Phoenix Symphony survives and thrives after budget crisis

After suffering through economic hardship, the Phoenix Symphony is back from the brink.

“The symphony was about a week away from bankruptcy,” said President and CEO Jim Ward.

That was in 2010 when Ward took over and the symphony faced extensive budget cuts.

“It was spending too much money for what it was taking in, which was typical of many symphonies across the country at that time.”

In the 2008-2009 symphonic season, musicians, including those who were tenured, took a 19 percent pay cut and were promised a restoration payment, or snapback, the following summer.

But that didn’t happen.

“Our musicians fundamentally had a very, very tough choice,” Ward said. “They could go along with somebody brand new coming onto the scene, or they could have decided to walk.”

Most decided to stay even with the pay cut.

“Jim was very up front with us about where we were at and what he felt we needed to do to keep going,” said bass clarinet player and associate principal Steve Hanusofski.

Hanusofski has been with the symphony for 30 years.

“There was a refreshing honesty that made you say, ok, I prefer not to do this, but I see what the end game is here.”

Musicians account for about 50 percent of the overhead in any symphony. For many in Phoenix, the music came first.

The group sacrificed the restoration payment and teamed up with Ward and the new board to keep the doors open and seats full.

“Our musicians did something extremely rare and unique in the labor movement today, certainly amongst American orchestras across the country today,” Ward said. “They decided to put the needs of this community before their own needs to keep music alive in Phoenix.”

The fight to save the symphony happened as the nation struggled to recover from the recession. And the economic uncertainty made it even harder.

The Phoenix Symphony starts planning the season two to three years in advance. Management reserves Symphony Hall up to five years in advance, comparing schedules and coordinating hall space with opera and ballet productions.

Ward relied on his musicians as well as new board. Four years later, overall revenue has increased by 74 percent and attendance is up by 25 percent.

“It’s been a great, great story and a great ride,” said Ward.