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Rhapsody in Red

Boise Philharmonic bleeds cash, slashes musician hours

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Thousands of patrons cheered George Gershwin's classics at the opening of Boise Philharmonic's Picnic at the Pops series Aug. 18, 2012. But behind the scenes, the orchestra was in dire straits.

In what Philharmonic Board President Bill Drake called "a calamity," the orchestra was drowning in red ink, to the tune of $160,000. A botched contract between the Philharmonic and the Eagle River Pavilion--the site of the late summer pops series--had pushed the orchestra's negative cash flow closer to $250,000.

Rumors swirled when Philharmonic Executive Director Tom Bennett resigned Aug. 16, 2012 at the height of the organization's financial crisis, citing "personal reasons." The orchestra board quickly turned to former executive director Tony Boatman and asked him to return to the organization he had led from 2000 until his retirement in 2010.

"I can tell you that contracts with the Eagle Pavilion were misread. The costs were much higher than projected," said Boatman. "I should add that if and when we have the Picnic at the Pops this coming summer, it won't be at the Eagle Pavilion."

In a candid conversation with Boise Weekly, Boatman detailed the amount of trouble he faced when asked to take the reins as the Phil's interim executive director.

"There was a time in September, shortly after I came back, that we were looking at the possibility of not being able to meet payroll for October, November and December," Boatman said.

Cellist Kyla Davidson remembered when she first heard the news. The six-year Boise Philharmonic veteran said musicians were asked to remain late after a rehearsal in early September.

"They made a point of making sure the entire orchestra was there," said Davidson. "The bottom line was that the orchestra was having trouble making payroll. They told us, 'This is not being publicized, but if anyone asks you about it, give them the facts to the best of your abilities.' To their credit, they told us the facts and said there was no reason to be dishonest about it."

Davidson added that musicians were also told, "This was something that had been going on for a while and some people had been ... putting it under the rug."

Davidson is one of 76 musicians under contract with Boise Philharmonic, which has what it calls a "core group" of salaried players, and the Langroise Trio, who are employed by College of Idaho as music faculty but hold title positions with the Boise orchestra. The majority of musicians, such as Davidson, are paid on a per-service basis.

"The word 'service' is an orchestra term for a two-and-a-half hour block of time," explained Boatman. "That could be a concert, a rehearsal, an education program or even a required meeting."

To cut costs, the Philharmonic's top brass informed orchestra members that it would lean more on its core group of 17 musicians while reducing the number of services for the majority of its players.

"We will ask for more services from our salaried players, and can only guarantee up to 50 services per season versus the 60 we have committed to in the past," Drake wrote to the players, none of whom are represented by a musician's union. "No one is happy about making these adjustments, but we simply must do so to ensure the continued stability of the Boise Philharmonic Association."

Drake added that the situation would be "reassessed annually," and there were hopes to reinstate the services "to their former levels as finances permit."

Davidson said she and the majority of her fellow musicians couldn't pay the bills if they relied solely on their income from the Philharmonic.

"Not even close," she said. "That's why I work at least four days a week up at the Bogus Basin rental shop."

Davidson has also spent time as a bartender, taught private lessons and has worked in numerous retail outlets.

"We all do it for the music. We do it for the love of performing. I must tell you that it's awesome that I get paid to do something like this. If you don't love it, you're in the wrong job. There's no way you would spend this many hours on something like this if you don't love it," said Davidson, adding that she practices her cello three hours a day and spends two more hours listening to recordings of specific compositions.

But Boatman said Boise Philharmonic's financial pain isn't unique.

"If misery loves company, we're in very good company," said Boatman. "The surnames of some of the nation's greatest orchestras have been in trouble: Minneapolis, [Minn.], Indianapolis, Atlanta, Philadelphia, all in red ink. Musicians and music lovers everywhere are concerned about the future of this art form."

That's why Boatman said Boise Philharmonic needed to cut down the number of guaranteed services and turn to its benefactors to contribute nearly $160,000 in incremental gifts. And looking to the future, the Philharmonic is preparing to make another big change: lowering ticket prices.

"We priced ourselves out of a lot of the market," said Boatman. "So beginning next season, you'll be able to buy a full season ticket for the Philharmonic for $99. You're going to be able to buy a single concert ticket for $19 instead of $24. The top-price ticket will go from $76.50 down to $69.50. The marketing experts feel what we might lose in revenue per ticket, we'll make up for in volume."

Boatman is anxious to turn the reins over to the next full-time executive director. The Philharmonic Board is flying its top two candidates into Boise for a final round of interviews in the coming weeks. While no one would identify the candidates, it was confirmed that both were from the Northwest.

"I promised them that I would only do this until the end of February," said Boatman, adding that he was anxious to get back to being an audience member. "After 25 years in the orchestra business, I stand in awe of the people who make the music."