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Arts & Entertainment

Is Fort Worth’s Classical Music Scene On The Mend?

Things looked ugly just a few months ago, and it's not out of the woods yet.

There are few cities any lover of classical music would rather be in this May than Fort Worth. As the month kicks off, the Fort Worth Opera rounds up its festival season with a performance of Bizet’s Carmen, the “mariachi opera” Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, and the world premiere of Matthew Peterson’s Voir Dire. On May 3 and 4, the Opera will debut excerpts from an additional eight new works as part of its renowned Frontiers program, which has helped boost its international reputation as an incubator of fresh talent. As if that wasn’t enough, later in the month, the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition begins at Bass Performance Hall, with 30 of the best pianists in the world competing for the career-making prize. The Cliburn will also include performances by the Brentano String Quartet, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, and guest conductors Leonard Slatkin and Nicholas McGegan.

Fort Worth’s classical music star shines so brightly this May that it is easy to forget that just a few short months ago the situation in Cowtown looked exceptionally grim. Last year, facing a budget shortfall, the Fort Worth Symphony board attempted to cut musician salaries, which led to a strike. By late 2016, the Fort Worth Symphony hadn’t played a concert in months, and its community partners, like Texas Ballet Theater, were also left without an orchestra. As the ballet danced The Nutcracker in Bass Performance Hall to a prerecorded soundtrack, a resolution was finally reached between the symphony board and musicians, but only after an anonymous donor stepped in with a $700,000 gift to cover the shortfall.

Then, in February, Fort Worth shocked the classical music world again when the Fort Worth Opera’s board fired its longtime general director, Darren Woods. In his 16 years with the organization, Woods’ name had become synonymous with the company, moving the Opera to a festival format, boosting attendance, and building a reputation for nurturing young singers and debuting bold new work. Perhaps his crowning moment came in 2016, with the acclaimed world premiere of David Little’s JFK. And when the ambitious production left the Opera with a million-dollar budget shortfall, Woods led a successful summer fundraising campaign that brought the organization back in the black.

An article by opera columnist Speight Jenkins about Woods’ firing—titled “What’s Going on in Opera?”—captured the confusion.

“To have gone through the recession with balanced budgets while producing unusual contemporary operas is not only impressive, it’s astonishing,” Jenkins wrote. “This kind of firing has in my more than 50 years in opera only happened for very questionable financial actions or some other really serious problem. Did the board have the right to do it? Of course, but does this make any sense?”

And yet, the move made all too much sense when taking into account the seismic changes that the entirety of the U.S. classical music world is undergoing. In the past decade, labor disputes have led to symphony strikes or lockouts in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Atlanta, and Chicago. The Miami, Honolulu, and Albuquerque symphonies have folded altogether. The New York City Opera went under in 2013, and the San Diego Opera almost followed suit in 2014. Both The Dallas Opera and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra have faced their own budget woes in recent years. The Dallas Opera righted its ship, in part, by slimming its production schedule, and the symphony was saved, like Fort Worth, by its deep-pocketed donors.

It’s that increased reliance on philanthropic generosity that led the New York Times to declare that symphonies were no longer businesses but charities. Indeed, the financial model that has long sustained symphonies and opera companies in American cities large and small has eroded substantially. Ticket sales have never floated the expensive art form of classical music, but in recent years, organizations have become increasingly reliant on contributions over earned revenue. In 2014, a report by the League of American Orchestras found that, on average, for every dollar that comes into a symphony, 43 cents come from contributions, while only 40 cents come from tickets sales, hall rentals, parking, and other sources of income.

That shift is part of a broader story of how audience habits and philanthropic attitudes have shifted around the performing arts, says Amy Adkins, president and CEO of the Fort Worth Symphony. Classical music organizations could once rely on a mix of season subscribers, government grants, and corporate donations to balance the budget. Now all three sources of income have changed. Fewer audience members buy into the season subscription model, and so classical music organizations are forced to spend more on marketing. Government support for the arts is harder to come by, and many corporations have changed their attitudes toward arts philanthropy. And even though North Texas is home to 20 Fortune 500 companies, Adkins says it is more difficult for Fort Worth arts organizations to raise funds.

“Corporate donations do not cross county lines at all,” Adkins says. “Our corporate world is so much different here. Many have merged or have been acquired by international companies—it was the biggest part of what caused a hiccup in the last couple of years.”

To respond, classical music organizations have had to expand their reach, both in terms of attracting new audience members and new individual donors. It is now common for symphonies to perform programs that were once anathema to classical music purists, performances with accompanying pop stars or with music from video games. But as Adkins points out, programs like the Fort Worth Symphony’s recent concert featuring music from The Legend of Zelda series of Nintendo games sell out with virtually no marketing.

“People talk about business models a lot, but it is really about making sure you are as diversified as possible,” Adkins says. “That means a programming balance first of all.”

The increasing demands placed on the leaders of classical music organizations to raise funds and build audiences are part of the equation that led to the Fort Worth Opera board’s decision to part ways with Darren Woods, says opera board chairman Mike Martinez. Ironically, Martinez says that Woods’ success in building the Opera’s brand and reputation was what led the board to decide that it needed a new director with more fundraising experience.

“When Darren came in 16 years ago, we were a small, local, regional company, even though we are the longest-running opera company in the state of Texas,” Martinez says. “When we came out of JFK last year, we looked at where we were as company: we had received international coverage, international partnerships. We looked at our finances and the economic end of where we were and realized that we needed to start thinking about our long-term future and sustainability.”

The situation with Woods points to the odd situation in which many classical music organizations find themselves. Fort Worth’s classical organizations are reaching more people than ever. Of the 200 concerts the Fort Worth Symphony performs each year, only 80 are in Bass Performance Hall, and the rest are in the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, churches, schools, and smaller towns and communities around Texas. The Fort Worth Opera has grown to the point that it attracts opera lovers from all over the world who want to experience the unique and challenging new works it is now known for producing. This year, the Cliburn will be simulcast in movie theaters around the country and watched online by fans around the world.

And yet, the fundamental challenges remain: the changing audience habits, the continual need to evolve programming, the never-ending grind of having to raise more money. Adkins knows that things will not get any easier, but she adds that the experience of the last year has helped the entire city of Fort Worth realize why it values its big, expensive arts organizations like the symphony.

“It is the silver lining behind a difficult period,” she says. “What we are seeing is people who were giving moderate gifts are now giving $1,000 to $5,000 without any history of having done that. We are seeing folks who haven’t given in 10 years begin to contribute again. It awakened the community to the idea of the symphony not being there.”

Dan Sigale, a Fort Worth Symphony violist and chairman of the Musicians’ Negotiating Committee, says the outpouring of community support, the sold-out concerts after the strike, and the energy he can feel from the audiences since they began performing again have all demonstrated how important the symphony is to Fort Worth. The musicians are now actively supporting a $3 million challenge campaign that was seeded with a $1.5 million pledged donation from the Amon G. Carter Foundation.

“The important thing to realize is symphonies have been around for 150 years or so, and there has been talk about the death of classical music for many, many years,” Sigale says. “There has always been a need to find a balance between ticket sales and private and corporate donations—this isn’t a new situation that we are in now. I think that the musicians stated from the beginning that there is money in Fort Worth, and Fort Worth is growing, and a city like Fort Worth that is showing growth should also have an orchestra that is growing along with it.”