The Portland Symphony Orchestra is asking its regular audiences to renew their memberships, even without knowing whether there will be live performances this year.

Orchestra staff and board members began reaching out to subscribers last week, calling them individually in hopes they will support the orchestra by renewing their 2020-21 season memberships even as the season remains up in the air. Like nearly every other performing arts organization, the PSO is trying to figure out how to move forward and connect with its members when it cannot bring them together to deliver music in person. With most of its music likely to be presented online through a digital format, the orchestra is hoping that music fans will find enough value in the PSO to help it through the pandemic.

“The hope would be that there is an openness and willingness to stay connected to the Portland Symphony Orchestra, even if we cannot get together for concerts in person at Merrill Auditorium,” said Carolyn Nishon, the orchestra’s executive director. “We all want that, but knowing there are a lot of reasons that likely may not happen, what I would hope for is an excitement about supporting the orchestra as it tries to make the most of a challenging situation and find ways to still engage with the community throughout all of this.”

The 2020-21 season plans, which had been settled, are now evolving. In January, music director Eckard Preu announced a full slate of concerts beginning in October. Nishon said orchestra personnel are talking with Portland officials about how the PSO might proceed with livestreamed concerts from the city-owned Merrill stage, with smaller groups of musicians and without an audience present. If that is possible, then the orchestra can begin planning and promoting specific concerts.

“We are actively engaged with the city about what might be possible in terms of getting into Merrill even if there is not an audience. How many musicians can we fit on stage? Fifteen? Thirty? Those answers will determine the programming we can do,” Nishon said. “How can we bring musicians together safely and how can we create an experience that you can enjoy from your home until we might gather safely again?”

There is no set timeframe for when that might happen, but Nishon said she was “hopeful” for the season ahead and “heartened” by the prospects of being able to present concerts safely, with musicians only to start. As the season progresses, perhaps the orchestra can accommodate small socially distanced audiences, she said. “The PSO is committed to safely connecting the community to music this year, and we are creating an innovative and adaptive 2020-21 season to ensure that,” she said. “While we may need to reduce forces for social-distancing purposes, we are dedicated to featuring the artistry and virtuosity of the members of the PSO – as orchestral performers, chamber musicians and soloists.”


Richard Kelly, a percussionist in the orchestra and chair of the orchestra committee, said musicians recently agreed to a new four-year contract with the orchestra that includes pandemic safety precautions and compensation provisions that will help distribute work equitably among musicians as the orchestra eases back into performances. He signed off on proceeding cautiously with concerts when it is safe to do so.

“I think most orchestras are holding off until it’s business as usual. I give the PSO credit, because they are really thinking about ways to get us on stage safely,” Kelly said.

The orchestra is tailoring its memberships to reflect the fluid nature of the season, said Gusta Johnson, director of marketing and communications for the orchestra. The PSO is offering “Passport” memberships for this season only, designed to be flexible and reflective of current health guidelines and the possibility of both digital content and in-person concerts. The PSO Passport is available in three levels: Super, Standard and Simple.

The top level, the Super Passport, renews at full current pricing levels and guarantees priority seating when concerts resume with audiences present at Merrill, access to all digital concerts and content and more. Renewal prices vary based on the location of seats and concert series, and range from a low of $104 to $652 per seat. The Standard Passport allows members to reserve existing seats for half their usual price, as well as digital content. Those prices range from $60 to $332 per seat, depending on the seat and concert package. The Simple Passport is $70 for the year and includes digital access to one musical experience or concert a month, but not a guaranteed seat.

The PSO has 3,214 current renewed and unrenewed subscribers, with 1,656 subscriber households, Johnson said. Over the next few weeks, orchestra staff and board members and PortTix box office employees will attempt to reach every subscriber by phone to explain their options and ask for renewals. “We want to make sure we touch base with them so they fully understand what we are doing and to answer their questions,” Johnson said.

PSO subscriber Colleen Khoury said she and her husband renewed at full price, and they will return to Merrill when they can. “If it’s digital, it’s digital. If it’s live, it’s live,” she said. “We will go as long as it’s safe. I am confident they will do their best to be as adaptive and responsive as possible. As things change, we can be nimble and get back into the hall. But it all depends. It’s such a hard time. I feel so sad for all the artists in the world who cannot do their art.”


Meanwhile, the orchestra’s fiscal year begins Aug. 1. The orchestra typically operates with an annual budget of about $3.7 million. Nishon wasn’t prepared to talk yet about what the budget will look like for the coming fiscal year. That will depend on the kind of programming it can do, whether it can sell tickets and how many people renew memberships. In a typical year, ticket sales cover 60 percent of the budget, Nishon said.

In February, the orchestra completed its Crescendo Campaign to raise $6.5 million, with $5 million earmarked for the endowment and the remaining money for “near-term funds” to support the musicians, concerts and other artistic efforts. Nishon intended to share the news of the successful fundraising campaign at a March concert, but the concert was canceled, along with more than a dozen others over the course of the spring. The campaign doubled the PSO’s endowment to more than $10 million, giving the orchestra solid footing, Nishon said.

However, the orchestra cannot depend on the endowment to get it through the financial fallout of the pandemic, she added. The endowment provides stable footing for the long term; the orchestra typically draws enough cash from the endowment to cover 8 to 9 percent of its annual budget. “The endowment was created to provide long-term incremental support and health, and if we rely too heavily on it in the short term we risk jeopardizing our long-term sustainability,” she said.

Nishon is hopeful the membership campaign and a newly launched Resiliency Fund will help the orchestra during near-term uncertain times. But the long-term impact on ticket sales could be significant to the PSO and other performing arts groups in Maine, she said.

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