Sunday, December 18, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

E-mail article     Print


An orchestra in the balance

Seattle Times music critic

For more than three decades, it has been the Little Orchestra That Could.

The financial stability of the Northwest Chamber Orchestra (NWCO) has waxed and waned, but the group has never quite gotten off the endangered list. Executive director after director, board president after president — all have tried to find a way to put the orchestra on sound fiscal footing.

Mostly, they've found minor miracles. A last-minute grant, or a series of dramatic cuts, or a generous donor, or even an overlooked bunch of stock shares — little miracles would temporarily set the NWCO back on the track.

The lack of stable funding isn't due to artistic quality. The players are good to excellent, most of them also members of the Pacific Northwest Ballet and Auburn Symphony orchestras. The orchestra has had a distinguished lineup of conductors, including Finnish-born maestro/pianist Ralf Gothóni, who arrived in 2000, and programs a range of adventuresome repertoire from several centuries.

But the NWCO still is chronically underfunded. Now, with the departure last month of Executive Director David Pocock, the orchestra is scrambling for new directions under the temporary wing of Deborah Daoust. She has a background both in viola performance and arts administration, but she has set a March 2006 deadline for her interim tenure.

Daoust wants to bring all the NWCO organization together to do some "soul searching, a serious look at what we're doing. What we need is a metamorphosis." Board President Dave Matison concurs: "This is a wonderful 1975 orchestra trying to function in 2005."

The roots of the orchestra's problems go right back to the orchestra's founding in 1973. At that time, there was very little chamber or baroque music in Seattle. Founder Louis Richmond, a marketing genius whose enthusiasm quickly put the NWCO on the map, had embraced baroque music in his travels and wanted to bring it to Seattle.

Suddenly, the airwaves were full of music by composers whose names sounded like exotic pastas: Corelli, Albinoni, Geminiani, Locatelli. The newly popular Pachelbel Canon became the NWCO's calling card, along with Bach Brandenburg Concerti and other treasures. Audiences flocked to concerts.

Then, two factors arose that destroyed this cozy niche. First came the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, whose annual residencies here brought in famous musicians and even broader repertoire. Then, in the early 1980s, Toby Saks' Seattle Chamber Music Festival sprouted and grew. So did other chamber orchestras: The Thalia Chamber Symphony evolved into today's Philharmonia Northwest, and the Northwest Sinfonietta emerged as an important competitor.

But that wasn't all. By the mid-'70s, the early-music revival was under way, crystallized locally by the founding of Seattle's Early Music Guild 29 years ago. Here in Seattle, the movement seemed to come out of nowhere, spearheaded by a few visionaries such as Eva Heinitz, Randall Jay McCarty, Nancy Zylstra, Stephen Stubbs and Stanley Ritchie.

These and other gifted musicians were in the forefront of a trend that swept audiences everywhere: baroque and other early music performed in period style, on authentic or replica period instruments.

Suddenly, the baroque carpet was pulled out from under the NWCO, as listening to Bach on modern instruments became downright unfashionable. (That standard has since relaxed somewhat.) Meanwhile, the Early Music Guild was not only presenting international early-music ensembles but also nurturing nascent groups right at home, from Gallery Concerts to the Seattle Baroque Orchestra.

An additional problem was, and is, what Daoust calls "the curse of the midsize groups." The big music organizations, Seattle Symphony and Seattle Opera, get the lion's share of attention and the big donors.

The small-budget groups subsist mainly on the energy and donated time of committed performers. And the ones in the middle are large enough to need to pay their players, but not large enough to garner the money to do so.

Making money matters worse, the NWCO decided a few years ago to undergo a significant expansion in size from 15 to 20 players. More players mean that the overall sound and blend are markedly better; they also mean that more money must be found.

"Our expenses are up," says Daoust, who estimates that this season's budget is in the upper $600,000s.

"But our ability to pay is less."

The wave of audience excitement generated by the 1998 move to Benaroya Hall has since dissipated. A few grants have fallen through, and Daoust says it's going to be "a stretch, getting through the next few months."

Fortunately, two ambitious spring 2006 tours to Michigan's Gilmore Festival and to Finland are almost paid for by the performance fees the NWCO will receive.

"We've gotten used to miracles," Daoust says, "but there still is this sense that we're living a little beyond our means. The orchestra feels burdened."

Peter Donnelly, the exiting ArtsFund president and a savvy policy maker, has urged the NWCO to combine forces with another group, the Seattle Chamber Music Society, whose executive director, Connie Cooper, held the same post at the NWCO before her 1982 departure.

But it appears that this is not a likely marriage. The Society's board and founder/artistic director Saks "feel that we are a successful organization in our current format," according to a statement from Cooper. "We are very pleased with our thoughtful growth and the enthusiastic response we have received from our audiences. At this time, we have no plans to merge with any other organization."

That leaves the NWCO still searching for its place in the Seattle music scene, as the board, administration and players define its niche, its market, its patronage, its new executive director.

One founding player, violist Eileen Swanson, would like to see the NWCO in "the well-established position that the Los Angeles and St. Paul chamber orchestras are in — existing in a metropolitan area with a fine symphony, but with a large, supportive audience of our own."

With the help of a few well-placed donors, the NWCO could do a season augmented by some Northwest touring and more of a presence in schools, working with young musicians side by side.

Swanson would also like to see a return to more baroque repertoire, "perhaps working with one of the early-music specialists who doesn't eschew modern instruments." And the upcoming tours to Michigan and Finland could result in more invitations to perform outside of Seattle.

"I am always grateful that I have had this orchestra as the main focus of my musical life," Swanson says. "We have survived financial crisis after financial crisis, but through it all have continued to grow artistically. I'm hopeful this new energy will bring about the wider role for the orchestra that we've always wanted."

Melinda Bargreen:

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


Get home delivery today!