The Toronto Symphony Orchestra appears to have nine lives.
Little more than three years after a series of unfortunate events left the 98-year-old organization looking for a CEO, a music director, a board chair and millions of dollars to cover a growing debt, everything is on the mend.
The current picture became rosier when chief executive officer Matthew Loden announced at Thursday night’s Roy Thomson Hall concert that the TSO has received a $ 10-million gift from the estate of longtime supporters Tom and Mary Beck.
This is the largest individual gift the TSO has ever been given. It is also the largest sum any orchestra in Canada has received from individuals or their estates.
Loden hopes the gesture will spur other lovers of classical music to sign large, supportive cheques.
Arts organizations all over the United States and Canada trumpet marquee donations as proof that they are doing something right. This past June, the Philadelphia Orchestra boasted of a $ 55-million (US) donation from an anonymous couple as a vote of confidence. Their music director is Canadian-born Yannick Nézét-Séguin.
“It’s a real vote of confidence in what we’re doing,” says Loden, who made sure the TSO’s music director-designate Gustavo Gimeno was on the podium to share the news. Gimeno officially takes over the job next season.
The Becks’ $ 10-million bequest is not restricted. According to Loden, this means that the money can be spread over a number of different initiatives. This includes the increasingly popular chamber-music concerts offered by members of the orchestra, as well as some community initiatives.
Loden says the windfall will also help boost plans for the orchestra’s 100th anniversary, which is coming up in two seasons.
Part of the gift will go toward paying down the TSO’s accumulated debt. At the end of the 2016 fiscal year, that debt stood at $ 11.8 million. The following year, the figure had been reduced to $ 4.5 million. As of today, according to Loden, the debt is down to $ 2.6 million.
“Paying down debt is the hardest thing to find support for,” says the CEO. “This really helps put the wind at our back.”
The Becks and their estate have cumulatively contributed in excess of $ 20 million over the years. This includes endowing the salary of the concertmaster, which is the highest-paid instrumentalist position in an orchestra. Their daughter Cathy Beck is the current chair of the board.
The TSO isn’t just counting on donations to keep afloat. Ticket sales continue to increase: “As of last week, we’ve reached our subscription goal for the entire season,” Loden boasts. He says the TSO has sold 25 per cent more seats through subscriptions than last year.
One of the many tools at the organization’s disposal is tracking individual ticket buyers. “There are a lot of people we call ‘tryers,’ ” he says. “We want them to have an incentive to come again.”
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Despite all the offers of subscription discounts, what works best is good music. It’s what hooked the Becks when they moved to Toronto in the 1950s.
Loden takes a broader view: “I look at the entire organization as being a development team representing with enthusiasm everything we’re trying to do.”