The KSO uses new methods to carry on old
by Mike Gibson
There's something about a performance of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra
that lends a certain heightened Old World nobility even to a hall as vast
and regal as the Tennessee Theater. An enormous curtain rises on the 50 or
so tiny porcelain orchestra members in tuxes and black high-collar, floor-length
dresses, sitting studiously erect and cradling implements of burnished wood
and steel. Bright stage lights seep across the darkened auditorium, elliptically
highlighting the theater's splendid crimson and blue velvet oval ceiling,
venerable blue-draped balconies, and baroque architectural flourishes.
In the shadow of such antediluvian grandeur, Maestro Kirk Trevor launches
the musicians into the opening strains of Beethoven's Leonore Overture, No.
1. His bold directorial gesture commences the first performance in the second
of the KSO's 1997-98 Masterworks concerts, each a two-night affair. The orchestra
is agreeably light on its feet as it navigates the piece's airier string
passages; commanding, even electric during the louder, heavier sections.
The evening's next selection, Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D Major, sees
guest violinist Robert McDuffie take the stage to the left of Trevor's podium.
A heralded soloist and former Grammy nominee, McDuffie essays quicksilver
trills, impossibly long octave and double-octave scalar runs with astounding
precision, describing sonic configurations which the cramped geometry of
the violin neck would seem to have no possibility of containing.
When the piece concludes, the heretofore preternaturally still audience suddenly
erupts in a tempest of long, sustained applause and enthusiastic chatter
that culminates in a standing ovation. Lights douse the room. Intermission.
Now in its 63rd season, KSO has arguably reached new plateaus of artistic
achievement and organizational stability. Nashville Symphony conductor Kenneth
Schermerhorn, a well-traveled symphonic veteran, describes KSO as an "especially
fine, sensitive, adept orchestra." And Trevor believes his charge is "positioned
for a major move...a wonderful boiling point where the vibrancy of the orchestra
will spill over and capture the whole community's attention."
His optimism may be grounded in more than just paternal ardor. The orchestra's
Masterworks series has been a near sell-out for the past three seasons, while
subscription ticket sales have risen by more than 60 percent over the period
for the group's chamber orchestra performances, and by more than 400 percent
for the annual five-concert pops series. And since 1988-89, the symphony's
total budget has nearly doubled, from $1.3 million to $2.5 million for the
But it was only four years ago that KSO was faced
with sharply declining seasonal attendance and a deficit of more than $150,000.
Masterworks subscription sales for the 1993-94 season had fallen by roughly
25 percent from 1988-89; the pops series, meanwhile, dropped an abysmal 41
percent between '89 and '93.
Given that symphonies in many larger cities were folding (a short list of
casualties over the last decade include orchestras in Denver, Birmingham,
New Orleans, San Diego, Sacramento, and Kansas City), KSO board members were
justifiably concerned about the organization's continued health.
The KSO "turnaround" is in part a testament to thrift and thoughtful management,
to the star power of its magnetic musical director, and to the dedication
and sacrifice of its members. But it also points to a series of bold new
promotional strokes, enacted by a new set of administrators, that resuscitated
flagging sales, and to the successful marriage of art and commerce that
transpired as board members sought to bring the institution's marketing approach
in line with its standards of musical excellence.
KSO's rise to the ranks of well-regarded professional symphonies occurred
chiefly over the latter half of its six-decade existence. A member since
1968, violinist Norris Dryer remembers an orchestra far-removed from today's
multi-faceted musical hydra. Although then-conductor David Van Vactor had
transformed the organization from an amateur group to a quasi-professional
orchestra, University of Tennessee students, paid via scholarship, comprised
much of its membership.
"In many ways, we were still more of a community orchestra," says Dryer,
a slight, affably prim man in his 50s. "We still had many people who were
probably not up to the standard needed for a larger symphony."
The KSO of the 1960s played only a single masterworks concert every month
and met, with rehearsals, only 60 times a season. (Compare that with the
more than 300 performances the '97 incarnation will navigate, including the
chamber orchestra series, family concerts, Knoxville opera and ballet
appearances, and countless educational programs for area schoolchildren.)
