For the last three years, as the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra struggled to keep its annual budget in the black, it motored along at a speed that wouldn’t jostle any passengers.
Now Mary Deissler’s at the wheel, putting pedal to metal and asking, “Did you know this thing could go 90 mph?”
The first concert during her tenure, an all-Tchaikovsky program, opens the Classical series Sept. 30.
In less than four months as the group’s president and CEO, she has begun or revamped 10 significant programs. The new world of the CSO has room for bluegrass, beer, bucket bands and Brahms – sometimes straight, sometimes mashed up with Radiohead. It’s all part of her insistence that “we have an obligation to give back to the community every day.”
Deissler says she learned that at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where she was director of campaigns and major gifts from January 2011 to May 2012. There she increased gifts of $10,000 by 20 percent in the first seven months and secured seven gifts of more than $100,000.
You can learn that from her LinkedIn profile, where you’ll find two key facts up top: “I love raising money and have secured over $250 million to date ... Innovative and ‘out-of-the-box’ projects inspire and motivate me.”
That combination wowed the search committee of the CSO board of directors, which needed someone to lead the region’s most prominent arts group to prosperity. The orchestra, which blankets Mecklenburg County from in-school concerts to performances by Opera Carolina and Charlotte Ballet, accumulated its first deficits as early as the 1980s.
After years of crises and rumors that the symphony might collapse, the board hired outgoing president Bob Stickler to guide the CSO back to an even keel on a year-to-year basis. He did that, partly through an annual $2 million Thrive grant – but that is due to expire in three more years.
“My real challenge is to cover the gap of $2 million in revenue over those next three years to balance it out against our annual expenses,” says Deissler. “Most of those come with the fixed costs of running the orchestra.
“The longer-term number is a little deceptive. It’s $5.3 million, and we owe ourselves half of that. We borrowed 2.5 million from one fund to cover operating expenses, so that’s not an outside debt.”
The turnaround queen
Board chair Chris Teat, who was on the search committee, says Deissler “was a clear choice. She’s an aficionado of (former Kennedy Center president) Michael Kaiser, whom people call ‘the turnaround king,’ and she can sift his ideas and use them in Charlotte. She doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel.
“A lot of corporations get focused on daunting challenges and problems. She’s saying, ‘Yes, we have a lot of problems, but let’s keep our eyes focused on the future.’ One of our trustees is fond of saying that music transforms us, and Mary embodies that idea.”
It certainly transformed her. She decided early in life that she was never going to be a concert pianist: She had terrible stage fright, and a degree from the New England Conservatory of Music was unlikely. So she went to the University of Massachusetts-Boston to study languages – she speaks German and Chinese – did translations for a computer company, then got an M.B.A. from Babson College in 1982.
She immediately became development director at the Handel & Haydn Society, a Boston early music group, then became its CEO two years later. She stayed in that job almost 23 years, hiring Christopher Hogwood as artistic director. She built an international reputation for H&H, taking it to Spoleto Festival USA and co-producing Monteverdi’s “Orfeo” with English National Opera.
“It took a huge amount of effort for that organization to do a staged co-production – not something they would normally do – with an international group,” says Chen Shi-Zheng, who directed it and has been a friend of Deissler’s for 15 years. “It was extremely efficient and pain-free for me. Mary, if she believes in you, will really go to the end for you.
“We’d have meals and talk about what had to be done. I don’t know after those dinners how many arms she had to twist, but she was extremely fast in hiring people to do the work and getting the board to write a check. She’s really determined – a force to be reckoned with.”
No miracles required
On first meeting, she wears what Chen calls “this incredible Bostonian face” – reserved, assessing the situation, not giving much away. But talk to her for a while, and you realize her calm competence conceals a wry sense of humor.
Deissler, who spent a couple of years in London as director of major gifts and foundations for Save the Children, used to see kids who weren’t going to live long or happy lives. That inspired a saying she uses when contemplating the CSO’s challenges: “Nobody’s dying here.”
She estimates a financial turnaround could take five years and says, “We will never be out of the muck we’re in if we don’t drive revenue. It’s not rocket science. After moving around (in the nonprofit world), I can see how it’s done.”
So how is it done?
First, “ensure we have terrific programming. (Music director) Christopher Warren-Green has to be able to think big. If he wants to do (Shostakovich’s) ‘Leningrad’ Symphony, give me a couple of years to pay for it, and we’ll do it. And we are planning a major festival for May 2018 that will involve Charlotte Ballet and other elements. Collaborations are crucial to us.”
Second, drive audiences to core programs: classical, pops, altsounds. “People come on a first date with us, buying a ticket to one concert, and we don’t ask them back for a second. We have to re-emphasize subscription packages.”
Third, design large, revenue-generating events. “Magic of Christmas” is being retooled as more of an entertainment extravaganza. (Alas, getting a live reindeer onstage proved impractical.) Deissler plans a starry opening-night gala with a dinner attached for the 2017-18 season. The two names she mentioned, both off the record now, may be the most famous artists in their fields.
Fourth, retool the development department to focus on individual giving. “We have a generous corporate community, but 80 percent of giving comes from individuals,” she says. “We’ve hired a wonderful gift officer who’s relentless at bringing in money. We’re creating a patron loyalty index for ticket purchases and gifts (that will offer benefit levels).
