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UNSCRIPTED ‌ Variations on a Theme

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Exactly how deep in the hole the Charleston Symphony Orchestra is at the end of its 2005-06 season is a question not easily answered just yet, even by those staffers with their fingers on the adding machines.

When executive director Sandy Ferencz announced in late April that the symphony was projected to fall $211,000 short of its $2.3 million budget for the year, she apparently wasn't taking into account things like a longstanding line of credit that's sitting quietly on the organization's back, where it's easy to forget. In a meeting with the mayor a few weeks later, the grapevine has the symphony putting the touch on Joe for a cool half million. (Begging Rule No. 1: Open big.)

At April's meeting, outgoing board president Ted Halkyard told the symphony board that he and his wife will hand over $100,000 to the CSO endowment when he walks (or, not inconceivably, runs) away from that post this summer. Halkyard also suggested he'd match every buck raised in the fourth quarter by the organization.

Then, in mid-May, the CSO announced an agreement with the local musicians' union to a one-year contract restoring the players' salaries to their 2003 compensation levels, an increase of 17 percent that amounts to about $200,000 in raw dollars. Figure in also the fact that, with the symphony being booted from its current administrative offices in the Cigar Factory downtown, the Noisette Co. has offered free office space for five years at the Old Navy Base in North Chuck.

The CSO's fourth quarter, and its fiscal year, ended last week, on Friday, June 30, and we're told the phones were kept smoking hot up to the very last moment in an effort to make the most of Halkyard's challenge.

So, when everything's said and done, best practice accounting seems to peg the symphony's debt at almost exactly somewhere between zero and half a million bucks. For a more accurate number, curious parties are best directed to seven sticks of incense and a Ouija board. A final accounting won't be publicly available until the group's annual meeting sometime in August. But according to officials familiar with a recent executive session of the symphony board in late June, the options on the table don't exactly speak to occasion for breaking out the bubbly.

At the closed meeting, it seems discussion of how to reduce fixed expenses ranged across some wild and woolly territory — especially given the absence of any artistic representation at the session. Eliminating all artistic imports — the outside musicians usually brought in to fill out the ranks for the bigger Masterworks programs — could save the CSO a fat $250,000 in direct and related expenses, for example. And eighty-sixing all fees for the directors of the CSO Chorus, CSO Gospel Choir, and Youth Orchestra might save $25 grand. Tempting, all of it, but for the fact that it would mean gutting next season's Masterworks program (Beethoven's Ninth with just 46 musicians? No can do.). Plus, $250,000 is, inconveniently, awfully close to the amount already collected on advance ticket sales for next season's program. Whoops.

Other ideas at the session seem to have been of the chop-up-the-stove-for-kindling variety: slashing the marketing and promotions budget by nearly 60 percent, hacking into development expenses by some 30 percent.

The upshot for the end-of-season brainstorming session suggests a goal of about $560,000 in reductions. Marketing and promotions director John Girault went to pains last week to stress that all closed deliberations have been purely speculative to this point: "Nothing's been approved." (Maestro David Stahl was doubtless gratified to learn same when he returned from out of the country last week.)

The executive board will huddle up again on July 19, with members of the artistic and production teams, to once more mull reductions before the symphony's annual meeting in August. In the meantime, they can't fairly be faulted for taking full ownership of their institution. It's better than trusting things to fate. Or to incense sticks and a Ouija board.

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