Longtime ESO figures talk about troubled symphony’s past, and possible future
By Janelle Walker For The Courier-News January 18, 2013 5:12PM
Robert Hanson directs the Elgin Symphony Orchestra in a rehearsal last spring, during what turned out to be his last season with the ESO. COURTESY ELGIN SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Updated: January 19, 2013 8:46PM
ELGIN — Of any Illinois symphony, the Elgin Symphony Orchestra was the “best poised to weather the recession,” according to former music director Robert Hanson.
“We were absolutely poised to weather this (recession). So why didn’t we?” asked Hanson in a recent interview — his first since leaving the orchestra.
Hanson abruptly ended his 37-year association with the ESO — the last 26 as music director and symphony conductor — on June 16, 2011.
Tom Roeser, a long-time ESO board member who served as its board president for five years, said in a separate interview that the ESO “broke his heart” before he resigned from the board shortly after Hanson’s resignation.
Both long-time symphony leaders said they place blame for ESO’s failing finances on Dale Lonis — the former chief executive officer hired in 2008 and who left the ESO last year — and on a board that approved his budgets and actions.
Lonis, and a board loyal to him, was the reason both said they were frustrated enough to cut ties with the ESO.
The question now remains if Lonis’ removal, along with front-office budget cuts, came in time to pull the symphony out of its financial bind.
Both Hanson and Roeser said they hope the ESO can turn around its current money woes.
To that end, the symphony is set to ask the city council for further funding — its first Elgin funding since 2011 — at the Wednesday council meeting.
The ESO’s financial crisis came to light on Nov. 28 when the city of Elgin informed the organization via letter and email that it must come up with a plan to pay $214,217 for its rental use of the city-owned Hemmens Cultural Arts Center — a bill that has accumulated since May 2011.
Signed by City Manager Sean Stegall, the city’s letter informed the symphony that “It is critical that a repayment plan be established as soon as possible in order to allow for the continued use of the Hemmens.”
As part of a request by the ESO for additional city funding in August, the city did its own review of the symphony’s budget and determined its “structural deficit is in the range of $750,000 to $1,000,000,” according to that letter.
In its 2010-11 auditor’s report — the last finished — the ESO’s auditors said the symphony “incurred a net loss of $675,175 during the year ended June 30, 2011. As of that date, the organization’s current liabilities exceed its current assets by $541,437 and its total liabilities exceeds is total assets by $23,469. Those factors create an uncertainty about the organization’s ability to continue as a going concern.”
Current volunteer CEO David Bearden said it is the ongoing recession that has hurt the symphony’s finances. Cuts — totaling $500,000 on a $3 million budget — have been made in the last few months to correct its budget deficit, he said.
Via email, Bearden declined to answer questions regarding Lonis’ tenure with the ESO. Lonis also could not be reached for comment.
Those who were involved with the organization up to 18 months ago said the cuts might be too little, too late for the symphony.
Hanson speaks out
It was his hope, Hanson said, that his departure would shake up the ESO board and get its members asking questions — such as why he left an organization he’d help build from a community college symphony to one of the best in the country. What he found was that not one board member reached out to ask him why he left, Hanson said.
That was indicative of the problems going on at the ESO — in addition to uncontrolled spending and faulty budgeting, Hanson said.
After the first year with Lonis as CEO of the then-58-year-old organization, Hanson claimed, the ESO saw itself facing a $375,000 budget deficit. Those numbers never improved.
“We were budgeting on a wing and a prayer,” Hanson said. “We were convinced by the CEO that we would be getting grants that were written.”
Under Lonis’ direction, the revenue-side of symphony’s budget was unrealistic, Hanson said.
“There were … assumptions of 50 percent more pledges, 100 percent more sponsors. But there was no plan” in place to make those numbers a reality, Hanson said.
“It was unrealistic budgeting and no questions really asked,” by the ESO board, he said. “Not until the end and it was too late,” to save the organization, he said.
Then there was the promise of a $1 million pledge by Bob Durchslag in 2009 — payable as $200,000 each year for five years — for a youth education program. A full-time youth education coordinator position was added, up from a part-time position in anticipation of those funds.
Durchslag, of Aurora, was indicted Aug. 16 by a federal grand jury on three counts of wire fraud. He was arrested in Chicago on Aug. 29 after being on the lam for two weeks, according to news accounts.
The ESO pledge never arrived, Hanson said.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars in pledges went uncollected for a few years until board members discovered those pledges and tried to collect on them, Hanson said.
“They were budgeted and spent,” regardless, he said.
In the meantime, staff positions were upgraded and job titles changed at the ESO management offices.
“Even though we were bleeding money, the CEO did not hold back from upgrading positions or hold off hiring positions where people left or were fired. It is true that from the time Lonis came, the number of full-time staff did not increase. One position was eliminated but the education position was upgraded. To balance the budget, more positions should have been eliminated, the guest artist budget should have been cut and other cuts should have been made — as Bearden has tried to do now,” Hanson said.
The “last straw” for him came after a fundraising event, Hanson said. At that event, he began a conversation — without talking to Lonis first — regarding the possibility of bringing back a popular ensemble and working with the Youth Symphony Orchestra, the ESO, and the ensemble’s bass player to write a piece the three groups could play together. A meeting was set.
“Dale was enraged,” that discussions happened without him, Hanson said.
The meeting was canceled, staff were told they could not attend, and Lonis sent a letter to then-board President Jerry Cain complaining that Hanson — the ESO music director — could not make plans for future collaborations without him, Hanson said.
It was the board’s loyalty to Lonis that made Roeser choose to leave, he said.
Just a year after helping to search for and hire Lonis, “I realized he was not performing his duties adequately. He was not developing the board and raising money. He showed me plans that he was raising money that he would never implement. My criticism of Dale — that was in support of the symphony — caused a polarization of the board,” Roeser said.
A divided board could not solve the problem, Roeser said.
“The more objective people on the board looked into the facts and came up with the conclusion that we were not meeting our financial targets,” and there was not sufficient board leadership to meet those financial targets, he said.
“Rather than cause turmoil on the board of a terrific organization, some people left.
The board itself chose it short-term leader over the long-term condition,” Roeser said.
In a few short weeks, several members left the ESO board.
“There were six who left in frustration,” Hanson noted.
“They saw what was happening. One left after his first board meeting,” Hanson said.
Hanson said he believes the symphony can be saved — but not with the current board.
“In order to regain confidence from the community, the board needs to resign, and a board the community respects put in place,” Hanson said.
“I say that ... because of the fiscal carelessness, inept budgeting, and lack of oversight of the funds,” Hanson said.
Looking at his own copies of past budget and donor lists, Roeser said the funds are there to fix the ESO.
“Wealthy people still have money. There are a large number of donors on a fixed income and interest rates are low, but they are not a majority of the donors,” Roeser said.
Still, Roeser said, “I can’t believe that the symphony couldn’t raise the (needed) money. If the alternative is to lose the symphony, well, that is not an alternative.”
Some donors might be leery of giving, he added, because of how Hanson’s departure was handled.
“I speculate that some donors are not giving because of the way Bob Hanson was treated. Bob had a very solid following and the mystery of his leaving, and his leaving, may not sit well with longtime donors,” Roeser said.