“Older donors may give just because they want to support the orchestra. Younger donors ask, ‘What will you do with my money?’ ”
Shaking up the symphony
Deissler stresses fresh musical ideas, whether hiring bluegrass musician Mark O’Connor (who moved to Charlotte this year) or allowing Warren-Green to conduct pieces from his bucket list. “We can’t just give audiences programs they’ve always enjoyed,” she says. “You can’t recycle the same 20 big pieces over and over.”
She dreams up new musical possibilities partly because her own interests are diverse. J.S. Bach and Handel remain lodestones: “Bach makes you realize there’s Someone upstairs, and Handel has such great humanity.”
But a look at her Facebook page reveals she’s a fan of electronica musician Jan Hanford and guitarist Reade Wildman, who attended Chicago Academy for the Arts. (Deissler was its president before coming to the CSO.) She flew back to Boston this month to see her son and daughter, who live in Deissler’s former house, and take in another performance by Bruce Springsteen: “I’ve gone thousands of miles to see Bruce. He’s a great poet, singing about everyday life.”
As she charges forward, two questions remain. First, could the symphony be moving too quickly? Aubrey Foard, principal tuba and a musicians’ representative on the board, doesn’t think so.
“When she started talking through all the questions (the board) had come up with, she had very clearly done her research,” he says. “She was heavily invested in the success of the orchestra before the position was offered to her, and she knew a lot about Charlotte and the symphony’s strengths and weaknesses.
“Getting all these wheels spinning is imperative. The symphony needs to get out into the community ... (because) getting people to engage with us initially by saying, ‘Come hear Brahms uptown’ is a harder sell. Reaching them where they’re comfortable is a huge part of our strategy. We don’t want to be stereotyped as elitist.”
Seeing things through
The other question is whether she’ll stay a while. She’s worked at five organizations in the nine years between Handel & Haydn and the CSO.
Though Chris Teat says the board didn’t ask for a minimum commitment, “We’d like to have her here five to 10 years. We want to weave our way into the whole fabric of the city, and that takes a while.”
At 60, Deissler may be ready to stay put. The amateur muralist is looking at the bare walls in her Fourth Ward condo and deciding what should be done to them. (“My kids used to joke that, if you stood still, Mom would paint you.”)
She says financial improvements will take 18 months to get underway, and the CSO probably can’t think about jump-starting its long-dormant endowment for five years: “We have to stop asking people to save us and ask them to invest in us.
“I didn’t plan to go so quickly when I first came. But when I started peeling the onion, I saw that we had to. We have a limited time frame to turn things around.”
Since taking over as president and CEO of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra in June, Mary Deissler has come up with or altered 10 programs. Here’s a thumbnail sketch:
altsounds – KnightSounds was attracting audiences who already knew the CSO and simply wanted shorter concerts. It’s been scrapped for a series designed to attract first-timers: a Halloween concert, a mash-up of Brahms’ First Symphony and Radiohead’s album “OK Computer,” and a concert by the O’Connor Family Band.
Artist in residence – Speaking of Mark O’Connor, the acclaimed fiddler is negotiating to become the CSO’s artist-in-residence. Deissler foresees a two-year agreement in which he can advise Warren-Green about programs, be involved in education efforts, link the CSO to the bluegrass community and write new pieces. The orchestra may also play his “Americana Symphony.”
Brew Pub Series – NoDa Brewing Company will sponsor concerts of light classical music in its brewing room for $15 apiece, including a free beer brewed for each event. Musicians will sit on the floor near the audience, play in street clothes and hobnob afterward.
Link Up – This program sponsored by Carnegie Hall distributes workbooks and instruments to children in grades 3 to 5. At the end of their training, kids in Chester and Lancaster county schools will become both performers and audience for a concert. Schools pay for transportation and teacher costs; private money funds the rest. (The Charlotte Youth Orchestra, by the way, has been invited to join other young musicians at Carnegie Hall in a concert in 2017.)
Winterfield expansion – The CSO’s long-standing relationship with Winterfield Elementary School changed this year, when El Sistema USA accepted the school into its training program. A bilingual, part-time teaching artist will oversee roughly 80 to 90 children in the program, which has already sent seven students to Northwest School of the Arts.
Jail North bucket band – This has become a mandatory, CMS-sponsored class for incarcerated males at the detention center; it’s taught by a bilingual instructor. “You can never tell what will touch a young person on the fence,” says Deissler. “Music can be a piece of it.”
“Mill Village” returns – Eleven years ago, the CSO commissioned David Crowe to write “Mill Village: A Piedmont Rhapsody,” a multimedia work that incorporated films and photos of mill-town life and voices of textile industry veterans. It returns this season for a tour of local schools.
“Pro-Am” weekend – AKA the Rusty Musician Program, the equivalent of baseball camps where adults play with major leaguers. You’ll pay a modest fee to rehearse with the orchestra under Warren-Green. After a meal break, you’ll play a concert for friends, family and anyone else who comes by.
Pre-K daytime concerts – This idea is in its infancy, but these are aimed at kids 3 to 5 and designed to feed young people into the Lollipops series. Concerts may be in day care centers, churches ....
“EarShot” – The American Composers Orchestra created this national program; the Charlotte version will take place May 3-4 at Belk Theater. A panel will judge submissions and invite four composers here; they’ll hear pieces played through, then get advice from musicians about what works and what doesn’t. The composers will take home a recording of the performance to study for revisions.