The Beat Goes On

After decades of financial troubles and nagging questions about their relevance, the Dallas and Houston symphonies are both hitting high notes.

March 2001By Comments

Although the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the Houston Symphony hardly recognize each other’s existence, classical-music fans have argued about which city has the better orchestra for decades. Back when both symphonies were poorly housed, Houstonians could point to their name-brand conductors—Leopold Stokowski, Sir John Barbirolli, André Previn—as proof that they could attract the best. But by the end of the eighties, the strategies of the two organizations had clearly diverged. As the Dallas symphony poured money into a fine new facility to improve the sound of its acoustically deprived orchestra, the Houston Symphony invested in improving its performances by hiring a demanding European-trained pianist-conductor, Christoph Eschenbach. Both organizations achieved their goals, but under Eschenbach the Houston Symphony quickly pulled into the lead artistically. Dallas countered in 1994 by hiring the most promising American conductor it could find, Andrew Litton. Then, five years later, Eschenbach left to take command of symphonic organizations in Paris and his hometown of Hamburg—while continuing his association with Houston as conductor laureate.

These days, the good news is that folks are once again debating which of the state’s premier symphonies is superior. With budgets of around $21 million, both are playing better than ever and offering stimulating concerts. Both toured the major cities of Europe to rave reviews last summer, and both have healthy endowments boosted by successful fund-raising campaigns. Dallas couldn’t be happier with its charismatic young conductor. And the Houston Symphony’s affable new music director designate, Hans Graf, is generally considered a worthy successor to the much-respected Eschenbach (who in January accepted an offer to head the Philadelphia Orchestra).

Yet the two organizations face an insecure future as they struggle to hold on to aging audiences and attract new converts to classical music. The current anxieties are nothing new, as both symphonies have had their ups and downs in the not too distant past. In the mid-seventies a financial debacle resulted in the Dallas organization’s canceling concerts, firing its conductor and musicians, and shutting down operations to consider its options. As for the Houston orchestra, after years of creeping cost overruns, it faced a major financial crisis in 1997.

The Houston Symphony, which had been founded in 1913 with the patronage of Ima Hogg, was seriously in the red and had to ask its musicians to take a pay cut. By 1998 labor contracts and extensive touring and recording had plunged the symphony into debt to the tune of $7.3 million, and there was talk of a musicians’ strike. The organization had to borrow money, guaranteeing the loan with its endowment (soon to be $58 million, thanks to an ongoing campaign that is expected to bring in $25 million). In the nick of time, the city’s Wortham Foundation and Houston Endowment agreed to erase the debt in return for the promise of a balanced budget. Amid all the tension, Eschenbach, who led the symphony to new artistic heights during his eleven-year tenure, announced his intention to move on. Then a year ago the symphony organization took another hit when its executive director, David Wax, said he was bailing out in September, just before the start of the current season.

Followers of the Houston Symphony’s roller-coaster highs and lows could not have missed the irony in the title of a children’s concert presentation—“Emily Saves the Houston Symphony”—when they opened their advance season programs last summer. The program description read: “Find out how Emily restores musical order out of chaos!”

By early September the symphony again seemed in need of rescue. As the rehearsals started for the opening night all-Tchaikovsky concert in Jones Hall, the orchestra’s acoustically mediocre home since the sixties, the board had not yet named a new music director. And the prospects seemed to be dwindling as promising candidates who had auditioned as guest conductors were picked off by other organizations.

It was at this vulnerable point that the local alternative rag chimed in with the cruelest blow of all. Opening on a hostile note, an article in the Houston Press referred to the symphony’s musicians as “just a bunch of longhairs” playing a form of entertainment that many Houstonians “wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot baton” and questioned whether the symphony could—or even should—go on.

So it came as a considerable relief to the city’s symphonic-music lovers when they finally got some positive news. On September 9, the day of the season’s opening gala, longtime classical-music critic Charles Ward of the Houston Chronicle wrote that the symphony was expected to name Hans Graf as its new music director. Ward went on to opine that Graf, the leader of the Calgary Philharmonic and the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine, was a good choice. At Graf’s debut with the Houston orchestra as a guest conductor last March, the thoughtful Austrian received high praise from musicians and critics. Wrote Ward at the time: “His leadership of Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 and Orff’s Carmina Burana presented about as strong a musical case as I have heard so far this season for being the successor to conductor laureate Christoph Eschenbach.”

But Hans Graf’s five-year contract hardly fixed the symphony’s leadership problem for the short term. Graf will not take up his duties until next September, although he will conduct a long-scheduled concert in May. And because guest conductors and soloists have already been booked for the 2001-2002 season, Graf’s influence as music director will not be felt strongly until the following season.

In January the 51-year-old Graf was in Boston to conduct concerts featuring the Middle European classical mainstays Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms. When I spoke with him by phone, his fabled warmth and openness were evident as he discussed his career and his future in Houston. As an Austrian exchange student in Russia during the Brezhnev era, Graf told me, he had studied conducting in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), where he met his wife of 27 years, Margarita. In Mozart’s hometown of Salzburg, where Graf maintains his Austrian residency, he conducted the prestigious Mozarteum orchestra for a decade, eventually recording all of the composer’s symphonies. In 1995 he took over as music director of the Calgary symphony and three years later added the Bordeaux orchestra.

