Time and again the Boise Philharmonic has performed music by Beethoven, Mahler or Mozart that transports the listener from darkness to light. But starting with last summer's pops series, the journey became more than a metaphor as the orchestra wrestled with significant financial problems, even as it was musically at the top of its game. While notes soared in the concert hall, a battle to keep the orchestra afloat raged behind the scenes.
So when the Philharmonic fired up its "Latin Fever" concert last weekend to kick off this year's Picnic at the Pops, there was extra fiesta in the air because many didn't expect the event to happen. The fact that it did is a testament to the resolve of the Philharmonic staff, musicians and board - and the responding rally from the community to save one of its beloved institutions.
"It was hugely painful at the time," says Philharmonic Music Director Robert Franz. "What's come out of it is a stronger and longer-lasting organization. When adversity hits, you can let it knock you down or you can stand up to it. That's what we did."
SETTING THE STAGE
Even before Boise had paved streets, residents gathered to listen to classical music. In 1885, a group of musicians organized the Boise City Orchestra - a group that 75 years later would become the Boise Philharmonic Association.
Today, it is one of the city's cultural pillars, with educational outreach programs that touch most children in the Treasure Valley by the time they graduate from high school. With Franz on the podium for the past five seasons, the group has grown musically and become a dynamic presence in the community.
Yet revenues were falling. The most recent economic downturn put a chill on nearly every theater, dance studio and concert hall in the country.
The traditional subscription models further unraveled as the audience's interests became subdivided by the increase in media. Arts groups now compete not only with other groups, cable TV and films, but also with Netflix, YouTube and Facebook.
Even as the economy perked up in other sectors, orchestras continue to struggle. Besieged by debt, falling revenues and disagreements between musicians and management, many are experiencing lockouts or folding completely.
In Boise, the Phil's subscriptions and ticket sales faltered in recent years. Donations had slowed and many of the endowments that feed into the orchestra's coffers had been diminished by the fickle stock market, says Steve Trott, a former board member and ardent supporter of the Phil.
"These funds aren't taken for granted, but you do build the budget around them," Trott says. "That, plus the squeeze on everyone's income - higher insurance, gas prices - it was getting tough."
Then at last summer's Pops, the company discovered that the contract to rent the Eagle River Pavilion had been misread. Initially, orchestra management thought it was $20,000 to rent the venue for three concerts; it turned out it was for each concert.
The former executive director resigned, and the board and staff scrambled to pull off the concerts. That rude awakening illuminated a larger issue, says Tony Boatman, the orchestra's executive director emeritus who came out of retirement to help out.
"The orchestra was on the edge," Boatman says. "They had grossly overestimated income from ticket sales and donations. When I took over, we didn't know if we could make payroll."
In the end, the accumulated red ink ballooned to about $500,000, Boatman says.
Boatman, Franz, board President Bill Drake and past president John Stedman knew they needed to do more than fix the immediate cash-flow problems. They needed to create a new paradigm that would ensure the group's future, Franz says.
"Our goal was to reassess everything from top to bottom, left to right," Franz says. "We had to become leaner and meaner and be able to focus laser-like on what we want to accomplish artistically, and then be able to do it with financial integrity."
ORCHESTRATING A SOLUTION
They spent months in meetings with the board, including the four musicians of the orchestra committee, mapping a way out.
"You have to have a clear path of where you're going before you can expect people to follow," Boatman says.
Boatman, who led the Boise Phil from 2000 to 2010, agreed to work for 50 percent of his former salary. He was the perfect person to lead the rescue effort and the search for a new executive director.
Drake - founder and chairman of Drake Cooper Advertising - had served on the board since 2006.
"I felt like the passenger who suddenly has to fly the plane," Drake says. "I was just trying to keep the nose up."
He brought his company in to retool the orchestra's marketing. The plan restructured and downsized the office staff, engaged the board at a deeper level and called for cuts on the artistic side.
They created the "Bridge Campaign," a one-time contribution to fill the immediate deficit and buy them the time to reorganize the budget, Boatman says. The board and staff raised $160,000 in three-and-a-half weeks.
"That shows the support the Philharmonic has in this community," Drake says. "That emboldened me to negotiate a better deal with U.S. Bank, and not only did they extend our line of credit, they expanded it."
At the same time, the orchestra lowered ticket prices. It's a bit of a gamble, Boatman says. "You cut prices and hope to increase volume," he says.
The subscription push started with a $99 early-bird special that ended in May. So far, subscriptions increased by more than 15 percent, says marketing director Jayme Mullaney.
Lower prices also open a door for a new audience to discover the group, "and it seems to be working," Boatman says. Most of the increase is from first-time subscribers.
Artistic trims required finesse.
For that, Franz used the same skills he uses to work through a complex score, examining individual elements for a deeper understanding of the larger problem, he says.
"The solution never rises to the level of the problem alone," he says. "By that I mean, if you want X to happen and it's not, you don't go on to Y. You go back to C or A, or somewhere else until you find something that unlocks the solution."
Franz made different programming choices that focused on music in the public domain rather than specific - and expensive - arrangements. He chose some pieces that require fewer musicians, and moved the Saturday morning Casual Classics series and one of the November Mozart concerts from the Morrison Center to the Cathedral of the Rockies.
"I wanted to look at the opportunities that were hidden in the situation and explore new ideas," Franz says. "Performing Mozart in a church (for the Nov. 1 and 2 concerts) is a perfect example. That's really the right venue for that music."
The hardest decision was to cut the musicians' pay. Most of the orchestra's musicians earn a "per service" fee for 2.5 hours of work - whether it's a rehearsal, a performance or an educational outreach program. Concerts like the Mozart will require fewer per-service players than larger symphonies.
The hours for nonconcert-related events shifted to the orchestra's 14 salaried principal players, who also took a pay freeze, as did all of the staff. The board cut the number of hours worked, not the rate of pay.
That was a hard pill to swallow, but a necessary one, says Jeffrey Barker, principal flutist who sits on the orchestra committee.
"It's a precarious industry," Baker says. "As a musician, we have to be constantly vigilant. We have to realize the position classical music has in our culture today and that we always will have to - in a way - justify our existence."
We're still in the woods but "we're more efficient now," Boatman stresses. "That will help find a way out sooner rather than later."
New Executive Director Sandra Culhane came into the picture in May from Billings, Mont., and, before that, Atlanta. When she came to Boise to interview, she was impressed by the orchestra and Franz.
"The musicianship was impressive," Culhane says. "It sparkled from the stage. I knew this is where I needed to be."
The more time she spent in Boise, meeting audience members, supporters, musicians and board members, the less of a concern the financial crisis became to her.
"In any organization, you comb through the numbers, and there are going to be challenges to work through," Culhane says. "With all the energy and support I saw in the community, I have no doubt that we can move forward successfully."
Culhane and Franz make a dynamic pair for this organization. And now, Franz and Culhane can cautiously put together a wish list for the future. For the first time in more than a year, the board and staff will take a retreat this fall.
"We're not allowed to talk about the past - only look forward to the future," Franz says.
For Franz, that includes creating an endowment for a pit orchestra that would play for Boise's arts groups. He also would like to establish a brick-and-mortar charter school with a music-based curriculum.
"I'm not interested in maintaining," he says. "I'm always pushing and growing. That's my role as music director. It's the mindset that will allow us to broaden and deepen what we do in this community."
Dana Oland is a former professional dancer and member of Actors Equity who writes about performing and visual arts for the Idaho Statesman. She also writes about food, wine, pets, jazz and other aspects of the good life in Boise. Read more arts coverage in her new blog at Voices.IdahoStatesman.com/oland.