The National Symphony is 50 years old. Warm and hearty congratulations! There have been times during that half century when some of its staunchest supporters were not at all sure that the NSO would make it to this anniversary. And the clouds of doubt about the future have never been darker than they are at this moment.
The problem is, as it has always been, money. And it is not a matter of anyone crying wolf. The cruel fact is that unless the symphony can raise something in the neighborhood of $1.7 million in the near future, it will have to go out of business by the end of January.
That would be a calamity of unthinkable proportions in the light of the artistic history of the orchestra in the 50 years now being celebrated. From the time that the young, blond Dutch virtuoso cellist Hans Kindler from the Philadelphia Orchestra came to town with the redoubtable Mary Howe as his resolute supporter, the National Symphony began to make a place for itself in this country's developing musical pucture.
Kindler combined a flair for conducting (sometimes reminiscent of his former boss in Philadelphia, Leopold Stokowski) with an unswerving belief in the music of the composers of his own time and adopted country. He gave significant premieres, both world and local, recorded a range of works that had special merit and succeeded in placing the National Symphony Orchestra firmly on the path his successors have traveled.
Kindler also began the policy of engaging notable guest conductors, a policy that has continued throughout the orchestra's history -- with Bruno Walter, George Enesco, Sir Thomas Beecham, Ernest Ansermet, Igor Stravinsky, Erich Leinsdorf, Engene Ormandy and many more, up to and including today's Bernstein, Mehta and Maazel.
Upon his resignation in 1949, Kindler was followed by his young protege and first cellist, Howard Mitchess. (it is a singular historical note that three of the orchestra's four conductors have been cellists.) In the early years of his 21-year regime, Mitchell improved the orchestra in three vital areas: the technical standards of playing, the caliber of musicians he attracted to the orchestra and the repertoire, to which he brought additions of the greatest importance to any aspiring orchestra.During his years, the season was extended and the number of concerts played annually greatly augmented. And, like his prodecessor and each of his successors, Mitchel made phonograph recordings, including a series of educational recordings for RCA Victor that still occupy an important place today.
With the appointment of Antal Dorati to the post of music director in 1969, a position he first began to fill in 1970, the NSO baton went to a musician of the widest musical background, a composer and pianist acquainted with a staggering repertoire that included opera and ballet as well as the whole symphonic world. Dorati came with an international reputation, well-deserved, as a builder and improver of orchestras. He told the members of the orchestra that he wanted to help them play their best, to bring out a level of playing of which he knew them to be capable, but which he felt they had not attained. One of his earliest pronouncements was, "It is not difficult to find great works this orchestra has never played." Systematically he began introducting symphonies by Bruckner and Mahler, works by Bartok and Kodaly and classic scores by Haydn and Mozart that had never before been heard by NSO audiences. Also possessing a formidable knowledge of contemporary music, Dorati regularly performed music of the utmost importance by Penderecki, Messiaen and leading American composers. One of the most frequently recorded conductors in history, he added to his catalogue with a series of nine recordings with the National Symphony, six of which promptly won major international prizes. It was under Dorati's leadership that the orchestra made its greatest steps toward the high ground it now occupies among the world's orchestras.
After seven years, Dorati suggested to the board of the NSO that they should be thinking about a successor when the time came that he might retire or move on to another challenge. Dorati did not expect his suggestion to be acted upon as quickly as it was, and the board of the orchestra unexpectedly found itself with the opportunity of engaging Mstislav Rostropovich. They moved speedily to ensure the great Russian musician's arrival.
Rostropovich's tenure has consolidated the orchestra's gains in the years preceding his accession, and the orchestra has found a new excitment and challenge in the demands placed upon it as it emerged into the brightest lights of the orchestral world. The NSO this year enjoyed a triumphant tour of Japan and a visit no less acclaimed to Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. Under Rostropovich, the NSO has recorded for both Columbia and Deutsche Grammophon, with Rostropovich and Leonard Bernstein as conductors and Issac Stern and Martha Argerich as soloists. Bernstein, having conducted the world premiere of his "Songfest" with the orchestra, proceeded to record that work in the Kennedy Center with the six soloists heard at the premiere.
Yet paradoxically, as the orchestra has gotten better, its financial situation has gotten worse. What brought about this crisis and how might it have been avoided? Those questions were asked by Sens. Walter D. Huddleston (D-Ky.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) last week when Austin Kiplinger, proesident of the NSO board of directors, took his hat in his hand and went up to Capitol Hill to see what the Congress might do to help the orchestra. The questions were asked because some observers have suggested that the National Symphony Orchestra has champagne tastes but a beer purse.
That is not the case. The factors that have brought Washington's orchestra to its present desperate predicament include the costs of making what was a very good orchestra into one that merits Leonard Bernstein's description of it last year as "world class9"
Among those costs are the steadily rising fees of outstanding conductors and soloists (necessities for any orchestra that hopes to sustain top-level prestige); the 52-week contract that is now mandatory for every orchestra that classes itself among the country's best; and other increasing costs -- advertising, salaries and other essential expenses -- in a time of severe inflation. The fees of guest conductors -- the very greatest of whom could be engaged not many years ago for around $2,500 -- today reach $7,000 to $8,000 for the biggest names.
