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updated: 1/10/2013 2:49 PM

Elgin Symphony branching out, but with fewer concerts

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  • The Elgin Symphony Orchestra plans to name a new music director in May. Longtime music director Robert Hanson, picture above, left in summer 2011.

       The Elgin Symphony Orchestra plans to name a new music director in May. Longtime music director Robert Hanson, picture above, left in summer 2011.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • The Elgin Symphony Orchestra balanced its 2012-13 budget but still owes rent money to the city of Elgin for use of the Hemmens Cultural Center in downtown Elgin.

       The Elgin Symphony Orchestra balanced its 2012-13 budget but still owes rent money to the city of Elgin for use of the Hemmens Cultural Center in downtown Elgin.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Itzhak Perlman was a part of the opening for the ESO's 58th season.

       Itzhak Perlman was a part of the opening for the ESO's 58th season.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • The Elgin Symphony Orchestra plans to name a new music director in May. Longtime music director Robert Hanson, pictured above, left in summer 2011.

       The Elgin Symphony Orchestra plans to name a new music director in May. Longtime music director Robert Hanson, pictured above, left in summer 2011.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Conductor and pianist Ignat Solzhenitsyn, among the finalists to be music director for the Elgin Symphony Orchestra, will conduct "The Four Seasons" tonight in Batavia.

      Conductor and pianist Ignat Solzhenitsyn, among the finalists to be music director for the Elgin Symphony Orchestra, will conduct "The Four Seasons" tonight in Batavia.

 
 

In an effort to control costs and maintain its long-term viability, the Elgin Symphony Orchestra is planning to reduce its number of concert weekends next season while expanding its reach into other suburbs.

To wit, ESO is kicking off the new year with its first performance in Batavia tonight. Antonio Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" will be performed at the Batavia Fine Arts Centre.

"We felt that was a great venue to start, kind of a first tiptoe out of this area," ESO Interim CEO David Bearden said. The ESO will also perform Friday in Schaumburg, where it appears regularly, and Saturday and Sunday in Elgin.

In a wide-ranging interview, Bearden also discussed the symphony's financial difficulties, including back rent owed to the city for use of Hemmens Cultural Center, while making the point that the ESO and the Hemmens need each other to survive.

The nonprofit organization managed to balance its $2.2 million budget for 2012-13, mostly by slashing in half its 12-member staff.

In addition, Bearden said, the orchestra needs to be more proactive.

"One of our ideas going forward is trying to expand our footprint," he said. "For example, we have considered Raue Center For the Arts (in Crystal Lake), Wheaton College, the Paramount Theatre in Aurora. Aurora, for one, has no symphony orchestra."

For the first time, ESO used the bargain-hunter website LivingSocial in October to increase its exposure to a wider -- and younger -- audience, Bearden said. Its last concert of 2012 was sold out, the first sold-out performance in three years, he said.

"After Labor Day attendance has steadily climbed. Every concert was better and better," he said.

Still, ESO plans to reduce its number of weekend concerts from 16 to 12 pending successful union negotiations, Bearden said. The five-year contract with its 70 or so permanent members expires in June, he said.

ESO has cut expenses by $1 million since 2010-11, but it wasn't enough to keep up with declining revenues, he said. The nonprofit organization ran deficits of up to $700,000 in 2010-11 and 2011-12, Bearden said.

Up to 40 percent of ESO revenues come from ticket sales, while the rest come from a combination of sponsorships, grants and allocations, Bearden said.

"The amazing thing is that ticket sales stayed fairly constant. We did see a big decline in those other factors," he said.

ESO was able to keep up its cash flow by gradually spending down about $2 million in endowments raised in the early 2000s, Bearden said.

One pending issue is money the ESO owes to the city of Elgin in back rent for the use of the Hemmens Cultural Center.

Bearden says ESO owes about $185,000; Elgin City Manager Sean Stegall said it's about $200,000.

The ESO stopped paying the city in summer 2011, when the city announced it would stop allocating the ESO money from the Riverboat fund. That allocation was $90,000 in 2010-11, but averaged $145,000 per year for the previous 11 years, Bearden said.

Under the Elgin's new Riverboat fund system, nonprofits have to apply for grant money, but the ESO was not eligible because it had been running a deficit, Bearden said. The city doesn't charge rent for the ESO office downtown, an in-kind donation of about $24,000, he said.

Bearden said he plans to make a presentation at the Elgin City Council meeting Jan. 23 to ask the city to resume its allocation.

"We are hoping to get more city support, more than moral support and the free rent we get here," he said.

But he added: "If there is no Hemmens, there is no ESO. If there is no ESO, there is no Hemmens. We're the chief user of that facility. If we don't exist that building won't exist, the wrecking crew is going to come down."

Stegall acknowledged the symphony is the Hemmens' biggest tenant, but he would not comment further. Ultimately, he added, the decision on the ESO debt is up to the city council, which could impose a payment plan or even forgive the ESO debt.

"The (Hemmens rent) money is still owed to the city. We've been patient because of the understanding the difficulties they have been going through."

The ESO is in good standing with all its vendors, except for one company, Nonneman Communications in Carol Stream, which claims it is owed $20,000. Although the situation has turned acrimonious, the ESO intends to pay Nonneman eventually, Bearden said.

Longtime ESO board member Harry Blizzard credited Bearden with righting the financial ship. Bearden, a longtime supporter of the orchestra, got his position in May after CEO Dale Lonis's early exit.

"It became apparent that certain things were going to change real rapidly. He came at a price that was very, very reasonable," Blizzard said, joking about Bearden's volunteer status.

Blizzard said the ESO has a positive attitude about the future, and is especially looking forward to naming a new music director in May. Former music director Robert Hanson retired in July 2011.

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