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San Diego Symphony Steps Onto Bigger Stages

Above: The San Diego Symphony is now housed in the Jacobs Music Center, in honor of a major gift given to the orchestra 11 years ago.

This fall marks a lot of firsts for the San Diego Symphony. In November, the orchestra will tour overseas for the first time in its 102-year history. The musicians will also make their debut at New York City's storied Carnegie Hall, a dream concert for many musicians.

Aired 10/18/13 on KPBS News.

The San Diego Symphony heads to Carnegie Hall and an overseas tour for the first time. Both trips are important milestones in the orchestra's growth.

As the symphony steps onto these bigger stages, I decided to check in on its economic health and future well-being.

I visited a recent rehearsal led by music director and conductor Jahja Ling. He’s spent the last 10 years building this orchestra, having hired more than half of its roughly 80 musicians.

"Of course, for us to go to Carnegie Hall," he paused and shook his head excitedly. "Everyone wants to go to Carnegie Hall. I’ve conducted there many times, but not with my own orchestra."

Credit: Jeff Goldberg / Esto/courtesy of Carnegie Hall

Carnegie Hall is considered one of the world's greatest stages.

The symphony is renting the hall for the Oct. 29 performance, which will feature acclaimed guest pianist Lang Lang. Renting the space is not uncommon. Of the 700 events that take place at the renowned venue, only 180 of them are actually presented by Carnegie Hall. In fact, Carnegie Hall has been a rental space since it first opened in 1891. The cost of the rental is based on the night of the week, technical needs and staffing requirements. The cost to the San Diego Symphony will be between $20,000 and $30,000.

Almost immediately after the curtain closes, the applause still ringing in their ears, the orchestra members will get on a plane and head to China for a three-city tour. The trip is especially meaningful for Ling, who is the only music director of Chinese descent in the United States. Performances will take place in Beijing, Yantai and Shanghai. In Beijing, they will perform in the National Centre for the Performing Arts, known as "the giant egg" for its curved, oval design.

The San Diego Symphony will perform at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing in November.

Edward "Ward" Gill is the Symphony’s CEO. He said the musicians and the leadership have been waiting for this moment.

"We’re at that point of really showing the world this orchestra has come of age," Gill said.

Coming of age has its growing pains. The symphony closed its doors at least three times during its history and filed for bankruptcy in the mid-1990s. Stability came in the form of a $120 million gift from Joan and Irwin Jacobs (co-founder and former chairman of Qualcomm) in 2002.

It remains the largest gift ever given to an orchestra in the U.S.

Half the money is a bequest to be given after the Jacobs pass away. The rest was distributed in the last 10 years, mostly into an endowment. The symphony collects interest from that endowment, which adds up to 10 percent of the organization’s annual budget.

"It provides the stability of a core orchestra at a really strong level," Gill said. "But you have to have other people to make (the orchestra) greater."

Part of that means attracting — and affording — quality musicians. The annual base salary for a San Diego Symphony musician is $64,000. A musician at one of the top five orchestras could easily make double that.

"Obviously we’d like to be closer to the top five orchestras, but we’re still able to get the great musicians from the top schools like Juilliard, Curtis and Eastman," Gill said.

The upcoming trips to New York and China are meant to showcase that talent to the larger world. The combined cost of the trips totals $2.1 million (35 percent will pay for the New York trip and 65 percent funds the trip to China).

But even if those trips put the symphony on a different playing field, it faces the same challenges as all U.S. orchestras. The slow economy makes it tough to raise money. Audiences have thousands of entertainment options at their fingertips. A recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts shows a dip in attendance for live events like theater and music. The San Diego Symphony, however, has seen a slight uptick in attendance, which jumped from 187,000 attendees in 2011-2012 season to 193,000 for 2012-2013.

But symphony leadership understands they have to grow younger audiences who will become the aficionados and arts patrons of the future. To that end, they've renovated the symphony's downtown building, which is now called the Jacobs Music Center. The actual performance space will remain Copley Symphony Hall.

"We’ve brought in four state-of-the-art bars so people can come and have a drink or a cocktail," Gill said.

But it will take more than a cocktail to get 30-somethings in the door. Orchestras around the country are offering ticket deals and getting creative with their programming. Here in San Diego, Dave Mustaine of Megadeth and Metallica fame will perform with the symphony in April.

But right now, the goal is to be ready for Carnegie Hall. Jeremy Kurtz-Harris is the principal bassist in the orchestra. I asked him if he’s nervous to perform at the legendary concert hall.

"Of course there’s a little nervousness," he laughed. "That’s what happens with any big challenge like this. I think if we weren’t nervous, there might be something wrong."

The San Diego Symphony takes the stage at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 29. At the beginning of November, the musicians leave for China, where they will perform in Beijing, Yantai and Shanghai.

Full disclosure: Joan and Irwin Jacobs are supporters of KPBS.

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