Tom Strini
This Week at the MSO

The new exec, and Germanfest in January

By - Jan 19th, 2011 03:34 pm
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Maryellen Gleason, the MSO’s new CEO/president.

Maryellen Gleason became the Milwaukee Symphony’s president and CEO on Jan. 4. She was no doubt pondering the MSO’s fiscal 2010 operating deficit of $2.3 million since before it was announced in November, while she was still president/CEO of the Phoenix Symphony.

On Jan. 13, she squeezed in an interview between morning duties and attending to the needs of guest artist Itzhak Perlman at the Marcus Center in the afternoon. Of course I asked about that $2.3 million. Is it as startling as it appears? Not as bad? Worse?

Of course she was circumspect.

“It’s too soon to tell,” she said. “But I wouldn’t have come if I didn’t think it’s resolvable. It’s definitely a challenge, but I’m impressed by the number of people here who are passionate about music and have the capability of investing in our artistic product. I’ve been meeting and greeting in a very purposeful way, asking people what the MSO means to them and what it should be. Right away, they say: ‘It shouldn’t be less.'”

During a labor dispute with the musicians many years ago, management floated the idea of reducing the orchestra, perhaps to chamber scale or to pick-up players with a core of full-time principals. Some very respectable orchestras, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, for example, work that way. That’s what Gleason meant by “less.” Milwaukee’s donors rejected that then and apparently feel that way still.

Gleason, 51, had spent the bulk of her first nine days (“I do have a 100-day plan,” she said) getting to know the orchestra’s board members and inner circle of donors. Most of the deficit can be attributed to recession-driven declines in contributions. By Gleason’s account and Don Tyler’s — he was the board member who served as interim exec since Mark Hanson left for Houston last spring — those donors still love the MSO and are willing to contribute. But not right now.

“All performing arts organizations are having some trouble,” Gleason said. “Philanthropy is still discretionary income.”

The MSO is on the way to completing two very good years at the box office, but the 25% earned-income rate concerns Gleason. She thinks she can find more ways for the MSO to earn a buck.

“Twenty-five percent, that’s low,” she said. “The more you earn, the less you have to raise. In Phoenix, we raised earned income to 49% of the budget.”

Note that the MSO’s budget is about $16.5 million; Phoenix is about $10 million.

“We had a lot of fee engagements, and we added some different kinds of programs,” she said. “I don’t know how germane that will be in Milwaukee, but I’ve done this before. I don’t know what the answer is yet, but I like that part — I like solving the puzzle.”

Gleason had broad management experience in business, mostly as an executive at GTE and Qwest Communications in the southwest, but says her main areas are sales and marketing.  She got into the orchestra game when a search firm approached her about the open PSO job in 1991. (Her husband, Kim Robert Ohlemeyer, long time principal trombonist in that orchestra, will leave his post at the end of the season and join Gleason in Milwaukee, along with their two teen-aged sons.) She went for it and hasn’t looked back.

“I play the viola for fun,” she said. “This job allows me to combine the two things I love most, business and music.”

Gleason exudes energy; she’s lively and direct, in sharp contrast to the courtly, wry Hanson.

“When we’re setting up meetings,” Gleason said, “the first thing they want to know is, ‘Are you going to ask me for money?’ I say, of course I am! The message should be clear. Everyone plays a role in maintaining music at this level for the community. People understand the stewardship. They don’t mind that I ask. They expect it.”


This weekend (Jan. 21-22), the MSO opens the first of German Festival programs over seven concerts extending through Feb. 5.

Cynics might ask, “And how does that differ from any other three weeks of any symphony orchestra?”

Germans do, perhaps, hold an extra large slice of the orchestral pie, but for some pretty good reasons. The idea of the symphony orchestra as an essential public service institution was hatched in Mannheim and spread through Europe from there. The pioneering early symphonists were all German or Austrian, and the German Romantics played the lead role in expanding the orchestra into the familiar format of strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion we know today. Also, the Germans invented music history as an academic study, and they got to decide on the pantheon.

So perhaps it’s not such a bad idea to focus explicitly on Germans and contemplate their impact on the orchestra for a few weeks. Music director Edo de Waart will conduct all programs, and he’s focused on composers who were born north in what is now modern Germany.  All programs are part of the MSO’s regular subscription series at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall.

Here is the rundown:

Pianist Ronald Brautigam.

8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 21-22: Brahms – Variations on a Theme by Haydn; Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor; Strauss – Ein Heldenleben; with pianist Ronald Brautigam.
8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 28-30: Brahms – Academic Festival Overture; Schumann – Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major; Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major (“Emperor”); with pianist Garrick Ohlssohn.
8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 4-5: Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major; Wagner – Die Walküre, Act 1; with Emanuel Ax, piano; Margaret Jane Wray, soprano; Clifton Forbis, tenor; and Andrea Silvestrelli, bass.

Tickets are $25-$95, except for the Sunday, Jan. 30 concert, which is $25-$79. Visit the MSO website; call the MSO ticket line, 414-291-7605; or call or visit the Marcus Center box office, 414-723-7206.

Note that Emmanuel Ax, a major international figure in music, will appear at a Lynn Chappy Salon series event at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 3, hosted by Jennifer and Joseph Tate. Hors d’oeuvres will be served. Tickets are $100 per person.

Categories: Classical

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