Simon Crookall usually finds a friendly audience in the VIP room at Hilbert Circle Theatre.
As CEO of the
Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, that’s where he greets top donors while they enjoy glasses of
wine during intermission.
A much different atmosphere awaited Crookall on Aug. 3, the Monday after he announced
he wouldn’t renew maestro Mario Venzago’s contract as music director. Crookall spent that
evening fielding questions from the First Monday Club, a group of ardent classical music fans. Why would
he get rid of Venzago, who’d so elevated the orchestra’s playing over the past seven years?
Crookall, a 49-year-old Englishman, had been on the job since 2005 without public controversy.
Then, with financial uncertainty already weighing on the orchestra, he’d ousted a respected conductor. Now he’s
responsible for finding a new music director at the same time he’s trying to pull the organization out of a financial
In an interview, he said he doesn’t mind the mounting pressure.
“If I wanted
an easy life, I would go run a bed and breakfast by the sea,” Crookall said. “That’s not in my nature.”
Like orchestra managers across the country, Crookall faces enormous financial constraints. The ISO’s endowment
has fallen from more than $110 million in 2008 to less than $86 million. Even after a year of budget cutting, Crookall will
report a deficit for the fiscal year ended Aug. 31 during the Indiana Symphony Society’s meeting in November.
The 87-member orchestra recently accepted a 12-percent pay cut, which will save the ISO $4 million over three years.
Crookall said that buys him time to boost fund raising and ticket sales. He argues that parting with
Venzago, who lives in Heidelberg, Germany, plays into that strategy.
and some board members had been dissatisfied with Venzago’s disinterested demeanor. When contract
negotiations broke down last summer, Crookall decided now was the time to find a conductor who would show more commitment
Much of the controversy had to do with the timing—less than two months before this season’s
“You might draw a conclusion that the decision was so key to our position, we had to risk
the public fallout that ensued,” Crookall said. “We have a chance of appointing that person within two years now.”
Crookall wants a conductor who can bring Indianapolis its own version of “Dudamania,” referring to the
excitement over the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s new 28-year-old maestro, Gustavo Dudamel.
just the guy in the office,” he said. “The people who really interest the donors are the artists and the conductor.”
Crookall’s controversial decision appears to have galvanized many donors and board members.
all agree that it took great courage on Simon’s part to make this move,” longtime symphony subscriber and donor
Sarah Barney said.
“It’s very difficult for an orchestra to survive in this atmosphere,” board
member Fred Schlegel said. “Your ticket prices are a problem. Your endowment needs to be double what it is. He’s
doing a fine job.”
Other ISO supporters disagree with Crookall’s vision.
the very, very serious challenges facing the orchestra these days, the last thing this orchestra needs
is a change in music director and the search to replace the departed leader,” said Tom Akins, a
former ISO timpanist and archivist.
Crucial two years
came to Indianapolis after nine years as chief executive of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, a
touring group based in Glasgow.
When he arrived in January 2005, Crookall had aspirations of broadening
the ISO’s reputation and beefing up the budget. The recession brought a reversal of fortune.
cut $1.7 million from the $26.8 million budget last year, but that didn’t help avoid a deficit.
(He won’t reveal exactly how the year ended until the annual meeting.)
contract was crucial to Crookall’s two-year strategy, and he’s quick to express his gratitude.
“He’s a tough customer,” said Mike Borschel, a clarinet player and bargaining
committee chairman. “But he also is a reasonable person, and he is looking out for the long-term
interest of the entity.”
With the 12-percent cut, musicians’ base pay will fall from
about $79,000 a year to $70,460. The new three-year contract restores 10.5 percent of the pay by 2013.
pay cuts for the non-union staff—Crookall included—will save an additional $2 million, bringing
total salary savings to $6 million.
This year, Crookall will earn $195,000, a 15-percent
reduction. Vice presidents’ pay will drop 10 percent, and the remaining staff will take 5-percent
Now, the ISO turns its attention to fund raising. Board members are starting to talk
about an endowment drive, which they shelved after last year’s stock market crash. Crookall said
the orchestra hasn’t yet lined up any of the big donations that would allow him to launch a campaign.
the same time, the orchestra will court a series of guest conductors. Akins said he understands that new faces
at the podium can excite audiences and donors, but he worries the search will consume too much time and energy.
Even if the ISO names a music director within two years, he said, it will take another two years for
that conductor to establish himself.
“My problem with all of this is, we face the
economy challenge today,” he said. “Some of the things that will create pride, more spirited
support, open some purse strings—those things can’t be executed until four or five years
down the road.”
Behind the scenes,
musicians are hungry to tour and record.
The ISO is one of just 17 full-time orchestras in the country. Yet it
hasn’t left Indiana since 1997, when Venzago’s predecessor Raymond Leppard led a four-country tour in Europe.
The orchestra can’t tour without a music director. It’s also unlikely to fill its eight vacancies,
three of which are principal chairs in cello, trumpet and oboe.
Many musicians see the orchestra being held
back, and they blame Crookall, said Rosemary Rader, a violist who retired seven years ago.
One more recent retiree stated: “He’s ruining the orchestra—period.”
Rader said she’s not convinced Crookall should take all the blame. Nevertheless, the lack
of touring is a major source of frustration for musicians.
“They leave over issues
like that,” she said. “More than just money, where is your orchestra going?”
When he was hired,
Crookall said he wanted to see the ISO tour again. He soon discovered that potential sponsors weren’t
interested in backing a tour, which is “hugely expensive.”
“People aren’t particularly
keen on using Indianapolis money to send the orchestra somewhere else,” he said.
Crookall landed the job
based on his fund-raising prowess, and he does spend much of his time schmoozing. On occasion, he has literally sung for his
supper. He was a baritone singer in college and now auctions his talent at ISO fund-raisers.
“I find people
fascinating,” he said. “Getting to know people, understanding what their interests are. I enjoy that part of the
During his tenure, donations have risen substantially, especially in the one-time gift category.
Total contributed income rose from $6.4 million in 2005 to $8.7 million in 2006, Crookall’s first
full fiscal year.
Yet the ISO couldn’t escape mounting expenses and reported a $293,500 deficit in 2008.
The orchestra continues to lean heavily on the endowment, drawing as much as 8 percent of the average
value to close the funding gap.
Akins, who attends Christ Church Cathedral in Monument
Circle with Crookall, disagrees with the CEO’s recent decisions, but declined to rate his job performance.
“I understand how ongoing these challenges are,” he said. “You get 10
minutes the day after Labor Day to take a deep breath. Then it’s a new year. What are you going to do about this
year’s $25 million? It’s never-ending pressure.”•