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Professional classical musicians could make more money in another city.

Then again, in another city, their symphonies might go bankrupt — Philadelphia’s recently filed for protection from creditors. Or the musicians might go on strike and picket, like in Detroit.

A few weeks ago, the San Diego Symphony announced its musicians and management approved a new contract that will give small raises to the symphony’s 80 musicians each year for the next five years. The symphony musician’s base salary of about $26,000 in 2001 will have more than doubled by next season, and will reach about $68,000 in five years.

It’s a contract of solid promises for a symphony that had little firm ground to stand on for much of the past 30 years. The San Diego Symphony went through periods of major distress in the mid-’80s and mid-’90s, even closing its doors for more than two years at one point.

But now, while compatriot classical music organizations around the country struggle mightily, the San Diego Symphony is still hanging on, actually doing better financially — and, by many accounts, artistically — than it has in decades. The symphony’s annual budget is now just under $20 million. And though its base salaries for musicians are still far from the six-figure salaries at many of the country’s top orchestras, many of those symphonies are fighting their musicians to agree to lower pay to keep the music playing.

The new hull for the holey boat in San Diego came thanks to an unparalleled pledge from Joan and Irwin Jacobs, founding CEO of Qualcomm, almost a decade ago. The $120 million pledge, installments of which began in 2002, provided a new foundation of sustainability and remains the largest gift to an orchestra ever in the United States.

It wasn’t a lump sum. The gift comes in three parts: $20 million in $2 million installments over 10 years, directly into the day-to-day budget; $50 million in $5 million installments over 10 years into the symphony’s endowment, from which it can only withdraw a small percentage every year; and $50 million when the couple passes away.

The symphony must walk a tricky tightrope as the final installments of those 10-year infusions near: Vociferously thanking its benefactors for the gift that is keeping the organization afloat, while combating the image that the symphony doesn’t need anyone else’s help.

“It provided what I call a base level of support that allows us to have … a minimum quality of superb playing,” said Ward Gill, symphony CEO. “But the Jacobs gift by itself is not enough to have a growing artistic ensemble here in San Diego. You don’t have $100 million just to spend willy-nilly.”

The Jacobs also bought the $3 million, 1700s-era Stradivarius violin that concertmaster Jeff Thayer plays. Another symphony rescuer, local businessman Larry Robinson, pitched in and bought Symphony Hall after the mid-1990s bankruptcy. He just deeded the title over to the orchestra free and clear last year. That had an estimated value of $20 million, Gill said.

Such gifts are understandably eyed by the other arts organizations in town. At a time when veteran institutions like Sushi Contemporary Performance and Visual Arts, and Starlight Theatre struggle, and a couple of years after the San Diego Opera cut its season from five operas to four, the symphony’s stability is coveted. Now it must prove that stability won’t make it lazy or stagnant.

The opera, like the symphony of 10 years ago, doesn’t have much of an endowment. The interest generated by the $3.5 million in the opera’s endowment doesn’t compute to much revenue on an annual basis.

“We pray every day that someone is out there who will love the opera enough to provide sustaining funds in perpetuity,” said Ann Campbell, development director for San Diego Opera for more than 25 years.

“Every year we start from zero,” she said, “and we need to raise close to $10 million and bring in $7 or $8 million at the box office.”

The symphony gets about $2 to $3 million a year from its growing endowment; $2 million from the portion of the Jacobs gift that goes to the day-to-day budget; about $7 million from selling tickets and from its contract to provide the music for the San Diego Opera; and the rest is raised in gifts, Gill said.

Even an endowment isn’t a sure bet when the market’s ups and downs make for unpredictable revenues. And it’s especially important to communicate that nuance when the symphony also wants to proclaim its gratefulness from the rooftops.

Chris Pinelo directs communications for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, which a few years ago received the lion’s share of a pledge for an $85 million arts fund set up by a local philanthropist. The symphony gets 75 percent of the revenue from that endowment, which the League of American Orchestras said is the second largest philanthropic gift to a U.S. symphony, after the Jacobses’.

Pinelo said his team had people coming up to them at church and in the community, joking that the orchestra was “sitting pretty” when the fund was announced a couple of years ago.

“The picture in someone’s mind is a concertmaster rolling around in hundred dollar bills,” Pinelo said. “That’s not exactly the case when you start peeling the onion just a little bit.”

Irwin Jacobs said he and his wife, Joan, hope the gift to the symphony establishes its existence as a going concern, exorcising its reputation as a “hand-to-mouth” organization.

Did anyone scoff at their decision to give a previously mediocre, bankrupt symphony an infusion of historic precedence? He said none of his friends came out, at least in public, saying they were off their rockers.

“We wondered if we might help sell some tickets, perhaps we’ll get some people asking, ‘Why did these crazy people make this gift to the symphony?’” he quipped. “We thought we might help build the audience to a certain extent.”

Jacobs said he thinks the few dozen musicians the symphony has hired within the last decade to fill in the empty seats left by the bankruptcy has made a significant difference in the orchestra’s quality.

“It’s just dramatically improved,” he said. “There were many openings when it came out of bankruptcy, but (musical director) Jahja Ling, he’s done a fantastic job at attracting very good young musicians, and the musical quality year by year has gotten better and better.”

The symphony was regarded as a good regional orchestra when Gill, its chief executive, arrived in San Diego in 2003. Now the orchestra is a top-tier, world-class ensemble, he said, attracting some of the world’s top talents like pianist Lang Lang and cellist Yo-Yo Ma as guest artists last season.

The symphony’s core musicians usually carry advanced degrees and must win a competitive audition for a seat. Those auditions are getting more and more popular, Gill said. He said the symphony hopes to keep raising the salaries and benefits for players, like the 3.5 percent annual raises reached in this new contract. But he said there’s an intangible benefit to a symphony with stability.

“Would you rather have 38 weeks (of paid playing) that’s going to be there? We will be there tomorrow,” he said. “Or would you rather be in Detroit, staring into the abyss five steps ahead?”

But there are still fears that the symphony could get too comfortable, that it will cater to a graying audience and lose the scrappiness that might come with a more apparent, urgent need to appeal to a broader base of younger San Diegans to survive.

Gill, though, rejected the idea that the financial stability of the Jacobs’ gift means the symphony will stagnate. He said the orchestra hopes to bump up its international reputation with a tour to the East Coast or to Asia in a few years, to renovate the hall and to play more new compositions and new styles of music.

“Doing the status quo means you will die,” he said. “The orchestras around the country that are running into trouble are doing the same old same old.”

Jack McAuliffe, whose firm Engaged Audiences consults with arts organizations across the country, said a gift like the Jacobs’ to San Diego Symphony is the difference between “playing offense and playing defense.”

The gift isn’t enough to mean the difference between being open and closing down, he said. It can be an effective magnet for other donations, though. But the gift’s power is lost if the symphony eases off its fundraising efforts.

Can such a gift be wasted?

“Only if you get lazy, like ‘Wow, we just got a huge gift — we’re good,’” he said.

“Instead it should be: ‘Wow, that keeps us from being in the red line.’ Now, let’s do things right. Let’s show the community that we deserve that support. Let’s pay it forward.”

Disclosure: Jacobs is a major donor to

Kelly Bennett reports on arts for You can contact her directly at or 619.325.0531.

And follow Behind the Scene on Facebook.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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