Tom Strini
This Week at the MSO

Balanced budget, Beethoven, new season

By - Sep 22nd, 2011 06:42 pm

Bust of Beethoven, from a death mask by Hagen. Public domain photo via Wikipedia Commons.

The Milwaukee Symphony, against all incredible odds, balanced its 2010-11 budget – $16.6 million in, $16.6 million out.

It wasn’t easy. When I spoke with CEO/president Maryellen Gleason in January, she was facing a $2.3 million shortfall. A challenge grant of $250,000 from the Argosy Foundation led to a total of $565,000 in late contributions. Mr. and Mrs. William D. Van Dyke pledged $1,000,000 if the MSO could get within that amount of a balanced budget through other means. The orchestra did, and the Van Dykes capped off the effort on Aug. 31, the last day of the fiscal year.

Contributions for the operating budget — the hardest sort of money to raise, aside from debt reduction — totaled $8,074,972, the most the MSO has ever raised. The orchestra even managed to pay down its short-term line of credit, from about $6.8 million to $6.1 million.

That’s great news, especially since almost all of it came as cash, not pledges. But the MSO is far from in the clear. The orchestra cannot conduct a heroic emergency fund drive every spring.


Without this stuff, the music stops.

“The community rallied for us,” said Douglas Hagerman, chair of the MSO’s board of directors. “But in the big picture, the balance sheet is not a strength. We have to balance our budget year after year and rebuild that balance sheet. So much came in at the last minute. That’s no way to live. Our principal challenge for 2012 is to make this repeatable and not lurch from year to year.”

Gleason, in a joint interview, said “Our aim is to convert these generous gifts to multi-year. We think we can attain a higher level of support from corporations and all our community stakeholders. We had to balance this year to establish credibility. True sustainability will require larger cash reserves and a bigger endowment. Our endowment, of $25 million, is the lowest of the top-tier orchestras.”

Even in this tough economy, the orchestra has some pluses. Music director Edo de Waart is contracted through 2017. Two years remain on the musicians’ contract. The orchestra is playing extremely well, and ticket sales are strong.

Hagerman and Gleason hope to address what they see as a chronic problem: Prime-time access to Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. The MSO can’t get in during the lucrative holiday time, when the Milwaukee Ballet stages The Nutcracker. And the center’s own series, with dates subject to availability of touring musicals and other attractions, means date-shuffling, one-year lease agreements and scheduling difficulty for the orchestra.

Gleason sympathizes with the management of the Marcus Center, a Milwaukee County facility that has been pressed hard, like any other county service. But she still thinks that they can work out at least a longer-term lease advantageous to both parties.

In any case, Hagerman and Gleason also hope to turn that limited access to the MSO’s advantage by playing more elsewhere and raising the orchestra’s profile in the community.

“It’s important for us to have greater community engagement,” Hagerman said. “We need to bring different repertoire to different venues. We need to be at ethnic, religious and civic events and play role in the lives of people who might not even be aware of the MSO.”

“We need to experiment and be entrepreneurial,” Gleason said. “Fortunately, we have a high degree of collaboration and flexibility from our orchestra.”

All of this folds into a longer-range plan, forged by a task force this summer, to address community engagement, patron development, board leadership and fiscal responsibility. This isn’t the MSO’s first such plan, and we’ll see how it turns out. But it’s good to know that they do have a plan.

The 2011-12 season opens at 8 p.m. Friday. Music director Edo de Waart will lead a Beethoven program comprising the Symphony No. 1, Classical in form but boisterous and disruptive in content; Symphony No. 5, the revolutionary work widely regarded as the starting gun of the Romantic age in music; and the Grosse Fugue, a very late work that caused some of Beethoven’s contemporaries to doubt the composer’s sanity.

Beethoven wrote the 16-minute Grosse Fugue as the finale of the String Quartet Op. 130. Pretty much everyone hated it. At his publisher’s urging, Beethoven composed a new concluding movement for the quartet and published the fugue as a stand-alone piece. This fantastical double fugue, shot through with startling dissonance, is a sprawling hybrid of fugal procedures and free development. Beethoven jumps in and out of contrapuntal textures at will. Even now, with Modernism behind us, the Grosse Fugue is a little shocking and hard to get your head around. Maybe this nifty animation will help:


The opening weekend concerts are set for 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 25, at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. Tickets are $22-$99 at the orchestra’s website, the MSO ticket line (414 291-7605) and the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206.




0 thoughts on “This Week at the MSO: Balanced budget, Beethoven, new season”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Two wishes, one ongoing, the other long-term (especially in this economy):

    1) More marquee guest artists. Look at the lineups at other, similar orchestras, and you’ll see a huge disparity in who is coming to Milwaukee this season and who is coming to, say, Portland or Montreal. Has the MSO really become a third-tier ensemble?

    2) A Milwaukee Symphony Hall!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Loved the animation! Where did it come from?

  3. Anonymous says:

    Hi Barb,
    Just fished around until I found it on youTube. If you view the animation at YouTube, you’ll see that this guy has made a number of them. Apparently, this sort of animation software is readily available.– Tom

  4. Anonymous says:

    MSO is not a third-tier ensemble. I mean, just hear them. But they have decided to use their scarce resources on the orchestra itself. They have at least five world-class soloists in their own ranks, and I very much like the policy of signing them on as soloists as often as feasible. They also have had some very good luck with young up-and-comers as opposed to expensive big names. All that being said, the MSO has still managed to bring in at least a big name or two each year.– Strini

  5. Anonymous says:

    Don’t mistake the fame of the guest artists for the quality of the music-making.
    You don’t need to spend a fortune on a famous soloist to get outstanding music.
    And don’t forget that we’ve already got a top of the line conductor.
    Note: I’m not just being provincial — I’ve lived in many big cities with more famous orchestras than the MSO, but the MSO’s artistic quality is right up there with them all, even surpassing some of them. Milwaukee may be a third tier city, but its orchestras are a bright spot.

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