Graf claimed to have no qualms about Houston’s ability to sustain and nurture a first-rate symphony. Was he aware of the financial problems the organization had recently faced? “Yes, of course,” he said, “but that was taken care of.” He has been doing his homework. “Houston will soon have a Latin majority,” he observed, adding that he intends to program Spanish masterpieces, such as Manuel de Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat, for that audience. True to his Austrian roots, he hopes to present more Haydn and Mozart but frets about how they will sound in Jones Hall. What else can Houstonians expect from Graf? “French music is close to my heart, especially Debussy,” he said. He mentioned his affection for Shostakovich, particularly such out-of-the-ordinary work as his orchestral settings of Michelangelo’s sonnets—“But you have to be careful not to lose the audience,” he said. Clearly, he has great plans, which include his hope that Houston will eventually build its orchestra an acoustically superior new home.

Meanwhile, although the symphony had not chosen an executive director to replace David Wax as of early February, its managers were maintaining that everything was running quite smoothly, thank you. International guest conductors, including Leipzig’s Claus Peter Flor and Alan Gilbert, the young American conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, were lined up, and this season’s offerings range from American John Adams’ 1996 piano concerto Century Rolls—played by Emanuel Ax, for whom the piece was created—to Dvorak’s warhorse “New World” symphony and pops concerts featuring the likes of Michael Feinstein and the Canadian Brass.

Nevertheless, the orchestra’s development director, Corrie Mason, is worried about keeping subscribers. “We have good news and challenging news,” Mason says. It seems that the symphony adds eight thousand new subscribers each year, but fewer than a third of those come back for a second season—despite such efforts to expand its audience as “Casual Classics,” a Friday evening pre-concert speaker series designed to help concertgoers appreciate the music, and “Classical Encounters,” a program that aims to engage the young singles audience with a party before the concert. No doubt with an eye to nurturing future subscribers, the symphony also has many outreach programs that try to involve and educate children in the pleasures of classical music, some of which have been in place since symphony co-founder Ima Hogg championed busing schoolchildren to the old downtown Music Hall to hear free concerts in the forties.

As Houston’s symphony began to emerge from the doldrums last fall, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (DSO) seemed the model of stability by comparison. After shutting down for a year in 1974, it faced an uphill battle as its board revived the orchestra and then turned its attention to building a concert hall of architectural and acoustical distinction. Now comfortably housed for the past eleven years in the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center—which is inevitably touted as a “world-class” concert hall—the DSO celebrated its one-hundredth birthday last year. Led by the dynamic, 41-year-old Andrew Litton, the symphony has an endowment of almost $70 million, bolstered by a recent campaign that raised $55 million; a considerably more ambitious drive to raise $100 million is in the planning stages. The fact that this season 82 percent of the DSO’s tickets were sold to subscribers was icing on the cake. So why was the symphony running humorous radio spots in December telling fashion-conscious Dallasites that they needn’t dress up to go to the symphony? (Deep-voiced announcer: “Someone in this city right now is facing a fear they can’t seem to overcome, fear of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Take Mrs. Sylvia H. of Frisco.” Worried young matron: “I don’t own a $500 strapless evening gown.” Deep-voiced announcer: “I do. But I don’t feel compelled to wear it, because formal attire is not required at the Dallas symphony. Wear whatever you feel comfortable in …”)

Turns out the DSO was trying to counter the same attitudes that were revealed in the Houston Press article about the Houston Symphony. “The difficulty is in disabusing people of the notion that classical music is elitist, esoteric, something that isn’t appropriate to their lives,” says Litton. “One way of doing that is to break down the mystique of coming to a concert. It’s not some scary thing like jury duty.” As in Houston, the DSO is trying to expand its audience through such efforts as its Symphony YES program, which offers pre-concert music-appreciation lectures. DSO general manager Douglas Adams, who helped develop the radio spots, points out that all symphonies have a common problem: “declining audiences, aging audiences.” Although some 3,600 new subscribers sign up each year, about the same number decide not to renew. Record sales are probably a good barometer of Americans’ interest in classical music, and sales of such recordings in the U.S. account for only 3.5 percent of the overall market today, with rock the leader among all types of music. As Litton puts it, “The biggest problem music makers face is that for two generations now, because of budget cutbacks, the schools haven’t been teaching music appreciation. Every orchestra across the country is trying to fill that gap. The DSO is no exception.”

Dallas symphony president Eugene Bonelli, who chaired the acoustics committee during the construction of the Meyerson, has a favorite war story about the political cost of the notion that symphonies are the playthings of the wealthy. When the Meyerson opened, in 1989, the DSO, which had paid two thirds of the hall’s cost, gave the building to the city of Dallas and contracted to rent it back at essentially no cost. When the city sought to force the symphony to pay more rent in 1994—under pressure from minority groups who called it an elitist organization—Bonelli and his staff made a presentation to the city council, complete with a map and colored pushpins showing where the symphony and its musicians had given free concerts and presented music programs in schools, parks, and other venues. After demonstrating how the symphony reached every sector of the community, says Bonelli, “We were able to work out an agreement to pay $1 in rent a year”—more or less the original amount.

No one was happier than Litton. “One of the things that keeps a symphony at the center of a community is having a great place to perform,” he says. “This place is definitely a showplace for Dallas.” Under Litton, the symphony has been able to tour and to embark on an ambitious series of live recordings featuring the works of Mahler and Shostakovich, all without detriment to the bottom line.

Meanwhile, those radio ads seem to be working. “We have a lot of young people in our audience,” says Litton. “It’s considered a cool thing for young people to come to a concert on a date.”

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