Van Vactor was replaced in 1973 by Arpad Joo, a 25-year-old Hungarian firebrand
who, as the first official gesture of his first full-time director's position,
required all of the standing members to audition for their seats. "He essentially
fired everyone and started from scratch," Dryer chuckles. "It was very difficult
at first for a certain sector of the East Tennessee contingent to deal with
this young hotshot. But what he did went a long way toward setting rigorous
standards for the orchestra."
Joo also established the Knoxville Symphony Youth Orchestra, which flourishes
today under the guidance of KSO's associate conductor, Sande MacMorran, another
longtime member. But Joo's tenure ended after only five years when he was
recruited by the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, and his final legacy lay
in choosing his successor, fellow Hungarian Zoltan Rozsnyai.
Many symphony boosters privately view the choice of Rozsnyai, who was given
to mood swings and unpredictable behavior, as a misstep. Several members,
however, point to his push for a salaried "core orchestra" as an important
step in the symphony's evolution.
"Rozsnyai was able to convince the board of directors that if this orchestra
was to move to the next level, they must offer salaries that would attract
musicians to move into the area," says MacMorran, also a tuba player. "Zoltan
knew that without that full-time core, you're pretty much just a community
orchestra. Even so, there was a lot of resistance to the idea of having outside
players come in and be full-time orchestra members."
Rozsnyai's initiative was adopted, thus establishing the orchestra's so-called
core players16 professional string players (now 22) who were salaried
employees of KSO, rather than players paid per service. Rozsnyai also founded
the chamber orchestra, expanded the KSO's occasional pops forays, and broadened
its educational outreach by using the core players to stage young people's
concerts and workshops. And his personal shortcomings notwithstanding, the
orchestra's annual number of public appearances increased fourfold under
"Each conductor has had an idea of what needed to happen during that stage
of the orchestra's growth," avers principal trombonist Don Hough, a member
for some 30 years. "But none so much as Kirk Trevor. He had a very specific
vision of how he wanted the orchestra to sound and what he wanted out of
A former ballroom dancer and school soccer player, Trevor assumed the KSO
directorship in 1984 at the age of 32. Born in England and a graduate of
London's Guildhall School of Music, he brought to the orchestra another infusion
of youthful energy, a herculean work ethic, and a boundless enthusiasm for
"When I first arrived, I was much younger and more vital than I am now,"
Trevor says with a quirky chuckle. Smallish, with pleasantly weathered features
and wavy black hair foiled by a whisper of gray, the Trevor who sits by day
in a KSO office chair seems somehow incapable of the exuberant physicality
exhibited by the conductor who takes the podium for rehearsals and concerts
"Today, I have much less energy, but I think I use more of it, and I use
it more productively."
KSO has become markedly more active during Trevor's reign (a product of
administrative as well as directorial decision-making), with more rehearsals
and more performances on all fronts; the pops concerts are now a five-night
annual series, while the number of young people's concerts and in-school
musical demonstrations have grown to more than 100 per season. "Many directors
consider such things a nuisance, a necessary evil," says Dryer. "He's been
exceptionally committed in that regard."
By several accounts, however, Trevor's chief accomplishment thus far has
been his expansion of the KSO playlist to include works outside the hidebound,
seemingly immutable confines of the standard classical repertoire.
"Repertoire is the single most important element," says Trevor, a self-professed
champion of "undeservedly ignored" composers such as Gustav Mahler "There
are two things you must balance in programming. You must avoid becoming jaded
as a conductor or player through playing the same thing, yet you also have
an audience that knows what it likes and likes what it knows. You have to
give the audience enough of what they want that they're not scared off, yet
bring enough new things to the table to keep it fresh."
But Trevor, though widely recognized as an adept and industrious conductor,
would eventually draw some criticism for his audacious programming. Dryer
remembers that as the young director grew more at ease with his position,
his musical selections for the masterworks concerts moved farther and farther
afield from the realm of the cherished "Three B's" (Bach, Beethoven, and
"He definitely became bolder," says Dryer. "He commissioned several pieces,
and almost every concert had at least one piece that was very unfamiliar
to the audience."
