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RPO swings focus to future

Rochester Business Journal
December 21, 2012

See correction below

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra Inc. is moving forward with plans for programming in the upcoming season, even as the uncertainty over who will be its next music director casts a pall over the process.
The end of the calendar year is the traditional time when the orchestra sets programming for the next season, RPO officials noted. This year, however, negotiations with ousted Music Director Arild Remmereit have complicated the process.
The RPO board voted in late November to terminate Remmereit's contract at the end of the fiscal year in August 2013. Though orchestra officials would not give details of the negotiations, orchestra representatives have been meeting with Remmereit's lawyers to determine how the remainder of the fiscal year will play out.
Time is important in planning next season's programming and in the search for the next director, said Craig Sutherland, the orchestra's principal tuba player and a member of its artistic advisory committee.
"We're actually just now taking nominations for the music director search committee to find members who will work with the board and staff in conducting a search," Sutherland said. "It's a bit tricky, and we want to get it together as quickly as possible because a lot of the conductors we might be interested in bringing in are booked two years or so in advance."
The search process also will depend largely on which conductors the RPO will be able to bring in during the coming season, he said. The orchestra traditionally has used guest conductor slots as a type of audition for music director, and the availability of conductors for next season could determine when a permanent replacement for Remmereit is found.
"A lot is going to depend on who is interested and available to come in," Sutherland said. "This search could be done next year if everything goes well, or it could stretch on beyond that."
Much of the discussion about programming is what would be happening at this time of year anyway, said Mark Berry, vice president of marketing. "It's been a challenging year with the deficit we've faced and with Arild, and normally we'd be a bit ahead of where we are," he said.
The situation the RPO faces with the need to find a new music director in a short time may be challenging but is not unprecedented, Berry noted.
"This is not anything an orchestra hasn't gone through before," he said.

Finding support
As orchestra members step forward to help find a new director, they also have worked behind the scenes and publicly to support the orchestra in a difficult time. Sutherland and other RPO musicians crafted a statement last week to reiterate their support for the board of directors and administrative staff.
While Sutherland noted there are still strong and differing opinions among orchestra members about the decision to terminate Remmereit's contract, he said the members wanted to stand together in looking to the future.
"We're trying to look at it as positively as we can," Sutherland said. "No one wanted to be in this position, but we're all trying to work together to move the organization forward."
The musicians have offered other help as well. With the orchestra facing a nearly $750,000 budget deficit, many helped call donors during a year-end fundraising push.
During an annual call-in night to major donors who had not yet made pledges for the year, the orchestra found an outpouring of support, said Kyle Polite, the orchestra's development director. The event normally brings in $20,000 to $30,000, he said, but this year it raised more than $100,000.
As the musicians joined in making calls, the effort uncovered strong donor support despite the upheaval involving the music director, Polite said.
"People definitely have strong opinions both ways, and the biggest initial reaction we heard was shock," Polite said. "But as things have calmed down, regardless of how people felt, they are still supportive of the RPO."
The orchestra also has received greater support from some donors than in the past. He noted that one donor who had never given more than $400 in the past pledged $5,000 this year.
The backlash since the decision to end Remmereit's tenure has been small, Polite said, and so far only three donors have asked to take back their pledges.
A second telephone fundraising event has been scheduled, this one suggested and organized by donors. Musicians again will be involved, and Polite said some orchestra members have pledged further support.
The negative response to the board's early termination of Remmereit's contract has included an online petition to retain the music director and the cancellation by high-profile donor Betty Strasenburgh of a $100,000 donation she had pledged for a concert in Carnegie Hall in 2014. But others have stepped forward to offer renewed support.
Deborah Wilson, an RPO board member and chairwoman of the Elaine P. & Richard U. Wilson Foundation, announced that she would help make up for the loss of Strasenburgh's commitment to the Carnegie Hall concert.
"It's unfortunate that people have decided not to support the musicians, because they really are key to the orchestra that's such an important part of this community," Wilson said. "We're so blessed in Rochester to have the depths of non-profit organizations we do, and the RPO is a very big piece of that."
The RPO has received other support from donors for the May 2014 concert at Carnegie Hall. Polite said an anonymous donor and other supporters have pledged donations. Details of those donations and Wilson's are being worked out, RPO officials said.
The donor support comes at a crucial time for the orchestra. The RPO finished its recent fiscal year in August with a deficit of $700,000 to $750,000. Though officials said a deficit had not been completely unexpected as the orchestra restored some compensation for musicians and made investments in Remmereit's first season, the scale of the deficit was unexpected.
Orchestra officials had planned for fund-raising to offset some of the new costs, but these efforts failed to make up for expenses. Elizabeth Rice, the RPO's board chairwoman, said there were still several successes in fundraising in the last year, including a $500,000 endowment gift.
The RPO ended fiscal 2011with a $20,371 surplus, and in 2010 it closed a $776,000 deficit to end with a $2,416 surplus.
The orchestra is finding support beyond its donors. Sarah Lentini, president and CEO of the Arts and Cultural Council of Greater Rochester, said her organization remains in support of the RPO and stands behind its board's decision.
"We're very supportive of the RPO and its board," Lentini said. "This must have been an incredibly difficult decision, and it's one that came with a lot of thought and wouldn't be taken lightly."
It is important for the entire arts community to support the RPO, she said. Though the council does not give money directly to the orchestra, it has backed its education efforts in the past.
A strong RPO lifts the rest of the arts community because of its relationship with the Eastman School of Music and the trickle-down effect on the smaller local orchestras that gain talent from the RPO, Lentini said.
"I think we have such a great population of talented and accomplished artists, and part of the reason is that we have such a superb orchestra," she said. "The RPO is the jewel in the crown on the Rochester community, and it's so important for all of us to get behind them and support them."

12/21/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

An article in the Dec. 21 issue contained inaccurate information. According to Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra donor Betty Strasenburgh, the $100,000 she had pledged for an RPO concert at Carnegie Hall in 2014 was conditioned upon Arild Remmereit being music director and conductor at the concert. When the RPO board approved early termination of Remmereit's contract, she said, it nullified the donation.

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