Q&A: Leader sees good shot to save Sacramento Philharmonic and Opera

When the organization that runs the Sacramento Philharmonic and Opera announced it had a new interim executive director last week, it was the first sign that the arts groups would continue operating – and put up a season in 2015-16 after scuttling their 2014-15 performances.

Detroit Symphony Orchestra manager Alice Sauro was tapped as interim director by a nine-member team of consultants hired by the Sacramento Region Performing Arts Alliance, the umbrella organization that runs the merged philharmonic and opera companies, to turn them around.

Five of those on the team also hail from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra – one of the country’s finest orchestras.

Paul Hogle, executive vice president of the Detroit symphony, is leading the effort. He said he thinks it’s possible to stabilize and grow the Sacramento Philharmonic and the opera, despite their recent struggles.

He points out that operating an orchestra in Detroit has also been challenging. The symphony there weathered a bitter labor dispute in which its musicians went on strike for six months, forcing it to suspend part of its 2010-11 concert season. That orchestra has recovered and recently announced that it had surpassed its goal of raising $17.4 million in individual, corporate and foundation support at the close of its 2014 fiscal year.

Hogle answered questions from The Bee about the future of the Sacramento music groups.

Q: When will you announce the Philharmonic’s plan for next season?

A: We expect to announce the spring season in the next three to four weeks. The 2015-16 season will have to be announced on or before May 1. Right now, in almost every instance, we’re looking at multiple pieces of blank paper. But not for long.

Q: What about the rest of this year?

A: There will be music in April and May of this year. There will be a concert, but right now I have nothing booked. It could be dozens of musical activities or it could be a large season-ending concert bridging to next year.

Q: And what kind of season will there be next season?

A: All in, it will be 15 and 20 concerts including what we do with the ballet, which is six performances.

Q: What about the opera company?

A: Any discussion about distinctive opera will not happen until late spring of 2016.

Q: Tell me about the consultant team that is helping the SRPAA with the turnaround.

A: I’m the lead voice of a nine-member team under contract with the Alliance. We’re currently scheduled to complete our work around April 1. Our contract is to work with the institution to help them plan and execute a turnaround, with several specific deliverables. This includes an 18-month return to performances plan, a five-year economic and programmatic blueprint and an investment in board governance.

Q: What makes this consultancy different from past ones?

A: Our approach was not to deliver a plan – it was to work with the board and the community to produce something. That something can’t be to replicate a smaller version of the San Francisco Symphony and Opera.

Q: What have you encountered here?

A: What I’ve noticed in Sacramento is that there is a group of people, especially some arts executives, that are very tired and they’re kind of repeating this ‘We can’t do it here’ mantra. There are so many examples of places in the country that are equally as complicated where it is being done.

There’s no reason, on paper, that you should not have a thriving orchestra and opera company. It will take a while to get back – but there is no reason it can’t happen.

Q: Sacramento has always been a tough market to raise money – with its tradition of low corporate and individual giving. How will that come into play?

A: I work for an orchestra with a $30 million budget, and I get only a million and a half from corporations. Most money given to orchestras and opera companies is given from individuals. The more movement we have toward something people will be interested and have confidence in, the quicker that type of support will follow.

Q: What are you bringing to bear on Sacramento that has worked in Detroit?

A: That fundamentals matter. Too many people in the arts world have given up on the fundamentals of basic fundraising, of building a value proposition that you can then take to someone and invite them to make a contribution. That’s been lost. And the basic fundamental of building a subscription audience on top of which you layer a single ticket sales? That has also been lost.

I’m banking that in five years we can instill the same thing that has saved the DSO – great programming, being really interesting and being obsessed about having the concert hall filled.

Call The Bee’s Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz.