Originally created 09/22/96

On a sound note



As its 43rd season opens, the Augusta Symphony finds itself in the unusual position of expanding, however mildly.

The symphony has acquired additional office space, annexing what used to be a hallway next to its offices in the Sacred Heart Cultural Center. It has also added a full-time position and made another part-time position full-time.

These aren't exactly seismic changes, but they are signs of health from a group that eight years ago was facing a six-figure deficit.

Jon Simowitz, president-elect of the symphony, was among the people who helped pull the organization out of its late-1980s financial mess.

In the past few years, the symphony has reversed what Mr. Simowitz described as a fiscally loose mentality, he said.

"Of all the nonprofit organizations I've been involved in, this is the most tightly controlled, tight-fisted organization I've ever seen," Mr. Simowitz said.

In 1988, the organization was $185,000 in debt, Mr. Simowitz said. Tim Mirshak, currently the symphony's legal counsel and then president of its finance committee, found an organization defined by poor communication and irresponsible spending. People had been making decisions about music without regard to money.

"When you don't have the money and can't meet your basic operating expenses, you can't do that sort of thing," Mr. Mirshak said.

That's when the reorganization began. The symphony support groups reorganized and created Augusta Symphony Inc.

Volunteers started aggressively seeking money from corporations.n That intense effort, and the way businesses responded, was essential to getting the symphony back in the black, Mr. Mirshak and Mr. Simowitz said.

The board at that time decided to have "the tightest controls they could over everything," Mr. Simowitz said.

For the first time, the board hired an executive director, Pat Finch, who had no musical background.

Mrs. Finch said initially she encountered some resistance as a nonmusician. After being a homemaker, this was her first full-time job. She misspelled names when preparing musical programs. One symphony member told her it was ridiculous to balance the budget because symphonies always ran deficits.

If she couldn't spell all the names, she did bring another kind of expertise, identifying business practices that made no sense.

For example, the symphony has a core of salaried players but hires most of its performers on a per-concert basis. In some instances, she found the symphony had been renting out its musicians for less than what it cost for the symphony to hire them.

"I could do business all day long if I bought furniture for $100 and was selling it for $50," Mrs. Finch said.

Mrs. Finch has turned in a balanced budget every year. Despite tightened finances, she believes the symphony has maintained its artistic quality and continued to provide community service.

For example, the symphony still has community-outreach programs, but they operate more modestly, she said. Instead of sending a dozen musicians to a school, it may only send the string quartet, or ask a class to come sit in on a rehearsal.

Harry Jacobs, founder of the symphony and its director until retiring six years ago, sees the financial worries as having shifted the orchestra's artistic emphasis.

In recent years the symphony added pops concerts. This season its Masterworks series will feature performances with a jazz musician and a country-style fiddler.

Mr. Jacobs said the symphony is performing well now, but he's worried it could lose sight of its original purpose of presenting the symphonic repertoire.

"They seem to be getting pretty much into the entertainment business," Mr. Jacobs said. "If it helps them maintain their higher cultural purpose, that's all right. It can't take over and obliterate the other, too."

Donald Portnoy, the symphony's current musical director, said the popular concerts were not initiated to raise money, even though they have been financially successful.

Pops concerts, just like classical concerts, demand quality performances from the musicians, he said. Orchestras all over the country play pops concerts, and if anything, the Augusta Symphony was behind the times for not having added them sooner, he said.

"It adds the kind of variety I think an orchestra needs to have," Mr. Portnoy said. "It brings people to orchestra concerts that might not otherwise come."

Mr. Portnoy, director since 1990, said he has had more money to spend each year, and he believes the orchestra has continually improved.

"It all equates artistically," Mr. Portnoy said. "If I want more rehearsals, it's money. If I want better music, it's money. I think it's important to have that responsibility."

Melinda Whiting, editor of Symphony magazine, a publication of the American Symphony Orchestra League, said that in this decade orchestras have generally become more money-conscious. In 1990, 55 percent of the league's members had balanced budgets, and in 1996 that's up to 63 percent. Cuts in government funding have forced symphonies to pay more attention to the bottom line, she said.

In Augusta's case, the worries of the late 1980s had a clarifying effect, Mrs. Finch said. Without a sense of crisis, the symphony might have never been motivated to overhaul its way of doing business.

She said she is a little worried that people are talking about the symphony being financially healthy. Nonprofit groups such as the symphony are always walking a financial tightrope.

"There's almost a danger as we get further away from the '87-88 season that people will forget where we came from," Mrs. Finch said.