Symphony Gets Back in Tune

Aaron Clay arms up on bass for the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra's performance Saturday at George Mason University.
Aaron Clay arms up on bass for the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra's performance Saturday at George Mason University. (Lois Raimondo - Twp)
By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 26, 2006

A year ago, the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra hit a low point.

The regional orchestra, in its 49th season, had fallen $350,000 in debt. Its accounting system was in tatters, and its administration had lost control of its $1.3 million budget.

The symphony's performance of Beethoven and Brahms last Saturday put its 50th season, the 35th of conductor William Hudson, in full swing, its fortunes turned around. The troupe, which began as a group of amateurs who played in high school auditoriums, is looking to build its audience and financial base as it raises its profile in the region's competitive classical music market.

"All orchestras go through hard times," said Jane Kenworthy, the executive director hired 14 months ago to clean up the financial mess. "It's just a question of when."

In a crowded field of symphonies from Annapolis to McLean, with the National Symphony Orchestra pulling concertgoers to the Kennedy Center, Fairfax has always been ambitious. The orchestra routinely fills the stage at George Mason University's Center for the Arts with as many as 90 instruments, huge forces that make a Mahler symphony or Verdi Requiem possible. The players are accomplished enough to take on obscure works. The budget has allowed prominent soloists to be hired.

The symphony's story began with Dorothy Farnham Feuer, a violinist who attended a meeting of the Fairfax Woman's Club in 1957 and pitched the idea of a county orchestra. The band director of Fairfax High School was called; he found other county music teachers. The first rehearsal was at Annandale High School. Feuer, the band directors and their wives became the first board of directors.

By 1960, the orchestra was giving four concerts a season in different high school auditoriums. Its first state grant came five years later. Hudson arrived as music director in 1971 and held the first auditions.

Over the next 20 years, the orchestra became a fixture in elementary schools in Fairfax, introducing children to music. The players were paid not on salary but by performance. A CD was recorded. Eventually, performances moved from high school auditoriums to a concert hall at George Mason. In recent years, corporate sponsors allowed bigger budgets, and the symphony took up summer residence at the Shenandoah Valley Music Festival. Fairfax became the area's first regional orchestra to offer podcasts of pre-concert lectures and guest performances. As the Arlington Symphony folded and Prince William scaled back on performances, Fairfax seemed to be thriving.

Then it became clear to the board of directors that the symphony's finances were unraveling.

"It was bit by bit over time," said Gerald Gordon, president of the county's Economic Development Authority, who became board president in July.

Gordon and other orchestra officials are loath to explain exactly how the symphony overextended itself, saying all small orchestras face financial problems. Nevertheless, changes were made quickly.

The executive director was fired and Kenworthy hired, along with new directors of development, marketing and bookkeeping. Some part-time positions were dropped to streamline the administrative staff.

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