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The Fort Worth Symphony's classical comeback

Posted 6:38am on Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012

In 1912, a ragtag orchestra of 32 musicians made its debut in a Fort Worth church. Many of the assembled players had been culled from the saloons and theaters of Hell's Half Acre, the still-thriving district of ill repute in what was then a dusty prairie town.

A century later, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra has 65 full-time and eight part-time members -- musicians from 17 countries and five continents, many of them graduates of the world's finest music schools and conservatories. Since it opened in 1998, the majestic Bass Hall downtown has been the symphony's permanent home. Its conductor is the dashing, talented and internationally sought-after Miguel Harth-Bedoya.

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On a winter night in 2008, Harth-Bedoya's orchestra made a triumphant debut at Carnegie Hall, earning thunderous ovations from a near-sellout crowd and rave reviews from New York critics. After nearly a century, the FWSO was being mentioned among the top tier of American orchestras, such as those in New York, Boston, Chicago and Cleveland.

And, at home, it was being held up as the crown jewel of a thriving local arts community, an example to other arts groups both artistically and financially.

But today, as the company commemorates its centennial, the FWSO's artistic dreams are often overshadowed by less romantic matters -- filling seats, wiping away deficits and fighting for relevance in an ever-shifting marketplace.

The same year that began with Carnegie Hall magic ended with a historic economic downturn, touching off the most trying four years in the FWSO's modern era. The symphony lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue, virtually overnight. That led to bitter labor negotiations in 2010, which ended when musicians reluctantly agreed to a whopping 13 percent pay cut.

Longtime FWSO President Ann Koonsman, who retired last year, admits that nobody saw it coming.

"I think Carnegie Hall made us feel ... bulletproof," she said. "But the reality is, we were all vulnerable to the economic downturn."

Sitting across the table from musicians in the 2010 negotiations, she said, she began to fear for the FWSO's future.

"Well, you know, there were those deep, dark moments when fear would take over and eyes get big and you hear bumps in the dark and you think, 'Oh, gosh. We're ruined. We'll never pull through,'" Koonsman said recently. "But, in reality, this orchestra has been going for a hundred years. We'll have our ups and we'll have our downs. But because we're timeless in what we offer, I think we'll never be obsolete."

In 2011, Amy Adkins succeeded Koonsman. In the symphony offices recently, she chuckled when asked to describe her tenure so far.

"Stressful, challenging, rewarding, exhilarating, painful."

Today, the company still operates slightly in the red, but the worst seems over, at least for now. Over the summer, musicians quietly agreed to another contract that did not call for further pay cuts. By most accounts, no matter the level of strife offstage, the quality of the music never suffered. But after the difficult years, stresses clearly linger among musicians and management both.

"In retrospect, we all feel like we've lost some momentum that we had from Carnegie Hall," said veteran horn player Sterling Proctor, who was part of the difficult labor negotiations of the past two years.

"We didn't know how to ride that wave and take advantage of that. We're still optimistic. Yes, things are blunted, but that doesn't mean you can't water the stone, whet the knife and sharpen it back up."

Struggle, then optimism

It is some consolation that the FWSO appears to have negotiated the hard times more successfully than many of its national brethren.

The list is long and growing of major American orchestras -- Atlanta, Philadelphia, Indianapolis and Minnesota among them -- that have suffered strikes, lockouts or other forms of financial crisis. The 2008 downturn is largely to blame. The stock market crash gutted endowments and often prompted major donors to back off on their giving.

But American orchestras are also bucking cultural trends that have cut deeply into classical music audiences.

No longer is there a piano in nearly every American home. It has been generations since families gathered around the radio to listen to symphony music or the opera. When public school districts sought to slash their budgets, funds for music education and student orchestras were often the first to go.

"There has been a tremendous shift in cultural tastes and behavior, and exposure to this art form has diminished tremendously," said Judith Kurnick, a vice president with the League of American Orchestras. "The really big issue is, How do orchestras fit in 21st-century America?

"If you look at it from a larger perspective, managers and boards and unions need to figure out how to work together for that future. Unfortunately, this is a process that doesn't always happen."

For all the recent pain, that does not seem to be the case in Fort Worth. Last year, the FWSO brought in consultants, led by arts management guru Michael Kaiser, for a thorough analysis of symphony operations.

Kaiser's group eventually came up with a list of specific recommendations, such as bringing in more big-name guest artists to help raise the symphony's profile and doing a better job of marketing the charismatic Harth-Bedoya.

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But the overall message of Kaiser, the head of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., seemed to be that there is no room in this cultural environment for management and musicians to take sides.

"He came in and energized our board and our musicians," Adkins said. "We sat down and talked about our issues and we did it in a very candid way. We said, 'We're not going to be defensive.' I heard a lot of things that hurt my feelings plenty, and I'm sure it was the other way around.

"But that was so important to us to have it all on the table and come up with solutions together."

