Photo of Andrew Kipe by Sam English.
Interview by Scott Dowd
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A native of Maryland who at one time planned a career in marine biology, Andrew Kipe has spent the last few years of his career working in the desert southwest. Kipe was part of the management team that brought the troubled Phoenix Symphony back into the black. Now the board of directors of the Louisville Orchestra has asked him to apply his skills to a new set of challenges here. Only on the job seven weeks when we sat down together just before Christmas, Kipe seems to have thoroughly assessed the organization’s strengths and challenges. He and music director-designate Teddy Abrams have been busy acquiring an understanding of the various stake holders vital to the success of his goals. We talked about the chart he is drawing for the organization and his plans for the journey.
Scott Dowd: Orchestras have really changed the way they do business over the past quarter century.
Andrew Kipe: That’s very true. I’ve been doing this about twenty years now and I guess that is all I’ve ever known about the industry. I made a conscious choice before I went to Phoenix about whether or not I wanted to stay in orchestra administration. My first executive director in Annapolis told me, “We do this as missionary work.” You have to believe in it and maintain a passion for it. Nobody is getting rich doing it. After spending a lot of time in the industry and getting to know folks who are working very hard to make the American orchestra not only survive, but thrive, I decided that I do feel a sense of responsibility at this point. It has been my only career and I think I’m pretty good at it. I certainly don’t have all of the answers. To be part of the conversation about what American orchestras are going to look like in the twenty-first century is pretty exciting.
SD: You mentioned the conversation that is going on. Who is part of that dialogue?
AK: It’s going to be a continuing discussion with both musicians and communities about what they expect and what orchestras can mean. I think it’s a different answer for different communities.
SD: Looking at the Phoenix Symphony, however, there are some similarities between the challenges you faced there and those you will have to confront in Louisville. Tell me about what worked for you there and how that might translate.
AK: Phoenix was an orchestra that, not unlike many, struggled perennially with financial challenges. The budget ebbed and flowed. They would go through the cycle, have some big cuts from which they would come back, and someone would bail them out – a model familiar to a lot of orchestras. When I got to Phoenix, it was a time of transition for all the executive staff. I was being brought in as general manager, the second in command there. We had a brand new CEO who was acting as the interim while they did the search. Jim Ward is not from the orchestra world. He is a venture capitalist and was also the executive vice president at Lucasfilm, where he was in charge of all the new Star Wars movies when they came out.
SD: So he had a lot of creative weight to apply.
AK: Yes. He came from a very creative workforce with a very different perspective on things. He was a music minor in college, so he certainly came with an appreciation for music. What we walked into in Phoenix was a pretty big financial crisis: The orchestra’s budget was about $10 million and they had a deficit that year of about $2.4 million. They had just raided the endowment to pay for the shortfall and they had a debt of about $3 million. On top of all that, the musicians had taken a cut about five years before. They had cut the number of performance weeks, the number of musicians; and those remaining had taken about a nineteen percent pay cut. They were scheduled to get that nineteen percent back in September of that year. So we had huge debt, huge issues –
SD: And a balloon payment?
AK: And a balloon payment. So as soon as we got there, we had to sit down with the orchestra and say, “Look. You haven’t been told the truth for a while now. Here is the financial situation…” because they had been assured everything was fine. We told them, “Here is the reality. We have to fix this right away and we can’t afford to give you the raise that is in the contract.”
SD: I can imagine the response.
AK: I think one of the success stories from that whole, hard process was that we worked to keep the musicians engaged and to bring them along in the process. They had a contract. They didn’t have to accept what we had to say.
SD: Did you have to make deeper cuts?
AK: We didn’t cut them any further, but we had to keep their salaries flat. We cut $1.5 million from the budget as a whole. That first year was a real challenge. Everything got hit pretty hard.
SD: How long did it take for things to turn around?
AK: We were able to give small, incremental raises in years two and three. The budget was nearly balanced after the first year. I think the first year we had a shortfall of about $200,000 – down from $2.4 million. The second year I think it was about a $40,000 deficit. That’s pretty close on a $10 million dollar budget.
SD: Especially if it is sustainable.
AK: Right. About nine months ago, we did have some donors come forward who paid down all of our debt. That was part of a campaign to make the orchestra debt-free, which is a very big deal. I think that really puts the Phoenix Symphony on a path toward sustainability.
SD: What were some of the challenges you dealt with there?