The NSO -- like every other orchestra, opera and ballet company in the country -- connot match these rising expenses with equal increases in earned income, the sources of which include ticket prices, royalties from recordings, contributions and endowment funds. The American Symphony Orchestra League announced recently that the operating expenses of the country's symphony orchestra have risen 272 percent in the past 15 years! There has not been, nor can there be, any comparable increase in orchestral incomes.
Those things that orchestra managements can do, the National Symphony office is striving to achieve: increased subscription lists, larger box-office sales for individual concerts and a greater number of recordings.
The NSO has some $400,000 in unsold tickets in the 1979-80 season, "but that has to be put in context," says symphony president Martin Feinstein. "Unlike Cleveland or Boston, we have four concerts a week instead of three. Also, our hall seats 2,735. Our hall is bigger than most, which hold around 2,500."
Subscription sales for the season which begins Tuesday night have risen appreciably. Against last year's total of 14,200 there are at present over 15,000 subscriptions in the office and final figures are not yet complete. The NSO has raised single-ticket prices $1 on every level of tickets, but subscription rates are unchanged. Tom Philion, director of marketing for the NSO, says that the smaller subscription units are more popular this year: "More subscribers are buying units of less concerts."
Feinstein says that ticket sales have been influenced by a number of factors, including the 1978 strike by orchestra members. "The strike hurt us," he says "just as the strike against the Met hurt them. It's taken time to build up again."
Future income from records is uncertain. Unhappily, by the time the NSO began making the finest records in its history -- under Dorati and Rostropovich -- there were widespread reductions in the number of recordings being made by orchestras in this country. (For many years the Philadelphia Orcherstra, with its legendary Ormandy on hundreds of recordings, has enjoyed an annual income of as much as $200,000 from record royalties.) It is in this area that Rostropovich's worldwide prestige should prove of inestimable help in keeping the NSO name on record labels.
Support from the business community is another matter. It is a fact familiar to every Washington music lover, as it has been throughout the National Symphony's history, that this city's No. 1 industry is the federal government. Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Detroit, Chicago and every other home of major orchestra have large corporations which help provide those orchestras with a solid financial basis. Washington's orchestra has no such corporate base. The interest alone from the Chicago orchestra's endowment amounts to about a million and a half dollars yearly, while that of the National Symphony is around $400,000. The difference between those two sums whould completely alter the local situation.
Similarly, in most other locales a state arts council supplements orchestral income. The New York Philharmonic, for instance, receives $60,000 from the New York State Arts Council. But the District of Columbia Arts Commission's total budget for all local arts organizations is less than $1 million. Thus it is that the national symphony must turn to the Congress to supplement the generosity of the people of this area. That generosity ranks second only to Chicago in terms of per-capita contributions, but the gifts of individuals, while a vital element of any total money picture, do not provide the principal percentage of an orchestra's budget.
During the past week, then, Kiplinger has been appealing to the orchestra's friends on Capitol Hill for two things: assistance to meet the present emergency; and some new means of future funding that will make it possible for the National Symphony to escape from its year-to-year financial crises. Kiplinger is hopeful. He must be because for him, as for every lover of music in this area, it is inconceivable that Washington D.C., could find itself without an orchestra, or that the National Symphony could go out of existnece for lack fo sufficient money.
If -- and never has FDR's wonderful word "iffy" been more appropriate to a local musical problem -- the Congress can be convinced of the need, there is the possibility of a $1-million matching grant to the NSO through the National Park Service.The Senate will consider the proposed grant this week.
The orchestra is also hoping for an equal amount as a one-time gift from a major corporation. But the same week that the NSO officials approached that corporation, five other organizations made similar requests, and no final decision has yet been announced.
There is no talk, and can be none if the orchestra is to retain its recently achieved musical stature, of reducing the number of players. The kink of acclaim won by the orchestra in its March tour of Japan and its July visit to three South American countries matches that of the most loudly praised orchestras of this country.
Lee D. Butler, who holds the title of honorary vice president of the NSO, talked about the orchestra's history a few days ago. "I went to the first meeting held to get this orchestra organized. That was 50 years ago. It was in Cissy Patterson's drawing room on Dupont Circle. Bob Fleming [then the head of the Riggs Bank] was the first treasurer. The other day I found a letter from him acknowledging receipt of my first contribution of $100. Half of that was to be held in escrow until they knew that they were going to make their goal. That first fund drive was for $47,000, and when they reached it, they asked me for the other half of my contribution."
Butler, who is now senior among all National Symphony officials, said, "There have been a lot of ups and downs over the years. But with the stature the orchestra has achieved, that seems to be par for the course."
One man who played in the orchestra's first concert those many years ago under Hans Kindler will be on the stage of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Tuesday night when Rostropovich conducts the opening concert of the orchestra's 50th season. He is violinist Milton Schwartz from whose appearance you would not believe that he could have been playing 50 years ago. (He was very young.)
He summed up those years this way: "The NSO has finally arrived where it should be. The changes are fantastic: going from four or five months of work to a 52-week contract!The orchestra has done wonders. Each successive conductor has added something to the growth of the orchestra, and Rostropovich has capped it. He communicates to our audiences."
It is to ensure that communication -- not only through the comming season but for another 50 years -- that the present officers, musicians and supporters of the NSO will be working in the months ahead.
Happy Birthday, National Symphony. And, more than ever, many happy returns.