The collaborative model doesn’t correct the problem it purports to correct,” said Tessler. “It will not spark the interest of young concertgoers.”
The collaborative model the Festival is adopting has been very successful with smaller orchestras and chamber groups, said Bishop, who researched its use around the country. It has never succeeded in a large orchestra, however.
The method has musicians coming together and developing their program collaboratively without a conductor directing the music. It is a method in practice over the past 15 years and is based on the TQM method that came out of Japan and is used by several large corporations.
“They’re placing the whole ballgame on the collaborative method and hoping it will bring in young, enthusiastic audiences,” said Albert.
Part of SOON’s concern is related to the proposed new music hall at the former Red Hill Inn in Center Harbor. While SOON has taken no formal position on the proposal which has many people excited about the possibility of having their own venue, the organization does have concerns about the impact on the orchestra. Originally envisioned as a $16 million project, it was scaled back to $10 million and, according to the latest financial information Albert obtained, there is not enough money to complete even that.
Beyond the cost of renovating the condemned property, the Festival also would need an endowment to maintain the property and there are concerns about its viability.
“Ticket sales provide at most 50 percent of the cost of producing concerts, with the rest coming from gifts and outside support. To institute a capital campaign, you need some deep pockets who contribute large sums, in the millions,” said Albert.
“We don’t believe they should go forward until the finances are in place to both build the music hall and to maintain it afterward, but they’re planning to break ground without the money to complete the project,” said Albert. “That’s a long-term financial risk for the Festival that could impact their ability to hire the musicians.”
SOON believes the Festival management is ignoring its concerns and the proposal to “stop listening to constituents” will further undermine the Festival’s support.
The amendments to the Articles of Agreement will be up for a vote at the annual meeting of the Board of Incorporators on Wednesday, Nov. 18, at 4 p.m. at Gilford High School. SOON predicts it will be a contentious meeting.