AK: Phoenix is a challenge just because of its demographics. No one is “from” Phoenix. So while there are a lot of wealthy folks in the area who support the orchestra, they’re still giving big money back to Minneapolis, Chicago or wherever they call home. One of the other challenges is that Arizona endowments are all very small because of the age of the community. It’s still one of the fastest-growing cities in the country…it’s about six million if you put in Scottsdale, Mesa, Tempe and the surrounding communities. There are a lot of younger folks out there for opportunity, people there to reinvent themselves and a lot of retirees. Those folks are there for the weather and golf, not necessarily for the arts. Another problem is the population is spread out over approximately seventy-five square miles. It’s a different set of challenges than most cities back east have.
SD: Those are certainly not the challenges you will face here. The population is not that dense and people are definitely from Louisville. They are born here and they don’t leave in large numbers.
AK: What I have found in the seven or so weeks I’ve been here is that one of the big differences between Louisville and Phoenix is the great community identity and pride here. I met someone last night who is a fifth-generation Louisvillian. People have long histories here, and there is a lot of pride among folks who want to be here and want this community to succeed. I sense a lot of energy around what this community can be.
SD: We have seen a lot of new development and it is continuing.
AK: Having an active downtown is a huge benefit to an arts organization.
SD: I think both the Orchestra and the city are in parallel in this!
AK: There is a lot of momentum behind the Orchestra right now. Our new music director designate, Teddy Abrams, was in town last week and we spent seven days on the circuit introducing ourselves to people in the community. We talked with them about the future and, of course, laid the foundations we will build on to get there.
SD: What feelings do you have coming out of that process?
AK: People want this orchestra to survive. Recent challenges aside, I think there is a lot of hope and optimism around what the Orchestra has been in the past and what we can be in the future. The Louisville Orchestra has an amazing legacy we can build on. It’s very exciting for us to know that people we spoke with are excited about what the orchestra can be. But it’s not going to be easy. There will still be challenges.
SD: What is the mood among the players?
AK: The players are excited. They have had a tough few years and are continuing to figure out how things are going to work with a smaller core of full-time musicians. They are optimistic about Teddy and they seem excited about new leadership in the office as well as Jim Welch’s leadership of the board. All new leadership at the top of the organization for any workforce can be both an opportunity and a little scary. But I think what they have seen so far is that we are rooting for them as an entity. We are going to listen to their opinions and ideas. I always remind folks that in any orchestra, the musicians are the constant. Executives change, board chairs change, conductors change…but musicians are sometimes here for twenty, thirty, forty years. That huge institutional memory is a great asset that we can tap into.
SD: The players have made a lot of concessions over the years and I know that many of them feel the orchestra is only here because they carried the weight.
AK: That is very important. As we look at the directions orchestras are taking around the country, players have to be part of the conversation. I don’t have all the answers, so we’re going to have to work collaboratively to determine how we are going to continue to play the great music that brought us all into this business. Beethoven and Brahms aren’t going away. I think people get scared sometimes when we talk about new and different that it’s going to be all Pops. Teddy speaks very eloquently about this. He will be considering the possibility of new ways to present familiar repertoire.
SD: What are some examples?
AK: We may experiment with shorter concerts or multiples. Unfortunately, our attention spans in this country aren’t what they used to be. I am also a big believer in getting the orchestra out of Whitney Hall and into the community in different ways.
SD: Such as?
AK: Obviously there are the traditional ways – going to schools or run-outs to different communities, which is valuable. We’re looking at maybe developing a “neighborhood” series where you play in churches or auditoriums – going to where the folks are. It is a model similar to that of Detroit after they came out of bankruptcy. We may also consider breaking the orchestra into smaller ensembles: quintets, quartets and chamber groups. Teddy has talked about taking them into places where younger people are where you can interact with smaller groups in a different way. One of the successes we had in Phoenix was around social services activities. We had a hospital series, we were developing an Alzheimer’s series and we had a pretty robust series in homeless shelters.
SD: Those sound like good programs, but seem unlikely to lead to ticket sales.
AK: You are right. We had grant funding for the homeless shelter series, but I think programs like those make the orchestra an indispensable part of the fabric of the community for folks who may not want or be able to come hear Brahms at Whitney Hall.
SD: Your challenge, I would think, is to find strategic ways to connect to the community so you don’t squander resources.
AK: Absolutely. My strategic planning process will include the board, staff and musicians; but it also needs to include the public. We need to hear from audience members and the community-at-large about their hopes and dreams. I anticipate different answers from different groups. One exciting thing about an orchestra is that we can be many different things to many people. I think some other performing arts are a little more boxed in. Opera, while it has different repertoire, is a pretty well-defined form. We can be the back-up band for a big name pop star on one night and do Beethoven and Brahms the next. Then we can turn around and do an orKIDstra concert the day after that. The ability to take this orchestral model and mould it into these different forms of entertainment and reach a spectrum of people is one of the real benefits we have and something we need to leverage.
