Tom Strini

MSO Exec Mark Hanson Moves to Houston Symphony

By - Feb 19th, 2010 04:18 pm
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Executive director and president Mark C. Hanson, who has served the Milwaukee Symphony very well over the last six years, will leave to become executive director of the Houston Symphony on May 1.

Mark C. Hanson

Mark C. Hanson

The move makes career sense for Hanson, who is just 36. Houston is the fourth largest market in the U.S., and its orchestra reflects that. The HSO’s musicians have 52-week contracts, and the orchestra’s annual budget is $25 million.

His predecessor at Houston, Matthew VanBesien, made $199,000 in 2007, according to the latest publicly available tax document. Hanson made $174,641 in 2008 (from Federal form 990), but that might be a little misleading, as Hanson typically took percentage cuts when musicians did, and there has been at least one cut since then.

Hanson made the hard choices in hard times and stabilized the MSO. He ended the practice of advancing payouts from the endowment in order to cover year-end shortfalls. That practice makes the ink look black temporarily, but creates internal debt and erodes donor confidence. Hanson showed true balanced budgets in 2007, 2008 and is on the way to showing a balanced 2009.

He reduced office staff significantly and was quick to replace those who failed to produce, even if he had brought them in. Hanson negotiated give-backs from musicians who were already stretched thin. He rearranged performance schedules to reduce seat inventory and help to create at least the illusion of demand and has used musicians’ time very efficiently. He was well on the way to eliminating debt that had accumulated long before he arrived, but the recession stopped that effort in its tracks; Hanson will leave the MSO with long-term debt of about $5 million, owed to its own endowment and on a bank line of credit.

Hanson’s goal was to keep morale high through a long period of economic contraction and to make the cuts invisible and inaudible to the audience. He succeeded in all of that, particularly with the coup of bringing on Edo de Waart as music director upon the departure of Andreas Delfs and scored another coup in replacing semi-retired Doc Severinsen with Marvin Hamlisch as principal Pops conductor. Concert attendance has been strong through trying times, and the orchestra has played at a very high level.

Hanson and his wife, Christina, both have ties to Houston. He had an internship at the HSO at the start of his career, and she attended the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University.

“Still, this was a very difficult decision,” Hanson said, in an interview Friday afternoon. “The MSO is well-positioned to achieve some great things under Edo de Waart and (board chair) Chris Abele. It’s bittersweet to pass it along to someone else.”

Hanson said that the HSO, like most orchestras in this economic climate, has its issues. Last summer, Houston staff was furloughed, the staff conductors took a cut, and the musicians opened their contract and gave back $550,000.

But Hanson sees great opportunity in the Houston market.

“It is a market of many and diverse professionals, who come from all over the world,” he said. “The challenge is to engage and excite them. It will be possible to grow revenue.”

Hanson said that the move came up relatively recently. VanBesien left Houston, for the Melbourne (Australia) Symphony, in December.

“I’ve been talking to Chris Abele about this for a couple of weeks,” Hanson said.

He added that Abele is forming a search committee and would likely appoint an interim executive. Hanson said that he is playing no part in that process.

“I have every confidence in Edo and Chris and the staff,” Hanson said. “This is the strongest staff we’ve had and the strongest board. It will take all of those people and our partners in the community to make sure that we can earn the revenue required to cover the inherent costs of having a great orchestra.”

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