Posted Online: Jan. 26, 2013, 9:37 pm

QCSO has new boss, bright financial future

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By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com

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Photo: Paul Colletti
Ben Loeb is the new executive director of the Quad City Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra is financially stable and Mr. Loeb will work to grow and further strengthen the organization.
As Ben Loeb steps in as the new executive director of the Quad City Symphony Orchestra, he's taking over an organization that is seeing steadily growing ticket sales and subscriptions, and financial health that eludes many major orchestras nationwide.

"The whole thing that's important for me is not so much to balance the budget, but we've got to keep our mission in mind -- creating a great musical product that's relevant and vital to the community," Mr. Loeb said recently. "Nonprofits succeed if you focus on the mission, act in a fiscally responsible way and make a good case to your ticket buyers and your patrons."

"We are painfully aware of what's going on around the country; it's a very scary situation," said Julie McHard, QCSO board president, of financially struggling orchestras in Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, the Twin-Cities, Atlanta and Philadelphia (which went through bankruptcy last year).

"We feel strongly about the influence of classical music, having it in the community," she said. "One of our big missions is to make classical music available to everybody, most especially to schools, with our youth orchestra and outreach."

Mr. Loeb, 46, formerly of El Paso, Texas, holds four music degrees from some of the most prestigious institutions in the country, and he has a background as a pianist, conductor, arranger, teacher, music director and arts administrator.

Earlier this month, he succeeded Jeff vom Saal, QCSO chief for five years, who left in August to lead the Marin Symphony Orchestra in California. Mr. Loeb came here after serving two years as executive director of the Greater Bridgeport (Conn.) Symphony Orchestra.

The Quad-Cities orchestra, which has a staff of about a dozen full-time employees, has a balanced $1.8 million budget. Forty percent of it comes from ticket sales and subscriptions, and the rest from donors, sponsors, grants, investments, and revenue from its $6 million endowment. Subscription ticket sales rose 26 percent from 2006 to 2012, while total ticket sales to the classical concerts rose 23 percent over the same period.

"We've had some very generous community members, board members and a trust (endowment) that is very firm in their management style," Ms. McHard said."The real truth is, ticket sales do not offset the cost of putting on a concert."

Because the orchestra has major sponsors for the annual Riverfront and Holiday Pops concerts, the most well-attended of all QCSO events, the organization is able to use those to boost its bottom line, she said.

Last year, the orchestra averaged 2,363 tickets sold per Masterworks concert (Saturday and Sunday double performances that are presented in October through December and February through April), while 5,698 Riverfront Pops tickets were sold, and 5,621 Holiday Pops tickets were sold, according to Jared Johnson, marketing director. Expenses have remained steady and even dropped slightly, from $1.97 million in 2008-09.

Of Mr. Loeb, Ms. McHard said: "He understands the need to work with sponsors, and understands how to do a lot with a little. Because he is very well-known in the world of classical music, he knows soloists and experts across the country."

"We know with the cost of living going up, the cost of performing going up, the trust needs to grow to cover those expenses," she said of an endowment that typically covers 10 percent to 15 percent of annual expenses. "We're really on track to do that."

Mr. vom Saal -- whose comparably sized orchestra 20 miles outside San Francisco has a $1.4 million annual budget and $1 million endowment -- looks enviously at the QCSO and models his decisions after it.

"What makes the QCSO so positive is the long-term support -- its endowment, people that give year after year. Here, we don't have the endowment that the QCSO does, so it's really hard," he said recently. "We don't have the educational programs the QCSO does."

Mr. vom Saal is just starting a Pops series for his 60-year-old orchestra; the QCSO -- which turns 100 in 2014-2015 -- launched Riverfront Pops more than 30 years ago. It introduced a Spring Pops concert in 2009 with a popular Led Zeppelin tribute but scrapped the spring concert last year after attendance dropped in 2010 and 2011.

The QCSO is "so incredibly fortunate to have an amazingly supportive board and community to allow that organization to flourish, like it did, like it does, and like it will," Mr. vom Saal said. "Making a nonprofit budget work is never easy. It's always a challenge. Six years of increased ticket sales is great momentum."

He credited the entire staff, especially music director and conductor Mark Russell Smith, who came on in 2008 and has expanded partnerships with other performing groups inside and outside the Quad-Cities.

"His role from day one has been indispensable, the overall architecture of the organization, reaching out to new constituents," Mr. vom Saal said. "He's so great with every person he reaches."

"He and I are really on the same page," Mr. Loeb said of the enthusiastic, articulate conductor. "He understands that to be doing a lot of new music (to the area), we have to balance that against what our traditional audience wants. In order to keep our organization vital and alive and relevant, we have to push the envelope. We have to present music people aren't aware of."

He said he wants to expand the QCSO repertoire "without alienating our traditional audience," which takes time, but always to ensure concerts are top-quality.

"We've also been very cautious in taking chances," Ms. McHard said, noting they want to be able to make their money back each time out. Still, she said, "We like to do new things, fun things. Audiences, they don't want the same old thing all the time."

Mr. Loeb -- who noted growth may include more concerts or touring -- said the QCSO does have alarge endowment relative to other orchestras its size, and ticket sales are healthy.

"That shows a lot of relevancy of our organization to the community," he said. "From what I've seen, it's always difficult to make that case to our patrons and ticket buyers. I'm looking forward to taking advantage of all the positive growth that's happened over last five years."

Orchestras in big cities have been hit hard by the recession, salary increases, and long-term debt, which hasn't affected the QCSO as much, Mr. Loeb said. It makes it all the harder to recover, because orchestras tend to be "conservative, traditional and slow-moving" organizations, he said.

Celebrating the QCSO's centennial will also raise the group's profile and provide an opportunity for bigger giving, the new director said.

"We're not going to become the Chicago Symphony, but what we're looking for is to capitalize on this moment, to grow our base and our foundation, so we're prepared for the future," Mr. Loeb said.


QCSO ticket sales


Category                                  2007-08    2008-09    2009-10    2010-11    2011-12

Masterworks subscribers         1,657        1,814        2,062         2,169         2,187
Masterworks tickets sold          11,652      12,746      13,512       14,376       14,178
Riverfront Pops                         4,901        4,688        5,121         3,998         5,698
Holiday Pops                             5,793        6,056        6,840         5,630         5,621
Spring Pops                              N/A           2,318        1,776         1,092          N/A

Source: Quad City Symphony Orchestra