SD: You haven’t mentioned new music, and that is a significant part of Louisville Orchestra’s history. It has also been a double-edged sword. Have you given any thought to how you might approach contemporary works?
AK: Teddy is a fan of new music and its place in the repertoire. I also support new music. I don’t think orchestras can just be museums for music that is one hundred fifty years old…even a hundred years old. Some of Stravinsky is now a century old! There needs to be a place for contemporary music – all orchestras need to champion it. As you say, we may have a little more responsibility for it than others. But it has to be presented in a way that audiences can come with us on the journey. When Louisville Orchestra was heavily into the First Edition series, the music being commissioned was pretty tough and challenging. Composers today have really done a one-eighty in writing music that has a broad appeal. They are moving away from the academic exercises.
SD: That was the height of the atonal and 12-tone period – it’s not very accessible!
AK: Exactly. To really enjoy that music, you almost have to sit down with the score and work through the theory. As we consider how to engage our audiences in new music – and I think that is something we certainly will do – we first have to establish trust in Teddy and his programming. Then we have to choose some great new music. He’s already talked about the possibility of a composer-in-residence who he feels could help us enhance our profile as a community resource. Aside from writing new works for the Louisville Orchestra, he or she would also be out in the schools working with students. They would become part of the community and participate in a variety of activities.
SD: What role is Jorge Mester to play?
AK: Jorge is still music director. Teddy has been named music-director-designate through the end of this season, at which point Jorge will be named music director emeritus. We are still working with Jorge as we go forward and I expect him to be a strong part of the Louisville Orchestra for the next several years.
SD: Will Bob Bernhardt continue as principal pops conductor?
AK: Bob has great ideas and I look forward to working with him. He has been with us thirty-two seasons now, which is amazing for any conductor! He has put together a really great Pops season that will feature Matthew Morrison from the television series Glee!. Trumpeter Brian Stripling is coming with a Louis Armstrong tribute and Jason Alexander from Seinfeld will reprise the show he premiered with the Boston Pops this year. It’s supposed to be hilarious. We will also have a symphonic swing show with a cast of five singer/dancers.
SD: I assume the L.O. WOW! Series will continue next season?
AK: Right now, I think that series is working. Next season we open with Cirque de la Symphonie, bringing aerialists and other traditional cirque attractions to the concert hall. I’ve done those several times at other places and audiences always have a lot of fun. The challenge is always programming around the bigger name guest artists who aren’t always attuned to orchestra budgets.
SD: How is the Louisville Orchestra budget right now?
AK: I think we’re fairly healthy. We’re still coming back from the bankruptcy. We have a small amount left to pay on the settlement, which will be finished by August 2014. Other than that, we are debt-free. I’m very encouraged by audience response this season – our subscriptions are up significantly compared to the previous year. Single tickets, too, are up and we are ahead of budget in both of those categories. Subscriptions are tracking at nearly the level of 2009-2010, which was the last full season.
SD: That is very encouraging.
AK: To see audiences that resilient is a testament to the community and their support of the orchestra. We have seen, as well, some very strong support from the donor community. We are finalizing our end-of-year forecasts, but I think we are on track to balance our budget. I think that is important for us, but it is also important to show the community that we are a stable resource.
SD: Still, I’m sure there is a lot of hard work ahead of you.
AK: As I said, the next few years will not be easy. We have been helped by the adjustments made to the budget. I think it is realistic to believe this is sustainable, but we do have to figure out how to live within those means. While we are doing really well with sales, we also have six fewer weeks in the season to turn those revenues out. Our per-concert returns have to be higher, and we’ve got to work harder to make that happen.
SD: What is the underlying principle of your strategy as you imagine it today?
AK: Butts in seats. That’s what we have to do because it impacts everything else that happens. We are doing very well in some areas but have a ways to go. However, I feel confident about how we will end the year in May.
SD: I imagine you are planning to capitalize on the excitement around the 2014-2015 season.
AK: You only get the opportunity every eight to ten years to celebrate a new music director, and that galvanizes the organization and community in a way that nothing else does. We are going to take full advantage of that as we go into next season. I fully expect next season will be very successful, and I invite everyone to come feel for themselves what the new Louisville Orchestra is all about.
Readers will have the opportunity to read more about Teddy Abrams in the September issue of Audience. In the meantime, tickets for Louisville Orchestra’s 2014-2015 season will be available in the spring. Visit louisvilleorchestra.org for updates and more information. To purchase tickets for upcoming concerts in the remainder of the current season, go to kentuckycenter.org or call the box office at 502.584.7777.