Toronto Symphony Orchestra with music director Peter Oundjian.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra sold 224,000 concert tickets during its 90th anniversary (2011-12) season and earned its highest revenues ever, but still reported a $986,000 deficit at its annual general meeting on Monday afternoon.

The orchestra performed 126 concerts at Roy Thomson Hall, where it kept the average attendance above 80 per cent. The season featured three special residencies by very expensive artists: pianist Lang Lang, cellist Yo Yo Ma and violinist Itzhak Perlman.

Other performances included reaching more than 50,000 young people through its 19 student concerts and traveling to Northern Ontario for its annual pre-season residency.

It also performed for free in a well-attended public concert in David Pecaut Square to close this summer’s Luminato festival.

Overall, it cost the orchestra $25,536,906 to operate last fiscal year, while bringing in $24,550,586 in revenue.

According to a summary included in the orchestra’s annual report, 45 per cent of earnings come from ticket sales and education, 23 per cent comes from fundraising, grants from all levels of government account for 24 per cent, and gifts from the Toronto Symphony Foundation and the Volunteer Committee make up the remaining 8 per cent.

The past season’s deficit means that the Toronto Symphony’s accumulated debt now stands at approximately $10 million.

The organization’s president and CEO Andrew Shaw says that he and the board can live with these numbers, but are doing everything they can to ensure that the current season breaks even and that the debt can eventually be reduced.

The orchestra has recently undertaken a major fundraising drive to help endow more musicians’ chairs, support guest artists and bolster the Toronto Symphony Foundation, which currently has combined assets of just over $28 million, a half-million dollar gain over the previous year.

“I take a bigger view of the situation,” says Shaw. “It was a great year artistically, and the audience response was enthusiastic. We’ve demonstrated that what we do is important to the community.”

Despite an increase of more than $700,000 in ticket sales last season, fundraising revenue and income from the Toronto Symphony Foundation dropped by nearly $400,000 from the previous year. And the actual cost of producing concerts rose by $1.1 million dollars, thanks to the anniversary’s special guests. “The other costs are as tight as bark to a tree,” Shaw insists.

He adds that the final deficit figures were lower than what the organization had originally budgeted.

The Toronto Symphony president has maintained for several years that, in the current low-interest-rate situation, it is less costly for the organization to carry an accumulated deficit than it would be to try and reduce it. But, in an ideal world, Shaw admits that the orchestra would benefit a lot from a long-term debt half the current size.

“It would allow us to take more risks,” he states.

Shaw says that revisiting the terms of the orchestra musicians’ contract, which expires at the end of the current season, is not an option for reducing costs (unlike what’s been the case with many orchestras in the United States).

“We’re trying to carve our own path here,” says the CEO. “I’m trying to increase the compensation to musicians so that we can attract the best and reward them for great performances.”

Looking toward the current fiscal year, which always coincides with the beginning and end of a season, Shaw says that the orchestra is off to a flying start, posting excellent ticket sales for its first six concerts.

“This season, we have to clean up after the party.”

John Terauds

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3 Responses to Toronto Symphony Orchestra pays for 90th season with a deficit, despite attendance and revenue gains

  1. Tim Vining says:

    Kudos to the TSO for increased ticket sales. I suggest that the increased revenue is due to the many people who have quit supporting COC in the past couple of years and are searching for authentic classical music experiences that the TSO and National Ballet continue to provide.

  2. Linda says:

    I think the TSO needs to look at cost-cutting options. An accumulated debt of this magnitude is not something an organization should be prepared to “live with”. Smaller organizations or businesses would be well on the way to going bankrupt at this level of debt. While it may cost less to maintain the debt than to pay people to raise money to recover from debt, this seems to me a superficial analysis. What is the effect on public giving when the donor knows they are just feeding debt? Dampens enthusiasm markedly!

    Who is failing to meet targets in the organization, and why? About10 years ago I worked as Artistic Coordinator at the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra where I was required to contract the season at or under a target cost for artistic fees. I would have been fired had I not met my goals consistently. In my last season with the orchestra, I was about 10% under budget on artistic costs. This included getting the best deals on contracts, artistic travel and hotels. Accountability at all levels helps meet overall goals.

    There may be other efficiencies to be found. I’ve looked sometimes at the TSO staff roster and thought “how can they afford to pay all these people?”. It takes a lot of workers to produce, market and fundraise for an orchestra, however, I do think that the TSO is slightly over-staffed in some departments compared to orchestras with equivalent seasons. This is hard to determine from the outside as factors like outsourcing marketing versus in-house marketing make for apples and oranges comparisons across organizations. I hope it is an analysis management is making rather than blythely “living with it”.

  3. dqn says:

    The TSO historically was known as the ‘best kept secret in North America”; an orchestra that was hailed in European capitals, regularly sold out concerts at Carnegie Hall, and completely ignored in Toronto. It has gone through two ‘near-death’ bouts of almost bankruptcy since the early 90′s but now has one of the most competent managements in it’s entire history and has achieved a level of stability which other North American orchestras can only pray for. Finally, in spite of the leveling of the philanthropic playing field which now allows the performing arts organizations to more or less compete with the established hospitals, universities, museums, and others, people with money, real money, are still reluctant to support an organization which lacks a physical structure they can put their name on, writ large for everyone to see. The TSO organization, board,management, and players, is one of the leanest anywhere, which is why it has come through the recent recession in far better shape than many other orchestras. It has also matured into a genuine world class orchestra whose TSO Live recordings actually live up to that standard. It now needs a Henry Higginson or Heintz family, and others, to step up with the kind of bucks it will take to give the orchestra the level of financial security it needs and really deserves.

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