Orchestra Spotlight:
Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

An Interview With Elaine Calder, Edmonton Symphony Orchestra Managing Director

 Elaine Calder, Edmonton Symphony Orchestra Managing Director Elaine Calder, Edmonton Symphony Orchestra Managing Director (click to enlarge)

Elaine Calder joined the ESO as Managing Director in 2001 and Polyphonic.org Senior Editor & Research Principal, Drew McManus, spoke with Elaine over the telephone about what the organization has accomplished since she arrived and where she feels the organization is headed.

Drew McManus: What changes have you noticed throughout the organization since the arrival of your new music director?
Elaine Calder: Although I spent very little time with the previous music director, I would say he was very much a traditional Eastern European conductor - a “maestro” in every way - and Bill is a very different animal. Bill’s arrival has created a greater sense of excitement about the orchestra. He’s somewhat exotic by Edmonton’s standards and he’s incredibly good with the media; he understands the art of the sound byte. Bill is also very down to earth and very contemporary; we all appreciate that in him and so do our audiences.

Drew McManus: Artistically speaking, where do you see the ESO now and where do you think it is going?
Elaine Calder: There are three big budget orchestras in Canada: National Arts Centre Orchestra, Montreal Symphony Orchestra, and Toronto Symphony Orchestra. After that there are half a dozen regional orchestras and we feel very good about our position in that group. We pride ourselves on the fact that our players are the best paid musicians west of Toronto and even though we’ve weathered some severe storms, we didn’t close down. Similarly, although the players took freezes we didn’t have to make any salary cuts or eliminate players.

My entire time here has focused on three issues: find a new music director, get rid of the deficit, and build trust and cooperation between musicians, board, and management. Now that we have reached those goals, we’re experiencing a strange new freedom. It feels like the Czech Republic after the fall of communism. We have the chance to set our own destiny, and to be frank, we’re haven’t spent a lot of time on strategic planning in the last few years.

Bill is also very down to earth…we all appreciate that in him and so do our audiences. “Bill is also very down to earth…we all appreciate that in him and so do our audiences.” - Elaine Calder (click to enlarge)

So to begin with, we’re concentrating on Bill’s artistic vision, which includes expanding the core orchestra by nine additional string players. If, at any point in the upcoming four year contract, we can implement any improvements in numbers of players we’ll ask to reopen the contract.

We’re also striving to improve the players’ working conditions, which includes not overworking string musicians. Since we have a relatively small string section we are very sensitive about those issues. As a result, we have reinstated some medical benefits that had to be cut back during tougher times.

Drew McManus: How do you think the role of Managing Director best serves the organization?
Elaine Calder: I see my role here as someone who spends a fair amount of time making sure that the three major constituent groups really understand what the other groups are saying. For incoming board members and staff, the relationship between the groups can seem very unusual. I’m also here to inspire confidence in the community; after all, if the community is skeptical about the organization in any way they won’t want to support us.

And I think inspiring confidence inside the institution is critical. I’ve worked very hard at rebuilding our artistic confidence. We’ve improved service density, engaged musicians in scheduling and programming, and increased the number of rehearsals – all with a view to making it easier to make great music. In April 2005, we took the orchestra out of the province for the first time in 12 years. It was only two days but we made sure the players got first class treatment; going a bit beyond what the contract required us to provide.

Drew McManus: Are there any specific initiatives you would like to see transpire in the near future?
Elaine Calder: I would like to see us do more regional touring in upcoming years, especially to Fort McMurray, an oil town that has experienced tremendous growth in its working population. But distances between towns are great, which makes touring expensive and we’re starting to look for support from the oil companies that do business in the Fort McMurray area.

We are really very happy where we are right now, with our fabulous concert hall and with our new music director. We also have a splendid artistic administrator, Rob McAlear. He’s been instrumental in reversing our economic situation by making substantial artistic improvements in the quality of conductors and soloists we bring in.

 We’re also striving to improve the players’ working conditions, which includes not overworking string musicians “We’re also striving to improve the players’ working conditions, which includes not overworking string musicians.” - Elaine Calder (click to enlarge)

Rob loves programming for audiences and has insisted on implementing audience surveys when we weren’t moving in that direction. All of this has led to improved ticket sales and individual donations. Since he arrived we’re up 15% in cumulative ticket sales and 50% in individual and corporate donations.

Drew McManus: Is there anything else you would like to add that we haven’t touched on yet?
Elaine Calder: I’ve given my board notice that I’ll be leaving in the next few months, and we’ve started work on identifying my successor. I’ve been asked what the challenges will be for the new managing director and I’ve suggested they are both internal and external: internally, we have to make sure our new confidence and debt-free position don’t make us forget our inherent vulnerability, since we continue to operate very close to break even. Externally, the astounding wealth and growth of this province is making Edmonton a more attractive stop on national and international touring circuits, and our marketplace is becoming much more competitive.

It has taken a long time to restore the ESO to fiscal and artistic health, and a lot of people have participated in that process. We need to protect their investments – of time, money, intelligence and passion – and make sure we preserve and build on what we’ve accomplished.


Polyphonic Mark


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