SJSU in the News: Symphony Silicon Valley Thrives With Boost From 16,000 People Attending Target Summer Pops at San Jose State

Defying financial odds, Symphony Silicon Valley prepares to open a creative 10th season

Originally posted by the San Jose Mercury News Sept. 28, 2011.

By Richard Scheinin

Let the doubters eat crow: This weekend, Symphony Silicon Valley launches its 10th anniversary season. It has gone from startup to brand name in a down economy, digging into the South Bay arts scene, performing for 524,695 ticket holders over its first decade. And its founder isn’t surprised.

“I never thought we were in a risky business,” says Andrew Bales, president of the orchestra, which he launched in September 2002, shortly after the San Jose Symphony went bankrupt. “The old symphony had overreached its marketplace. But people still love classical music.”

When that older orchestra folded after years of lackluster programming, shaky management and dwindling attendance, many thought the South Bay’s more than 60-year run as an orchestral hub was over.

But Bales’ baby has caught on: Outside San Francisco, Symphony Silicon Valley is now the Bay Area’s largest employer of classical musicians. It has weathered the economic downturn by running a tight ship — using a parade of guest conductors instead of one costly music director; scheduling just enough performances to keep seats filled and ticket revenues humming; and branding itself as something different by rolling out audience favorites (see: Beethoven), along with eclectic and contemporary fare.

In addition to performing a core classical series at the California Theatre, it is the pit orchestra for Ballet San Jose. It has its own “Broadway in Concert” series and works a variety of one-off events (such as backing Frank Sinatra Jr., or playing “Final Fantasy” video game music).It’s not that the musicians are getting rich: Top pay for all of this is still only about $20,000 per player. But given the wobbly health of arts organizations in general, the orchestra’s accomplishments are impressive.

“Anybody who bets against Andrew Bales’ succeeding at anything he’s set his mind to should be prepared to lose that bet,” says principal violist Patricia Whaley, who joined the old symphony in 1983. “It’s amazing and it’s wonderful, and I continue to be grateful.”

Past seen in present

Early on, Symphony Silicon Valley began hiring world-class, yet affordable, soloists, including pianist John Nakamatsu, violinist Lara St. John and cellist Gary Hoffman. It commissioned new orchestral works (four thus far) and has worked to build relationships with living composers.

On Saturday and Sunday, it will perform Gustav Holst’s “The Planets,” a high-powered favorite from a century ago, requiring 91 instrumentalists and a 60-voice chorus. It also will perform two works by lesser-known composer David Amram, a genre-bender whose friends have included Woody Guthrie and Dizzy Gillespie. Playing piano and Pakistani flute, Amram will be one of the 15 soloists for his jazz-influenced Triple Concerto.

Bales anticipates near sellout performances. While overall season attendance has dipped since the 2008 stock market crash, the orchestra still generates 60 percent of its revenue from ticket sales. Compare that with a typical U.S. symphony orchestra, which secures about 44 percent from the box office, broadcast contracts and other earned income, and depends for the rest on contributions and grants.

The 60 percent figure “means the public is putting a very high value on the service being delivered,” says Michael L. Hackworth, co-founder of Cirrus Logic and longtime South Bay arts advocate. “So credit goes to Andrew and the orchestra. Doing what they’ve done in this lost decade — the dot-com bust, the financial crisis in 2008 — is remarkable.”

Point of contention

Not that it’s all smooth sailing. Inside and outside the orchestra, opinions vary about the music director issue. Is the stream of conductors an asset, allowing the musicians to demonstrate their adaptability and innate cohesion? Or would the orchestra benefit from the consistent shaping influence of one conductor’s vision — think Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco — which would likely cost more?

Either way, the issue is not on the table now, says Bales, who believes the orchestra performs at a high level even as it faces an increasingly tough financial picture. After landing in the black during its first seven seasons, Symphony Silicon Valley has run deficits of $143,000 in 2009-10 and $120,000 in 2010-11. With an operating budget of $3 million, Bales — one of a bare-bones staff of six — is “managing through” the downturn, he says.

“I hate being in a deficit position. It drives me crazy every day. But it’s not a deal breaker for us. Our cash flow is sustainable. Our people are being paid, and we have operating lines of credit to pay our bills. And the year is starting in a way that makes me think we’re turning the corner, thank god,” he says.

Story of survival

An endowment fund of $1.3 million hasn’t been touched. Subscription sales, which dipped to 1,450 last year, are back over 1,600, with a 95 percent renewal rate. “And we’re not cutting back artistically: Holst’s ‘The Planets’ is one of the largest pieces you could do,” Bales says. “Now, if we were to run a deficit this year, would we start playing pieces that require 65 musicians instead of 90? You bet we would.”

Bales has followed the marketplace, carefully building the core classical series, though he scrapped slow-selling Thursday night concerts. When American Musical Theatre folded in 2008, the orchestra stepped in with its Broadway series. It worked with the Target retail chain for a “Target Summer Pops” series at San Jose State, which attracted 16,000 people in the summer. Now the orchestra leads the nonprofit ArtSPARK arts education program, expected to reach 17,600 youngsters in Santa Clara County this school year.

‘As good or better’

Amid this flurry, one caveat: The old San Jose Symphony performed the equivalent of 20 to 22 weeks a year at its height, while the new one performs about half that number. Financial pressures are great; most players teach privately and drive all over the region to find freelance work as members of the “Freeway Philharmonic.”

“For me, if the orchestra keeps growing, that’s fine,” says principal percussionist Galen Lemmon, a member of this and the old orchestra for 39 years. “I still want to play. I enjoy it, but I want to see more pay for when I’m there.”

Lemmon applauds Bales for crafting the orchestra’s identity, especially by programming new compositions — including a percussion concerto by Israeli composer Avner Dorman last season. It was an exciting event, a hit with listeners, and an example for Lemmon of something even broader: “You know what?” he says. The orchestra is sounding “as good or better” than the old San Jose Symphony ever did.

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069.

Symphony Silicon Valley

Paul Polivnick, conductor; David Amram, featured composer and guest soloist

When: 8 p.m. Saturday,
2:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: California Theatre, 345 S. First St., San Jose
Tickets: $39 to $75;
408-286-2600, ext. 23;