elaine calder tackles 10 questions

happy president’s day everyone!  we here at the cb home office are extremely proud to offer a very special president’s day interview with (who else?) elaine calder.  after a unanimous recommendation from the search committee, she came on board as the symphony’s president in 2007.  she’s been working her executive magic ever since.  hail to the chief!

madam president, tell us: what is the state of the oregon symphony?

We’re strong, we’re healthy, but we’re very aware we live in difficult times and a fragile economy.  We just welcomed three new players in addition to the three who joined us in September, and the quality of the musicians we continue to attract is really impressive.  The work Carlos has done to build on the professional base created by James DePreist is really paying off, in the concert hall and at auditions.  I’m counting on the Carnegie performance in May to lift our spirits and our reputation even higher, across the country and here in Portland.

i read that when you came on board as president, the symphony had 7 million dollars in debt, but not anymore.  how is that possible?  [level with me, off the record – are you cooking the books?]

Good question, and one that surprisingly few people have asked.  We had been using a bank line of credit to finance growth for about a decade, and the loan was secured by our reserve funds.  These were unrestricted gifts which had accumulated over time which were invested in the stock market.  The funds had grown substantially but when the market crashed, the value of those investments dropped so badly we were forced to convert them to cash in order to meet the bank’s lending covenants.  At that point it became really clear to everyone that we were paying interest to the bank in order to borrow our own money.  We took great care to review the composition of the reserve funds and determine they could all be used as the board thought best, consulted with some key stakeholders, and then used $7 million to repay the bank loan.  We had $2.5 million left for working capital so we cancelled the bank line of credit because we are determined that going forward we have to be self-financing.  Our balance sheet is much, much healthier and our donors/funders are very pleased.

i know i’m pleased.  what are some things you miss about edmonton?

Four or five friends, sun in winter, and the Winspear Centre.  Definitely the Winspear Centre.  Colin Currie just flew here from Edmonton and says it’s one of the five best halls he’s ever performed in.  It opened in 1997 and is a 1740 seat purpose built concert hall, with acoustics by the late great Russell Johnson.  It’s exquisite.  There’s a terrific Steinway piano on its own on-stage lift.  A magnificent 6550-pipe concert organ.  The Symphony’s ticket office in the lobby.  An attractive green room for the musicians, with WINDOWS.  I could get from my office into an on-stage rehearsal in 15 seconds.  Musicians, conductors, and guest artists could come upstairs for meetings, interviews, and casual visits at rehearsal breaks.  Every time we sold a drink at intermission the profit trickled down to the Symphony’s bottom line.  There’s a parking lot attached which is now being turned into a garage with affordable housing on top for retired musicians and arts workers.  Of course, the Winspear Centre is in another country with very different priorities.  The land was donated by the City and two-thirds of the construction cost came from the federal and provincial governments.  The total budget in 1997 was $45 million.

now you make me want to go to edmonton!  is putting together the classical season line-up you and carlos playing an intense game of rochambeau?

No, programming isn’t a game.  [oh, the beaver just got snapped!] The artistic decision-making is Carlos’ responsibility and he works most closely with Charles Calmer, our artistic administrator.  I just nudge, suggest, and occasionally challenge.  I see my role as representing the audience, to a degree – because none of us in the audience knows all the possibilities and we tend to cherish what we know best.  So I watch out for the balance.  And like several others on our staff I attend a lot of performances elsewhere and every so often I’ll recommend an artist or a piece of music.  I was surprised when I got here that we weren’t engaging artists like Emanuel Ax or Joshua Bell, and was told we couldn’t afford them.  It was pretty easy to prove that an investment in great artists really pays off; sure they are paid well but they leave a lot of money behind, too.

you’ve got a bachelor’s in art history – what do you gravitate towards?

American realism, early 20th century.  Some people call them the Ashcan School.  Everett Shinn, William Glackens, Robert Henri, John Sloan, George Luks.  That’s the first thing I look for when we visit a museum in an American city for the first time.

well, if you ever find yourself in cleveland, check out george bellows’ stag at sharkey’s… easily my favorite painting back home.  so, is being a musician a prerequisite for becoming the symphony’s president?

I learned to play recorder and read music in public school in England, and studied piano for many years in Canada.  I haven’t played for years.  I love music, but making it isn’t one of my strong suits.  That was a disappointment.

generally speaking, without naming names (not unless you want to, of course), how much does it cost to have a top-level soloist play with the orchestra for a weekend?

The range in fees is tremendous, and “top-level” means different things to different people.  But $30,000 to $45,000 gets you three performances by all but the international superstars.

wow – you actually gave numbers, thanks.  and wow – what numbers!  let’s see… do you have to drag your husband to classical shows?

Not at all!  Bill comes willingly to all three performances.  He’s been listening to music for longer than I have, reads and knows more about it than I do, and has a very good ear.

if you could invite 3 composers to dinner, who would you choose and where would you go?

Thomas Ades, William Bolcom, and Hector Berlioz.  Right now I’m thrilled to have a reservation at Tocqueville in NYC next week, so I guess that’s my pick, but there are so many great restaurants here in Portland it’s really hard to choose.  But I’d let Bolcom pick the wine.

what does playing in carnegie hall mean for this orchestra?

Recognition.  We still get called the Portland Symphony by well-meaning people across the country because they don’t have a strong sense of us, I guess.  This is a terrific orchestra but we’re very far from W. 57th Street, and I think a lot of people will be surprised at just how good we are.  And I hope it’s a big morale-booster.  Our musicians have never been well paid and they’ve made some big concessions to keep us going over the past couple of years.  I want them to feel really appreciated.  We’ve already sold more than 300 tickets to our Carnegie concert to friends and supporters, and I think it’s going to be a great night for the Oregon Symphony.

happy to say i’ll see you there.  elaine, thank you so much for your time and thoughtful responses.  happy president’s day to you and yours!

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2 Responses to “elaine calder tackles 10 questions”


  1. 1 Dan Rasay February 23, 2011 at 10:13 am

    Watching events unfold around the self destruction of the Detroit Symphony we’re so very lucky to have musicians/management/board that have good working relationship.

  2. 2 Niel DePonte August 28, 2012 at 4:09 pm

    We are going to miss Elaine. One of the best of the best.


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