Elgin orchestra will be in residence in Chicago for the first time

  • David Bearden, chief executive officer of the Elgin Symphony Orchestra, will retire effective Saturday. Executive Director David Conroy, left, will take over on an interim basis as a national search is conducted.

    David Bearden, chief executive officer of the Elgin Symphony Orchestra, will retire effective Saturday. Executive Director David Conroy, left, will take over on an interim basis as a national search is conducted. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Elgin Symphony Orchestra officials said they reached a tentative agreement Wednesday with representatives of its musicians union for a three-year contract.

    Elgin Symphony Orchestra officials said they reached a tentative agreement Wednesday with representatives of its musicians union for a three-year contract.

  • David Bearden, departing CEO of the Elgin Symphony Orchestra, said hiring Music Director Andrew Grams, shown here in 2013, was his greatest management accomplishment.

    David Bearden, departing CEO of the Elgin Symphony Orchestra, said hiring Music Director Andrew Grams, shown here in 2013, was his greatest management accomplishment. Courtesy Paolo Cascio

 
 
Updated 5/30/2019 5:28 PM

The departing CEO of the Elgin Symphony Orchestra had big news to share Thursday: The symphony will be in residence for the first time at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Chicago and will offer "adventurous" concerts featuring a mariachi band and a band playing Beatles music.

The symphony had planned to start the residence in 2020 but decided to jump on an offer for four dates during its 70th season starting in September, David Bearden said. The 2019-20 brochure will be reprinted with the additional dates, all Fridays before weekend performances in Elgin, with the first being the season opener Sept. 13.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The symphony's home is the Hemmens Cultural Center in Elgin, and it also performs at the Prairie Center for the Arts in Schaumburg. The Chicago concerts are about reaching out to more music lovers -- and potential sponsors and donors -- in a new geographical area, Bearden said.

"The idea is not to take away from Elgin. The idea is to add to it," Executive Director David Conroy said.

Bearden announced this week he will step down effective Saturday, a move long planned internally, he said. Conroy, who was hired in September, will serve as interim CEO while a national search is conducted. Bearden's salary was $108,000 in 2017, according to the latest tax returns available at guidestar.org.

Bearden said he will continue to work part time with the orchestra's development team and plans to devote more time to his photography hobby.

New leadership is important, he said. "I'm part of ESO 2.0," he said of taking the job in 2012. "Now it's ESO 3.0 and it's about the future."

"All of us have a 'use by' date on your forehead," he said, "and if you don't see that before somebody else sees it, you're in trouble. It's time for new energy, new organizational models, new ideas."

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His greatest management accomplishment was hiring Music Director Andrew Grams in 2013, Bearden said.

The ESO's yearly operations amount to about $2.3 million, and securing funding has been a constant challenge, as it has been for most orchestras around the country. The city of Elgin forgave the ESO a nearly $162,000 debt in 2017.

Still, the orchestra went through a tumultuous time in spring 2018, when it had to quickly raise $140,000 to be able to perform its season finale concerts and break even.

The goal was met after an outpouring of support, but that also led some donors who had doubled their contribution to pull back this year, Bearden said. The current fiscal year is projected to end June 30 with a $90,000 operational deficit, he said.

The ESO employs eight staff members who do not get health insurance and has about 100 active volunteers, Bearden said.

"No organization like this exists without volunteers who are very active and proactive, and, more importantly, has very dedicated employees," he said. "The rewards are a lot of intrinsic rewards, not necessarily financial rewards."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The orchestra "has developed dramatically" under Bearden's tenure and now needs to increase its concerts and draw more people to them, Conroy said. This season's lineup includes "bigger and bolder" pieces, he said.

A planning committee is looking into organizing a 70th-year celebration, and "there are other things we are not ready to announce," he said.

The symphony recently hired a new director of marketing, Ashley Schoen. This season there will be a focus on explaining why selected musical pieces are important, and there will be unique artwork as a backdrop for each concert, she said.

Schoen also said she's looking into starting a symphony blog and podcast.

Bearden and Conroy said they reached a tentative agreement Wednesday with representatives of its musicians union for a three-year contract; the deal needs to be ratified by the union's membership and the symphony's board.

"It was very unusual in that it went so quickly. There were such good spirits on both sides," Bearden said.

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