That is one reason the symphony can often be found playing in elementary school gymnasiums. Or why musicians are in the Bass Hall lobby, mingling with patrons before concerts. Or why Harth-Bedoya has taken it upon himself to try to introduce symphony music to those who have never heard it, offering free tickets, person by person.

After four years of struggle, a sense of cautious optimism is emerging.

Much of that springs not only from the symphony's efforts but also from the unique nature of Fort Worth itself, a small city with an unusual abundance of culture -- art museums, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, its own ballet and opera companies, the performance hall and a top-flight symphony.

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"To me, it's like an oasis," said Veda Kaplinsky, head of the piano department at the Juilliard School in New York. "It's very different in character than any other city I know in Texas, including Dallas and Houston. People in Fort Worth have a tremendous amount of local pride. Culture is very important to them, and they work to promote that culture.

"People talk about the orchestras in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Cleveland -- the size of those cities and the pool of fundraising they can draw from, and the size of audiences they draw. Then think about the size of Fort Worth and its proximity to Dallas, which also has an orchestra. What Fort Worth has been able to achieve has been remarkable."

'Welcome to your new home'

In 1972, a young music professor from North Texas State University was hired as the FWSO's new conductor. John Giordano would become the father of the modern symphony and, by the time he retired in 2000, a Fort Worth institution himself.

He inherited an orchestra that played six or eight concerts a year, had an annual budget of $80,000 and employed no full-time musicians. Within a few years, Giordano had hired 35 players for a small ensemble, or chamber orchestra, that quickly established a national reputation for excellence.

The FWSO became a fixture in smaller communities, playing everywhere from Killeen to Ozona, and, in 1983, it undertook a wildly successful trip to China that generated international headlines.

Soon after his arrival in Fort Worth, Giordano also became close friends with Ed Bass, part of the local family of billionaires. For the next two decades, Giordano would bend the ear of Bass, his parents and brothers, or anyone who would listen.

His message: The symphony desperately needed a better place to perform.

At the time, the FWSO's home was the Tarrant County Convention Center Theater, whose acoustics could best be described as abysmal.

"The other place was so bad, we could not play pianissimo," Giordano remembered. "The sound of the air conditioning and the heating was so loud, I mean it was audible. How could you play softly? Even onstage, the people in the back of the first violin section couldn't hear the people in the front."

Most now agree that Giordano's lobbying and influence were crucial to the creation of Bass Hall, acclaimed as one of the finest venues of its kind in the world. Small wonder that the conductor and his musicians remember the first notes they played in their first rehearsal in the new palace.

"He [Giordano] had crusaded for more than 20 years, and he was a little uptight that day," said longtime keyboardist Shields-Collins Bray. "But I remember it very well. He said to us, 'Welcome to your new home.' We were all sort of open-mouthed, looking out at the hall and what a beautiful thing it was."

Then, they lifted their instruments.

"All of a sudden there was a bloom on the strings," Giordano remembered. "Everybody could hear everybody else. All of a sudden, my goodness, we had an orchestra. I'm not really exaggerating. I've always said that the first day anybody has heard the Fort Worth Symphony was the first concert we did in Bass Hall."

The hall's 1998 opening marked the beginning of a golden decade for the FWSO. After Giordano's retirement, the symphony hired young Harth-Bedoya. A Peru native and Juilliard graduate, Harth-Bedoya was a conductor of undeniable star quality.

While continuing to work as a sought-after guest conductor around the world, he also committed to raising his young family in Fort Worth.

By most accounts, the chemistry between Harth-Bedoya and his new orchestra was instantaneous. Harth-Bedoya's mandate also included expanding the FWSO, and for each new position, he could choose from hundreds of applicants, many from the finest music schools around the globe. By the mid-2000s, the ensemble had reached its full complement of 65 full-time players.

Among the newcomers was Michael Shih, the first violinist, or concertmaster.

"When I first came here, it was only Miguel's second year," said Shih, another Juilliard alum. "We were getting better and better, not just from season to season but from concert to concert. There was a lot of buzz about the whole institution."

That led to the January night in 2008. Hundreds of supporters made the trip from Texas for the FWSO's Carnegie Hall debut, but the visitors made up just a fraction of the crowd in the nearly sold-out hall.

On the program were Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony and the world premiere of a piece for cello. By the final note, the musicians knew they had delivered one of their finest performances, and the crowd reaction was overwhelming.

"We even played an encore," Harth-Bedoya said. "People kept applauding. They didn't leave. Most of the time in New York, as soon as the concert is over, people are running to get to their cars or the subway. ... It was the equivalent of our Olympics, because it only happens once."

A New York Times review of the performance ran beneath the headline "Texas Ensemble Plants Flag in New York."

"The Tchaikovsky was first rate," Times critic Anthony Tommasini wrote. "The concert was a milestone for the orchestra. Yet what Mr. Harth-Bedoya and his players are accomplishing at home matters a lot more."

Some Fort Worth musicians can still recite parts of that review, word for word.

Then the world changed.

'We want to be musicians'

Through it all, Koonsman said, she tried to keep the musicians informed about the repeated body blows inflicted on the FWSO, beginning in 2008.

