What a difference a month makes. At the beginning of June, the Mesa Symphony Orchestra was plagued with problems. Executive director Jacqueline Toney quit in March, and artistic director Gordon Johnson resigned in May. The symphony faced a $10,000 deficit with no long-term financial plan.
Today, however, the organization is debt-free and planning its move into the new $94.5 million Mesa Arts Center this fall.
Guillaume Grenier-Marmet, the symphony’s principal clarinetist who stepped up in March to co-lead the organization with principal bassoonist Gina Stevens, has reorganized and expanded the symphony’s board from five to 12 people, developed a business and marketing plan and led the nonprofit symphony into the black.
"The Mesa Symphony is on the rise," says Grenier-Marmet.
As an affiliate organization of the Mesa Arts Center, the symphony is scheduled to play in the 1,600-seat Ikeda Theater, which opens in September. By doing so, it is contractually supposed to fill 65 percent — or about 1,000 — of the theater’s seats.
Although the symphony’s performances in recent years have drawn an average of 500 people, its move to the center is expected to boost ticket sales.
"They’re coming into a new venue that has a lot of hype that follows behind it," says Randy Vogel, MAC assistant director of theaters and operations. "They are having better opportunities for the customer experience here. They have a ticket office that’s available to their patrons’ use seven days a week and also online.
"In addition, with the amount of activity that we have going on, there will be interest from people who are seeing other shows at the Mesa Arts Center that wish to see something of Mesa Symphony."
The Mesa Symphony Orchestra is one of the few professional symphonies in the Valley, differentiating itself from other symphonies of the same size — the Scottsdale Symphony, with 65 to 80 members, and the San Marcos Symphony of Chandler, with 95 members — by the fact that it pays its employees, Grenier-Marmet says.
Yet musicians were paid late for their New Year’s Eve 2004 performance, and they didn’t receive payment for April’s final concert of the 2004-05 season until last week.
Grenier-Marmet says that is the last time the symphony will not be able to pay its musicians their wages of $30 to $40 for a performance.
"The direction we’re taking, the big-picture (view) that I have — this is the last time this will happen," he says.
An appeal for donations in recent weeks has made it possible for the symphony to balance its books. New marketing and fundraising efforts include plans to increase the number of annual subscribers from 100 to 600.
"We’re into an aggressive marketing and subscription sales campaign," Grenier-Marmet says. "We need to improve our subscriptions by almost three times."
ON THE RISE?
Grenier-Marmet plans to expand the board to between 20 and 25 people. He’s recruiting members to be networkers, reaching out into the community and making contact with potential donors and corporate sponsors.
"We simply have, over the last three months, made a strong attempt to reorganize, put different people in different positions, get some energy and a little more passion," says two-year board member Bob Snyder, whose wife, Andrea, has served on the board for four years. "I think that was lacking earlier, quite frankly."
Grenier-Marmet says, "The idea of ‘Help us, save us, save our symphony’ is behind us."
The fundraising campaign will officially kick off with an Aug. 3 luncheon at Mesa Country Club sponsored by Boeing, which has supported the symphony for 20 years and will give $10,000 this year.
Boeing will appeal for other corporate donations on the symphony’s behalf at the luncheon.
"There are other arts organizations in the Valley that have had similar experiences," says Boeing spokeswoman Mary Baldwin. "It’s good if we can rally corporate support to help them through the rough patches so that we’ll still have those venues available."
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and subsequent downturn in the economy hit all arts organizations — particularly small symphonies — hard.
"What hit in Mesa hit us in 2001," says Scottsdale Symphony Orchestra founder Irving Fleming. "Every orchestra in the Valley . . . has suffered."
Fleming stresses the necessity of heavily marketing the symphony in its home community.
"The successful ones (keep audiences returning), and the answer is simple: Spend a ton of money promoting. There’s no other answer in this mediacrazed world," he says.
The Phoenix Symphony Orchestra, a 75-member, fulltime orchestra with a $10 million budget, allocates about 15 percent of its budget for marketing, says Bob Selby, director of marketing and public relations.
"If people don’t know about your product, people aren’t invited to come out and try it, you’ll go broke eventually,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s as simple as that."
Grenier-Marmet has increased the Mesa Symphony’s marketing budget from less than $9,000 to more than $26,000.
Jack Herriman, the San Marcos Symphony’s conductor, points to another longterm problem.
"Most of the people that attend symphony concerts have gray hair," he says. "Trying to keep the young people interested may be the answer. . . . I’m finding out that even the young people I deal with — I have a class of violin and viola students — most of them don’t attend concerts."
The all-volunteer San Marcos Symphony draws 700 to 800 people to the Chandler Center for the Arts, but its concerts are free.
A NEW BEGINNING
The Mesa Symphony Orchestra begins its 49th season Oct. 22. Cal Stewart Kellogg, Arizona Opera’s principal conductor, will serve as the main conductor for next season.
Mesa Arts Center officials are not concerned the symphony won’t be able to fill the hall, Vogel says.
"If we needed to look at an alternative venue with them, maybe a 1,600-seat theater could be a 500-seat theater," he says. "It makes the audience’s comfort more enjoyable and helps (the symphony) rebuild an audience."
The MAC’s guidelines don’t require it to downsize organizations into a smaller venue, but the center reserves the right to do so.
"If we see an organization growing or recognize they’re going through hard times, we’re going to work with them," he says.
The symphony’s 2005-06 season has been named "A New Beginning" on its marketing materials.
"The public is really patient because we are restructuring. We cannot restructure every year; it’s a one-time thing," Grenier-Marmet says. "And I know right now, we are taking the means to do it right.
"There’s no question as to whether we’re going to make it or not."
Mesa Symphony’s 2005-06 season
(Mesa Arts Center, 1 E. Main St.)
Oct. 22: ‘‘Symphony No. 4’’ by Mendelssohn and ‘‘Symphony No. 3’’ by Beethoven.
Dec. 17: Handel’s ‘‘Messiah’’ and other seasonal favorites with Mesa Community College Choir.
Feb. 11: ‘‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’’ by Dukas, ‘‘Concert for Cello’’ by Saint-Saens and ‘‘Symphony in D Minor’’ by Franck.
April 8: ‘‘Prometheus Overture’’ by Beethoven, ‘‘Concerto No. 1 in D Major’’ by Paganini and ‘‘Symphony No. 5’’ by Tchaikovsky.
NEW YEAR’S EVE CONCERT
(Chandler Center for the Arts, 250 N. Arizona Ave.)
Dec. 31: ‘‘An American in Paris’’ by Gershwin.
(Trinity Baptist Church, 2130 E. University Drive, Mesa)
Nov. 19: ‘‘Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano’’ and ‘‘Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano’’ by Brahms and ‘‘Concert Piece No. 1 for Clarinet, Bassoon and Piano’’ by Mendelssohn.
Jan. 21: ‘‘Octet’’ by Schubert.
March 4: ‘‘Funeral March of the Marionette’’ by Gounod, ‘‘Dolly Suite’’ by Faure and ‘‘Peter and the Wolf’’ by Prokofiev.