Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Arts Funding and Music and Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra

ISO struck tentative Venzago deal before ouster

July 31, 2009

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and Music Director Mario Venzago had reached an agreement in principle on a new contract before the deal recently unraveled, an official with the musicians' union said this morning.

CEO Simon Crookall announced yesterday that he would not extend Venzago's contract, which expires Aug. 31. It's not clear what caused the turnabout, though Venzago and Crookall had been at odds at times during Venzago's tenure. Venzago came to the ISO in 2002, and Crookall arrived in 2005.

Mike Borschel, chairman of the ISO musicians' contract committee, said both Crookall and Venzago told him independently that they had a contract agreement in principle.

"So, we were rather surprised at this turn of events," Borschel said. "To have [his contract] so abruptly terminated was a shock."

With Venzago's departure, the ISO will be seeking a new maestro at the same time it is facing the additional challenges of dealing with a financial crunch and negotiating a new contract with its musicians.

The 61-year-old Venzago lives in Heidelberg, Germany, and travels to Indianapolis to conduct the classical series. International conductors typically travel for concerts in cities where they have long-term contracts.

Crookall, though, said he wants Venzago's replacement to have more of a local presence but said the maestro's long-distance commute was not the "burning issue in the negotiations."

Any music director hired by the ISO must have broad support from musicians. A candidate must receive at least 50 percent of the vote from union members. The collective bargaining unit includes 87 musicians and two librarians.

Guest conductors will assume Venzago's shows in the 2009-10 ISO season, which kicks off in September.

Meanwhile, the ISO is strapped with an endowment that likely isn't large enough to support the organization in the long term. The stock market swoon last year helped drag down the value of the endowment from $127 million to $111 million in the fiscal year that ended last Aug. 31. The endowment's value since has plunged even further, to roughly $85 million, Crookall said today.

Crookall, who has a long-term goal of boosting the endowment to $200 million, had planned to launch a fund-raising drive last fall, but put it on hold when the economy soured.

"We're still thinking about the timeline for that, but it's still in the plans," he said.

The ISO ended its last fiscal year with a small operating loss, $293,000 on $26.8 million in revenue. The budget shortfall - the first since 2003 - stemmed from an unexpected 22-percent jump in health insurance costs.

To help relieve the pressure, the ISO introduced cheaper health insurance options. Crookall also eliminated five staff positions by leaving vacancies unfilled. He hopes to achieve a balanced budget of $29.5 million in the 2009 fiscal year.

Crookall said the orchestra's financial condition will not restrict its choice for a music director, who should generate a lot of new interest and help the ISO in its fund-raising efforts, he noted.

Venzago was paid $388,695, plus benefits in the fiscal year that ended Aug. 31, 2007, according to the symphony's most recently filed tax return.

Despite its money woes, the symphony should have no problem attracting a high-caliber maestro, said Bruce Ridge, chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians.

"It's definitely a destination orchestra," he said, "so it's an orchestra I think music directors would be drawn to."

Both Crookall and Borschel are confident a new contract with musicians will be reached by the time the current agreement expires in early September. The last contract was a three-year deal. Borschel described the talks as "amicable" and said negotiations are set to resume soon.
 

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