Elkhart County Symphony Took Recession Hit, but Has Come Back

January 19, 2014

Things are looking up for the Elkhart County Symphony. Way, way up.

Following several years of shaky financial times coupled with rumors of a possible closing, the Elkhart County Symphony is now back in the black and promising a future that’s bigger and brighter than ever.

Now in its 66th year, the symphony back in 2008 hit what could only be called a major financial roadblock as the devastating affects of the Great Recession roared their way across the country.

“The symphony — like all non-profits — went through sort of a rough time during the recession,” said Susan Ellington, orchestra director at Goshen High School and longtime member of the symphony’s board of directors. “At one point, there was even some discussion about just closing it down permanently, so we formed the Save Our Symphony (SOS) Association about eight years ago. Since then, we’ve worked and worked and slowly built, divided up responsibilities, and come through some exceptionally difficult and challenging times.”

According to Ellington, the symphony’s steady climb back into solvency really took hold about three years ago with the key decision to cut all staff and divide responsibilities of programming, personnel, production, fundraising, audience development, management and leadership among the symphony’s long-term executive board officers.

“For the last three years, in an effort to cut costs and get things under control, we actually cut the executive director position, we cut the full-time music director, etc., and divided those responsibilities between the executive board,” Ellington said. “We’ve just been so fortunate, because we have such a great board, and everybody’s worked very hard. We had a lot of musicians that gave of their time to keep it going until we could get back into a better place. We divided and conquered, you could say.”

So impressive has the symphony’s recovery been, in fact, that the board in late 2013 chose to reinstate the position of executive director, electing Ellington — who had served as the board’s vice president of development for the past three years — to take over the position moving forward.

“So it’s important that the community understands that we’re back,” Ellington said of her recent promotion. “There’s a face to the symphony now. There’s somebody they can got to and talk directly with. So things are moving right along.”

Speaking of moving right along, Ellington was quick to praise the symphony’s 2013-14 season as one of the best in recent memory.

“This year, this season, has been wonderful,” Ellington said. “We started off the season in September with ‘Simply Sinatra’ at The Lerner Theater. It was huge... just wonderful. Then our winter concert was ‘Hometown Holiday Traditions’ which featured guest performances by the Conservatory of Dance, Gene Van Duo and Susan Hepler Long. Then coming up Feb. 15, we’ll have our program called ‘The Power of Love’, where we’re doing the Mother Goose Suite wrapped around the story of the Velveteen Rabbit. It should be a really fun concert.”

The symphony also just completed its 28th Student Concerto Competition featuring eight of the area’s most talented young musicians. Anton Gillespie, a senior at John Adams High School, South Bend, took top honors at the competition with his French horn performance of Saint-Seans’ Morceau de Concert — Movements one and two.

For winning the competition, Gillespie received $200 and will be the featured soloist at the symphony’s Feb. 15 performance.

Rounding out the symphony’s 2013-14 season will be a June 14 performance by renowned pianist and Elkhart native Nicholas Roth entitled “Michiana Roots”.

“Nicholas currently teaches at Drake University, and he will be our guest soloist at the concert,” Ellington said. “He is always a huge draw, so we are so excited to have him.”

For those not in the know, putting on just one concert — let alone an entire season — is an incredibly expensive endeavour for the Elkhart County Symphony, especially when considering the symphony’s not-for-profit status.

“Just straight expenses and so forth runs us somewhere around $80,000 to $100,000 a year,” Ellington said of the symphony’s typical expenses over the course of a season. “The cost varies depending on what the program is, but it’s going to cost us $20,000 to $25,000 a concert on average, and that’s for rental space, personnel, conductors, lodging if you have guests, you’ve got music rental, you’ve got licensing of music, stage hands, lighting, programming, program printing, advertising... the list goes on and on.”

As a not-for-profit organization, the symphony relies primarily on advertising, grants and ticket sales as its main sources of funding — sources that quickly began to dry up as the grip of the Great Recession took hold.

Luckily for the symphony and its patrons, that grip appears to be easing as the improving economy helps to free up more of the disposable income the symphony relies so heavily upon for its programs.

“A large part of the funding that the symphony has received in the last couple of years has been from the local businesses advertising in our playbills,” said Lloyd Kirkpatrick, president of the Elkhart County Symphony’s Board of Directors. “The members of the board have done a miraculous job of going to the local business community and explaining to them the asset they have with the symphony, and how it will benefit them, and asking them if they would like to help continue the symphony by supporting us with their advertising.”

And according to Ellington, the response from area businesses over the past three years has been absolutely phenomenal.

“It’s been excellent. Just excellent,” Ellington said. “I’ve been doing the playbill now for three years, and it just gets bigger and bigger every year.”

Kirkpatrick was quick to agree.

“We grew about a third over last year’s playbill in advertising this year,” Kirkpatrick said. “One of the things we’ve been trying to do is convince the business community that we have a symbiotic relationship with them. They’re supporting us by advertising with us, and as part of the community, we in turn want to support them when we need services or products. So it’s really a win-win situation for both of us. By relying on each other, we have the resources to make all of our organizations prosper.”

In addition to its typical sources of income, the symphony also hosts two major fundraising events each year: A Wreath for All Seasons and Wanna Bea Conductor.

“A Wreath for All Seasons, which is held in November in the Crystal Ballroom of The Lerner Theater, was a huge success this season,” Ellington said. “We served dinner, had a silent auction, dancing, and entertainment by the Jim Pickley Trio. So that was huge. Then in the spring we have our annual Wanna Bea Conductor fundraiser, where we select usually three or four leaders from the community who then compete for votes in an attempt to earn the chance to conduct a piece at the symphony’s final concert. Every dollar donated translates into a vote, so it’s a great fundraiser, it’s a lot of fun, and it brings in a lot of new faces in the process.”

Encouraged and elated by the notable turnaround the symphony has experienced over the past three years, Ellington said she can’t wait to see what’s in store for the organization as it moves into the new year and beyond.

“We’re really excited about where we are at this stage,” Ellington said. “For three years we’ve been in the black, and I’ve been here when we didn’t have enough money to send out a letter to ask for donations. So this is huge for us. In addition to that, we’ve also been very blessed by Dean Duncan, a longtime performer with the symphony, who left us a legacy gift. That has given us a big cushion that we didn’t have before.”

Ellington said the board has also begun a campaign encouraging patrons to give money on behalf of the symphony through the Elkhart County Community Foundation.

“So we’re hoping to benefit from some significant grants from them,” Ellington said.

As for her vision for the symphony’s programming moving forward, Ellington said she is very much interested in growing the program to become what she sees as a fresh, relevant and integral part of the cultural landscape of Elkhart County for years to come.

“They type of music, the type of things we listen to and the types of things we watch, the things we hear... they impact our lives in profound ways,” Ellington said. “Good, quality music — interesting music — that’s what grows our community. It also reaches the diverse population that we have. Music speaks to everyone. So for that reason alone it’s so important that we continue to work toward our mission, and really become relevant, and stay relevant, and help our community to recognize what a special place this is. After 66 years, a lot of people have put a lot of sweat and blood into this symphony. We’re not going to let that stop on our watch.”

For more information on the Elkhart County Symphony and its programs, visit the organization website at www.elkhartsymphony.net.