N.C. Symphony leader takes command

As CEO, Sandi McDonald leads a precise campaign to continue the orchestra's excellence and extend its reach

rchristensen@newsobserver.comJanuary 1, 2012 

  • The N.C. Symphony receives 38 percent of its funding from individual and corporate contributions, 26 percent from ticket sales, 33 percent from legislative appropriations and 3 percent investment income from the endowment.

    Its annual budget has dropped from $14.1 million to $11.4 million as it has worked to eliminate a $2.5 million debt. By this past summer, it had whittled that debt to $413,775.

    One reason the symphony will not be able to eliminate its deficit this year is that the legislature - faced with a massive deficit - cut funding for the symphony by 17 percent in the current budget. Current state appropriations are $3.5 million, down from $4.2 million the previous year.

    The legislature did extend a challenge grant, providing $1.5 million to the symphony, if private donors can match it in private donations.

    Rob Christensen

  • Here's what the N.C. Symphony has scheduled in the Triangle for January.

    Jan. 7: "Green Eggs and Ham," concert for kids. 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., Meymandi Hall, Raleigh.

    Jan. 12: Passport to Hungary, 8 p.m., Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill.

    Jan. 13-14: Passport to Hungary, 8 p.m., Meymandi Hall, Raleigh.

    Jan. 15: Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, N.C. Symphony Youth Sinfonietta, 2 p.m., Kenan Recital Hall, William Peace University, Raleigh.

    Jan. 20-21: The music of Billy Joel, 8 p.m., Meymandi Hall, Raleigh.

    Jan. 22: The music of Billy Joel, 3 p.m., Meymandi Hall, Raleigh.

    Jan. 23: Manning Chamber Music Series, 7:30 p.m., Kenan Recital Hall, William Peace University. Free.

    Jan. 26: Tango Nuevo, 8 p.m., Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill.

    Jan. 27-28: Tango Nuevo, 8 p.m., Meymandi Hall, Raleigh

    For information and tickets, visit www.ncsymphony.org.

— Sandi Macdonald is the hotshot Canadian whom North Carolina brought in to run one of its most treasured cultural institutions, the N.C. Symphony.

By the look of her office off Glenwood Avenue, Macdonald is approaching her job with all the precision of a military campaign. Her prized possession is a map of North Carolina with pushpins in all the communities she has visited during her six months on the job, ranging from Beaufort in the east to Brevard in the west, Wilkesboro in the north and Wilmington in the south.

"It's a great honor," Macdonald said, "to walk the walk."

Actually, it's more like ride the ride, but you get the point.

Macdonald may have been a top executive with the famed Cleveland Orchestra - think of Severance Hall, George Szell, Lorin Maazel, Franz Welser-Möst and other magical names from classical music - but she has made it clear that's she's not too big to visit Cleveland County, N.C.

"She is working hard to make connections with the citizens," said Linda Carlisle, the state secretary of cultural resources. "She is very focused on high-quality programming, but she is also looking at how to extend the reach of the symphony."

In particular, Carlisle has been impressed with Macdonald's interest in schools and getting the symphony to nonmetro areas.

That is what the N.C. Symphony Board hoped when it hired her in April - she started work in June - to be president and CEO of the orchestra at a salary of $210,000 per year.

Running the N.C. Symphony is less a desk job than almost any similar orchestra post in the country.

That is because the N.C. Symphony, formed in 1932 and the first orchestra to receive state funding in the U.S., is a rare hybrid - an orchestra that aspires to perform in first-rate concert halls and one that plays in schools around the state as part of its education mission.

A big operations

The star of the symphony is music director and conductor Grant Llewellyn, the charismatic Welshman who divides his time between Raleigh and his family in Wales. But the day-to-day operations are run by Macdonald. She is in charge of fundraising, business operations, contract negotiations, scheduling and most other things that do not require a baton, instrument or a music score.

Macdonald has spent 20 years in orchestra management, working for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Michigan Opera Theatre, the Seattle Symphony, and for the past eight years the Cleveland Orchestra, where her most recent assignment was Miami residency director. (The Cleveland Orchestra has a short season every year in Miami.)

She replaced David Chambless Worters, who stepped down in 2010 to head the Van Cliburn Foundation in Fort Worth, Texas.

Since then, Macdonald has moved with her husband, Henry Grzes (pronounced Grez), a CPA, to a downtown Raleigh condominium, where they have settled into their new life.

With her high-profile credentials, Macdonald was regarded as a major "get" for the symphony, the back-shop equivalent of landing Grant Llewellyn.

"I think all our constituencies feel they have hit the jackpot," said Catharine Arrowood, a Raleigh lawyer who is chairwoman of the N.C. Symphony Society.

"Sandi has gotten in here and just rolled up her sleeves and ... examined our organization from top to bottom," Arrowood said. "I'm particularly pleased that she has engaged with our musicians in a very direct way. She has really engaged with our statewide musical partners."

How the symphony will eventually be shaped by Macdonald is a story yet to be told. She is helping with a five-year strategic plan that will be presented to the Symphony's board in May, and she was reluctant to share her thoughts on the future before then.

"I believe we have all the ingredients we need to continue to be successful," Macdonald said.

Among her first hires, announced last week, was that of Linda Charlton, the marketing manager for the highly successful Durham Performing Arts Center, to become vice president for marketing and audience development for the symphony.

A key part of Macdonald's responsibilities is getting the symphony back on solid financial footing. The deep recession has wreaked havoc on the finances of orchestras across the country, with even the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra declaring bankruptcy.

The N.C. Symphony's finances have improved dramatically from two years ago, from the $2.5 million debt in 2009 to a $413,775 debt this past summer.

But the road to recovery has been painful. Musicians took a 19 percent pay cut, appearances by guest artists and conductors were postponed, a foreign trip and recording project was cancelled, administrative costs were cut and fundraising efforts stepped up.

"Right now, we are on plan to meet our current budget, which would mean further reduction in our accumulated deficit," Macdonald said. "There was hope we could wipe it out, but that is not going to be possible this year as we continue in time of economic struggle for everyone. We are lean and we are mean and we're are in the fight for every dollar."

Noticeable changes

Until the symphony digs its way out of the financial hole, any dreams of the future will be just that - dreams.

But some no-cost changes are evident. The symphony's program has undergone a metamorphosis. It has been combined with its donor magazine, Opus, to give it a more magazine feel and now includes personality profiles of some of the musicians. To accommodate the larger size, three separate programs will be published over the course of the season instead of two. The program also includes shorter program notes, and the symphony is experimenting with font sizes to help concertgoers who may have problems reading smaller print.

It was a way, Macdonald said, of democratizing Opus, which used to be distributed only to donors through the mail. It is also part of the symphony's continuing effort to break down the wall between the audience and the musicians, through such programs as "ask a musician" in which members of the audience can ask questions either during intermission or after the concert.

"I am encouraged by the connection that our audience feels toward our musicians," Macdonald said.

Like other orchestras, the N.C. Symphony is also looking for ways to ways to engage new audiences, particularly younger people.

Macdonald said she would like to see an expansion of the Pub Series, in which members of the N.C. Symphony break off into small chamber groups and play in restaurants. So far, they have been sellouts. The next is scheduled for Humble Pie in Raleigh on Feb. 12.

Meanwhile, the symphony has been traveling the state for its holiday pops concerts, going to Lincolnton, Statesville, High Point, Kinston, Roanoke Rapids, Wilmington, Tarboro and New Bern.

And Macdonald has traveled right along with them, learning her new state.

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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