Whether or not Trevor's musical daring contributed to the KSO's early '90's
financial decline, it coincided with it. "Certain members of the board of
directors felt his programming had become a little off-center, away from
the basic repertoire, and he was asked to become a little more conservative,"
says one orchestra member. "There was a perception that this was hurting
Adds Hough, "There may have been a point when he went too far" in choosing
modern or less-familiar works.
The event that provoked concern over the Maestro's programming, and over
the financial stability of KSO as a whole, was the aforementioned plummeting
of subscription sales and an escalating ratio of expenses to revenues that
saw the historically frugal institution slide more than $150,000 into the
red. Masterworks season ticket sales had declined from nearly 3,000 (SRO)
to roughly 2,200, while the pops series, never profitable to start with,
was hemorrhaging red ink.
With the program foundering, the KSO board tapped Rick Lester, a tall,
yellow-bearded orchestral consultant with more than 15 years of PR and management
experience at four other big-city symphonies. Lester and his aggressive marketing
strategies were reportedly viewed with distaste by some of the symphony's
"old guard", and there was considerable dissent over his retainer. But his
bold gambles in marketing and scheduling would prove to be unqualified successes,
and by summer of 1996, he had moved from consultant to executive director
Whatever other tensions may have existed, the chemistry between executive
director and musical director was of paramount importance, and the Trevor-Lester
pairing at first may have seemed a recipe for disasterthe outspoken,
sometimes naively imaginative conductor under the same organizational umbrella
as Lester, a heady business man with an eye on the bottom line and a natural
flair for public relations (though friendly and forthcoming, Lester often
softens the impact of even relatively bearable truths with pillowy phrases).
And at times, the differences between KSO's two most influential figures
inevitably color their assessment of past events.
"While I admire the...," Trevor says, pausing mid-sentence, choosing his
words carefully, "fiscal wisdom since I've been here, there's also
the view that you have to spend money to make money. Some people consider
our last couple of years as a turnaround. I see a change, not necessarily
a turnaround. I never thought we were going backwards. There are all kinds
of doomsayers any time you get 14 cents in the hole. I'm more of a liberal
economist, however. I'm more likely to buy pork-belly futures than stock
But even Trevor acknowledges that KSO's conservative thrust "has taken us
through bad times while others have gone bankrupt," and his partnership with
Lester would appear to be a resounding, if paradoxical, success. "Kirk has
been a wonderful collaborator," says Lester. "He's made the job fun."
Where the two may have found common ground was in this shared realization;
given the profligate cultural static of the information age, arts organizations
can no longer rely on institutional verities to perpetuate their existence
and get their message across.
"Image is very important, and we want a perception of the orchestra that
moves beyond the stuffy status quoaÆ," says Trevor. "We'll never
lose sight of the fact that we are a symphony orchestra. But the '90s is
a new generation, with the Internet and the Web and new means of communication.
Marketing, PR, and imaging have become vital to the mission of any arts
Lester's gameplan called for a series of daring, sometimes controversial
promotional efforts. For the first time, KSO used telemarketing to push season
tickets (an approach initially viewed with disdain). He employed demographic
research to choose guest entertainers for the ailing pops series, and in
a move that some deemed foolhardy, increased the number of yearly pops concerts
from two in '93-'94 to five, the current level.
The expansion, combined with a more calculated approach to programming, resulted
in a more than fivefold increase in revenue from '93 to '96. "The success
of the pops series has been the most amazing part of what we've accomplished,"
says one board member. "It went from a money loser to a substantial source
According to Lester, the key to most of KSO's new strategies harkens back
to Marketing 101tailoring messages to suit different subsets of
symphony-goers. "We've adopted more of a brand-management approach," says
Lester. "We recognize now that the person who subscribes to the masterworks
concerts at the Tennessee Theatre is likely to be very different from the
person who goes to the pops concerts, or even the family series. There's
a lot of competition todaythe symphony isn't the only game in town.
