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The CSO's $92-Million Gamble

John Richman, Richard Daley, and Henry Fogel ogle a model of the Orchestra Hall expansion project.

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At a sparsely attended press conference last week, John Richman seemed surprisingly subdued. Richman, chairman of the board of trustees of the Orchestral Association, parent organization to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, had just succeeded in wresting a unanimous vote from his fellow trustees to launch a whopping $92-million expansion project that will test the limits of the CSO's fund-raising and management skills. It may be a decade before we know whether the decision ushers in a new and glorious era for one of the world's great orchestras or leaves the CSO foundering under an imposing edifice it cannot afford.

The plan calls for the transformation of Orchestra Hall and the adjacent Borg-Warner Building into a new state-of-the-art symphony center with a projected opening date of 1998. About $50 million of the total expansion budget will be spent acquiring and razing the present Borg-Warner structure and building a new facility on that site, while the remaining money will go into renovating the existing concert hall. The completed center will provide the orchestra, staff, and audiences with luxuries heretofore unavailable at Orchestra Hall: spacious lobbies, lounges, and rest-room facilities; a music library; more on-premises office space; a significantly larger stage and larger rehearsal facilities; a gift shop; archives; a new cafe and catering facilities; and--last but not least--what is hoped will be an acoustically improved concert hall.

Orchestra officials called the expansion a historic move, one that will change the relationship of Orchestra Hall to the community. That seems like a safe assumption. What they didn't say--and why would they?--is that the plan is predicated in large part on financial projections that remain untested. "Let's talk in ten years and see if they are correct," quipped Richman when asked whether he could vouch for the numbers. Though the official-looking book reporters were given at last week's press briefing covered such matters as objectives, budget, construction schedules, and fund-raising, the detailed financial projections on which the trustees based their unanimous decision were notably absent ("for reasons of strategy and confidentiality," according to the book).

Prepared by the real-estate-services firm LaSalle Partners, those figures are based partly on estimates of how various aspects of the new center will affect the orchestra's bottom line, according to one trustee. For example, a new food-service facility is expected to net the orchestra more than $350,000 a year, while additional seating that will be available on the enlarged stage for certain concerts is projected to add more than $360,000 in ticket revenue. Increased office space in the new building is estimated to save the orchestra about $800,000 in current rental fees outside Orchestra Hall. LaSalle Partners consultant Jeffrey Greenberger, who was in charge of compiling the data, admits that most of the estimates are subject to change once the blueprints are in place: "You can't start a project with any guarantees."

An absence of guarantees, however, hasn't dimmed CSO executive director Henry Fogel's enthusiasm for the project. Disappointed last year when the trustees voted against his proposal for a new performing arts center, Fogel seems convinced that this project's financial assumptions are sufficiently conservative to keep the orchestra from drowning in red ink. "We have tried to put enough contingencies everywhere." But at the moment Fogel has considerably more than the new project's finances to worry about. High on his agenda is ensuring that the orchestra's annual operations remain on budget in a tough economic climate and that audiences grow enough to keep the new facility from becoming a white elephant.

The CSO wound up the 1992 fiscal year with a deficit in excess of $1.5 million. Fogel hopes to eke out a $40,000 or so surplus this year, certainly not a goal that encourages excessive optimism for the orchestra's finances. More troubling, though, is audience development. CSO attendance was flat this year over last despite the addition of Saturday-night concerts. It's easy to blame the recession for sluggish sales and to keep raising ticket prices, but Fogel and many of his peers around the country are well aware that the stuffy image of most symphony orchestras is as potentially crippling as a prolonged recession.

Classical-music concerts are an increasingly tough sell to younger audiences. Fogel has plans to make CSO concerts less intimidating through more diverse and exciting programming; one new orchestral work he has his eye on incorporates gospel choirs and jazz influences. Orchestra members are among those clamoring for change. "Patrons hate the [current] programming," maintains one musician, who would like to see some of the $92 million go into ticket subsidies instead of bricks and mortar.

It remains to be seen whether Fogel and music director Daniel Barenboim can come up with a program schedule in the next few years that can both appease longstanding fans and win over new ones. When last week's historic decision came down at the CSO, jet-set musical star Barenboim was in Bayreuth, Germany, preparing for performances there while the CSO spends the summer at Ravinia--a telling example of his level of commitment to the CSO and his interest in fostering closer ties between the orchestra and its hometown. Fogel concedes that Barenboim's image and his dubious involvement in the community are issues that need to be addressed and will be.

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