Like the rest of us, Present Music trimmed its budget to wait out the recession.
PM made do with a half-time marketing director for two years. They kept commissioning projects — the reason for being for this new-music ensemble — but modestly. In 2009-10, Present Music paid out just $10,000 in commissions, to composers Alexandra du Bois and Caroline Mallonee. That’s peanuts for this group, which has commissioned as many as 11 pieces in a single season.
But it worked. Present Music is coming out of the recession with no debt.
“We’re coming out of this season with a surplus,” said managing director Eric Lind, “because of hard work and scrimping.”
As the recession appears to be coming to a close, Present Music’s dedicated followers and granting organizations appear to be in more generous moods. Lind and artistic director Kevin Stalheim are becoming cautiously more ambitious. PM has commissioned Jerome Kitzke‘s Buffalo Nation, a $50,000 extravaganza on Native American themes, for next season. They’s hired Laura Russart, formerly a marketing project manager at the Skylight Opera Theatre, as full-time marketing director.
“Laura is very solid,” Stalheim said. “I can tell by the results. She came on later in the season, and the last two concerts were very well attended. That’s a sign of her potential.”
Stalheim, who founded Present Music 29 years ago, believes Russart will help in two ways: First by boosting ticket sales and second by freeing Lind to focus more on fund-raising. Donors have already covered Kitzke’s commission.
“We have more donors now than we had pre-recession, in 2007-2008,” Lind said. “The average donation is lower, but we have more donors.”
Lind saw widespread passion for Present Music in that and capitalized on it this spring, by launching a long-term commissioning fund to allow PM to bring new music into the world during good times and bad. The drive, aimed at small donations from the audience, yielded $25,000. He hopes to build it to $100,000.
Lind and Stalheim think of the group’s budget, which usually in the neighborhood of $500,000, as partitioned between a core operating budget and a capital budget that funds music rather than, say, a building.
That has something to do with PM’s income ratios, which at 80% donated and 20% earned are out of whack even in the kindness-of-strangers world of non-profit arts. But that ration might be misleading. It’s not too much of a leap to think of commissioning grants and gifts as a payment for a product or service — the purchase of a new piece of music — and thus as earned income. Musicians, after all, work hard for a living.
Present Music attracts about 200 subscribers and a total audience of about 3,000 for its six annual concerts. Average attendance of 500 is phenomenal in the rarefied new-music world, but Stalheim sees growth potential. He believes a smarter, more energetic and sustained marketing push can boost those numbers.
Present Music’s long association with certain composers, such as Kamran Ince, have created fans for them here. But mostly, Present Music’s audience shows up to see what crazy things Stalheim has found or commissioned. The appeal here is not repetition of the tried and true, but the suspense of finding out what might happen next. Stalheim’s varied and surprising repertoire, almost all of it by living composers, keeps them coming back.
Some years, he’s had themes. In 2009-2010, for example, Stalheim got interested in conservatory trained types with double lives in club music. What’s the theme for 2010-11?
“None,” he said. “Zero.”
OK then. Here it is:
8 p.m. Sept. 8, Turner Hall: The featured item is pianist Phillip Bush performing Ligeti’s Piano Concerto. Shockingly, this might be the last we hear from Bush, Present Music’s long-time go-to pianist. He has announced his intention to retire from music and take a day job. According to Stalheim, Bush wants to quit touring and spend more time with his wife and their young child at home in South Carolina. Also on the program: Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra, by Gabriel Prokofiev. (Yes, he’s the grandson of that other Prokofiev.)
4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 21, Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist: Repertoire is to be announced for this Thanksgiving Concert, a Present Music holiday tradition. The organ, the Native American drumming and singing and the Friendship Dance will be part of it, as always.
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 8, Turner Hall: Featured guest artist is Margaret Leng Tan (Queen of the Toy Piano). She’ll play Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! by Ge Gan Ru and Eric Griswold’s Old MacDonald’s Yellow Submarine. John Adams’ nearly new String Quartet is also in the mix.
7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 19, Humphrey Scottish Rite Masonic Center: Iva Bittova, a one-of-a-kind Czech fiddler and singer, will be featured. Also: Steve Reich’s nearly new Sextet.
4:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 7, Indian Community School, 10405 W. St. Martins Road, Franklin: The premiere of Jerome Kitzke’s Buffalo Nation, with a libretto by Kathleen Masterson.
“Kitzke’s out in South Dakota right now, doing research,” Stalheim said. “It’s a big, evening-length piece with actors and dancers and a community sound-effects chorus. He’s adamant about it not being just a Native American piece. It’s about ecology, psychology, all kinds of things. It will happen in an amazing building surrounded by woods and prairie.”
Subscriptions range from $65 for a pick-four to $160 for premium seats at all six concerts. To subscribe and for details, call 414-271-0711.