The symphony lost $360,000 when Texas Ballet Theater canceled its contract and opted to use recorded music. The FWSO endowment was decimated by the stock market crash. Funding from the city was cut by $150,000. Bass Hall rent spiked. Support from major donors and foundations declined.

Nonetheless, Koonsman said, the musicians were shocked in 2010 when the FWSO proposed slashing their pay from 52 weeks a year to 42.

"There was no way they could have been shocked," Koonsman said. "We had so many opportunities to share our situation with them. But you know how we all deny what we don't want to hear. I think we were in a state of denial.

"They had an artistic triumph. They went out and delivered, and they had acclaim from the music industry that they were as good as any orchestra," Koonsman continued. "But that doesn't pay the bills."

Proctor, part of the musicians' negotiating team, said he had expected artistic momentum to trump economic struggles. Musicians wondered whether management exaggerated the depth of the crisis and why donors with deep pockets could not step into the breach.

"Since Bass Hall was built, and since Miguel Harth-Bedoya was brought in, there had been a lot of big changes in the orchestra, an influx of money and support and enthusiasm," Proctor said. "Everyone was stunned and everyone was in sort of a shock."

Koonsman made it clear that the major donors were about tapped out. The negotiations went on for months and took a noticeable toll on the symphony president, who joined the FWSO in 1980. Koonsman's name, like Giordano's, had over the years become synonymous with the orchestra.

"It was incredibly difficult for me, you're right," she said.

"I had been on the ground floor of building it to what it had become. But we also had to be prudent. ... [Negotiations] went on and on through the whole summer and early fall, countless meetings, exhausting meetings. There was a lot of frustration on both sides. Everybody found a trench and hid in it before we finally had to say, 'This is it.'"

The final management offer was 45 weeks of pay. The musicians reluctantly agreed.

"That was very painful in the short run," said Bray, the keyboardist. "Then, we look around and we see the experience of other places, where they are having these huge struggles right now, all these places that actually stopped working. That didn't happen here.

"Mostly what it speaks to is: What the hell else are we going to do?" he said. "We want to be musicians, so it's not as if there are a lot of other options."

'This is really cool'

When arts adviser Michael Kaiser arrived from Washington in 2011, he convened a meeting of FWSO musicians, management and board members to deliver a blunt message.

"He said, 'In this room, for this process, everyone is equal. Everyone has a voice,'" Proctor remembered. "You could tell that there were some people who were thinking, 'Well, we're supposed to be in charge.'

"But he was very frank and he was very quick to point out that people don't like him but they like his results."

Kaiser's greatest contribution might have been his role in restoring common purpose among management, board members and musicians, all of whom felt battered by the fiscal crisis and contract talks.

"The biggest single positive contribution that it made was healing," Adkins said.

So, as the FWSO begins its second century, there is some residual weariness and worry, but a spirit of collaborative energy also seems to permeate the institution.

Symphony management tackles its challenges with an unusual degree of transparency.

In a series of recent interviews, Adkins often answered the toughest questions before they were asked. Kaiser's blunt critique was posted for all to see on the FWSO website. (You can read it here.)

For their part, FWSO musicians are everywhere. Of their 200 concerts a year, most take place at locations other than Bass Hall -- in school gymnasiums or churches, where the players reach out to new audiences.

To be sure, this is not your grandfather's symphony. For instance, the FWSO has played live accompaniment to a screening of The Wizard of Oz and for a video game on the big screen.

More traditionally, there are no plans for a return to Carnegie Hall, for a European tour or for new recordings.

Ambitions for broader artistic recognition have been put on hold.

Management and musicians have instead joined forces in a fight closer to home, a battle for their art. They evangelize for the timelessness of classical music, arguing that it is not just the province of vanishing generations or the cultural elite.

"It's just getting them to darken the door for the first time," Adkins said of finding a new audience. "We're working on that from multiple angles. For first-time goers, it can be a little intimidating. They don't know what to wear. They're not sure how to act. They think, 'I don't know anything about classical music.' Once you dispel that, it's going to be easier to move on to that next step.

"They're going to be hooked," she said. "That's what we've found. I think that it is a transcendent experience in that great hall."

Or in the crowded cafeteria of an elementary school in south Fort Worth. On a recent day, five members of the FWSO horn section visited Clarke Elementary, and 4-year-old Cruz Huichapan Morales happily played air trombone through most of the hourlong program.

"I want one of those," the boy said afterward.

A few weeks later, in a slightly more regal setting, J.D. and Amanda Via sipped drinks during a Bass Hall intermission.

They had just listened to young violinist Karen Gomyo perform a Beethoven concerto with the symphony.

They were enthralled by the visual intensity of symphonic music, by the spectacle of so many players, working in unison onstage.

That night, J.D. was dressed in jeans and boots, a country-Western guy who had never been to a classical concert.

"It's no Metallica," he joked. "But this is really cool. I'd definitely come back."

As the FWSO enters its second century, that endorsement probably means more than a rave review in The New York Times.

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