Tailoring a message that recognizes target markets has had a huge impact
on our ability to speak to the people we want to reach."
Perhaps the only drawback to Lester's ascension is that his time is split
between KSO and other consultancieshe lives in Princeton,
N.J.affording him only about one week out of every month with KSO.
"We couldn't afford him full-time," one board member says, with admiration.
The lack of an executive director with a full-time community presence has
cast much of the burden of fundraising on KSO's traditional supporters. And
although the fundraising machinery reportedly ground out a record $927,000
in '96-'97, thanks in part to a $50,000 challenge grant from mobile homes
mogul Jim Clayton, Trevor believes contributions will soon reach a level
of stagnation unless symphony boosters can begin making inroads outside the
group's narrow circle of supporters. "We've tended to rely on a very small
base of loyal contributors," Trevor says. "Our next mission will be to expand
that base of generosity and make more people feel they are shareholders."
Of course, marketing and fundraising are only two parts of a three-part equation;
KSO's surge into the black hasn't come without sacrifice. "We've been really
tough on expenses, " says Lester. "We've watched every penny we've made."
For KSO musicians, administrative bean-counting has been both a blessing
and a curse. Many players freely acknowledge that the base salary for core
musicians (about $18,000) and $55 minimum for per-service players fall far
short of providing a reasonable living wage. Most KSO members supplement
their income with University teaching posts, with private students, with
night-club sidelights, and party gigs. Second oboist Lyn Davies repairs
instruments and sells oboe reeds through a local music store; clarinetist
Mark Tucker blows jazz saxophone at area nightclubs; bassoonist Mike Benjamin
plays jazz piano for tourists in Sevier County.
Even Trevor himself juggles no fewer than four positions, balancing his KSO
duties with a teaching schedule at the University and director's posts at
both the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra (eight yearly concerts) and the Bohuslav
Martinu Philharmonic in the Czech Republic (10 annual performances), the
latter of which sometimes requires the conductor to step from podium to plane
But there does seem to be a prevailing notion among many of the KSO players
that such trade-offs are the devil's bargain of the practicing musician,
that job security and organizational stability are commodities dearly purchased
"We're somewhat on the lower end of salaries for orchestras, but I have to
say we've made slow and steady progress," says principle oboist Phylis Secrist,
herself a private teacher and University oboe instructor. "Some orchestras
make huge increases, then the economy changes and the orchestra crashes,
so maybe slow and steady isn't so bad."
"I think our approach has given us the long-term freedom to build consistently,"
adds MacMorran. "Many orchestras want to do great artistic things, but don't
have the business sense. We've had a good balance of artistic and business
How KSO can expand on that cache of creativity and expertise is the quandary
that now faces its principal players. Trevor admits the symphony is still
a regional orchestraalbeit one of the finer specimens of its
classand will continue to lose virtuosic young instrumentalists whenever
wealthier and more prestigious metropolitan symphonies beckon.
And at least one prominent member suggests the orchestra has been treading
water, musically speaking, in recent years, and that perhaps Trevor's departure
would serve as a catalyst for renewed growth.
"It's nothing against Kirk himself; I think there's a consensus that the
orchestra has improved under him," says Dryer, who as music director of WUOT,
the University's public radio station, has breached the subject on the air
with the Maestro. "But there is a certain syndrome with all conductors where
familiarity and festering personality clashes eventually lead to stagnation.
In some respects, I think Kirk has been here too long."
Trevor, however, doesn't sound like a man whose house is up for sale. Rather,
he speaks with child-like effervescence of seeking new contributors outside
the clique of arts loyalists; of engineering bold new pops forays featuring
artists from far-flung sectors of the musical spectrum; of marketing the
Knoxville Symphony Orchestra with a level of flair and vitality that has
witnessed no parallel in the starched and buttoned-down world of high-cultural
"In the next five years, I think we're going to see a new thrust in artistic
growth along with a thorough redefining of ourselves fiscally," Trevor enthuses.
"I want to give the orchestra a vibrant, vital, youthful, energetic look
and feeling. When people say KSO, I want those letters to hang on their lips
with a sense of excitement."