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Decades of satisfaction for music lovers around the state

MSO, Jackson Symphony League celebrating anniversary

Jackson — Lois Clover joined the Jackson Symphony League in 1954 as a way to get involved in the civic and cultural life after moving here. She’s continued to be active ever since to enhance the work of the Jackson Symphony, as it was called back then.

“We’ve had out work cut out for us for these 50 years now,” said Clover, co-chair of the 50th anniversary committee.

The organization, now 600 members strong, continues to support the current Mississippi Symphony Orchestra and celebrates its 50th anniversary as the MSO also celebrates 60 years of providing entertainment to music lovers throughout the state. Both organizations have seen their missions expand over the years and have weathered their share of challenges and successes while serving their audiences.

Elee Reeves, current JSL president, considers her story of JSL involvement typical of most members her age. She was a music minor at Millsaps College and joined the group about five years ago as a way to continue to support the arts in the area. “I just really have a love of music,” she said.

The JSL enhances the general fund budget of the MSO to the tune of more than $100,000 per year and provides MSO with a wealth of volunteers, such as ushers for concerts and other educational programs. JSL funds account for about 10% of MSO annual budget, Reeves said.

Last year, various JSL events raised over $180,000 for the symphony, and Reeves noted that the JSL has given MSO over $5 million since the JSL was founded.

That kind of support from the community has enabled the MSO to continue to offer their unique product through management upheavals and the financial reverses that many nonprofits have reported under difficult economic times in the past few years.

MSO interim executive director Richard Hudson noted that while the final numbers aren’t in yet, the MSO did turn a small profit from last year’s season. He credits changes the MSO has made in recent years for the continued profitability of the organization.

“Because we were able to put good business structures under the symphony, we’ve seen the value of that,” said Hudson, who continues to serve as interim principal horn player, operations manager and personnel manager during the MSO’s current director search.

The MSO had begun an aggressive debt-reduction program under past CEO Robert Reed, hired in 2001.
Reed simultaneously increased revenues and raised MSO’s profile across Mississippi with an aggressive program of “sole service” concerts — performances where the MSO is hired by an organization — in addition to their regular season performances in Jackson. Another cost-cutting move continues to pay off as the MSO is in the second year of a three-year labor contract with its musicians.

“The goal behind the three-year agreement was to give everyone an idea of what was going to happen,” said Hudson.

These and other belt-tightening measures allowed the organization to dedicate $50,000 in income to retiring a debt that totaled $650,000 as of June 2002. With a schedule of regular debt payments, Hudson notes that the orchestra’s current debt is $350,000 — a 46% reduction.

A current challenge for the symphony is the departure of Neil Birnbaum, hired in March to replace Reed, who moved to a similar position in Kansas. Birnbaum was a finalist in the MSO’s last nationwide search for a president in 2001, when Reed was hired for the position. Birnbaum said in March he was encouraged to go out for the MSO job because of the quality of the Mississippi program.

“The Mississippi Symphony is well-known among the symphony community. I think what the MSO is noted for is that it has a very strong organization — an involved board of directors and a league almost 900 members strong. It’s almost legendary,” said Birnbaum in a March interview.

His departure during the summer brought Hudson back to serve as interim executive director. Hudson credits the work of the current five-person administrative staff and the support of the board of directors with the organization’s continued success during the upheaval.

The current season offers several opportunities for the MSO to look back on its history, with the first Bravo! Concert on September 18 being dedicated to remembering milestones of the MSO’s past. The celebration continues with the JSL’s Diamond Jubilee Ball, a black-tie gala on September 25 at the Country Club of Jackson from 7 p.m.-midnight.

Organizers hope to draw 400 people as compared to last year’s 315 attendees, said Teresa Brady, chair of the event. With 10-15 corporate sponsors and over 100 individual sponsors, the ball serves as the primary fundraising event on the JSL’s calendar.

“The Symphony Ball usually raises around $100,000. We’re hoping for $120,000” she said.

With First Lady Marsha Barbour as honorary chair, guests will enjoy cocktails and hors d’oeuvres followed by a seated gourmet dinner, and one lucky guest will receive a one-carat diamond — courtesy of Stein Jewelry of Madison and Greenwood. Entertainment will be provided by the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra’s Chamber Ensemble as well as the Tip Tops, a well-known dance band from Mobile. A premier art auction and live and silent auctions on an array of luxury items, vacation packages and jewelry will round out the evening’s events, Brady said.

Such events take all the volunteer, community and corporate support they can find, Reeves said, noting that some of the JSL and MSO programs operate with very little publicity. “I think our biggest challenge is PR-getting out the word about all the ways you can get involved,” Reeves said.

Last year, the JSL revived a program aimed at 20- and 30-year-olds called Young Jacksonians. “We revamped that last year and called it MSO Encore,” Reeves said, noting that about 100 joined the group since it was reborn.

Other outreach attempts to a younger clientele include the special ticket program “Anytime Coupon Books,” sold in books of five tickets that can be used for any concert on the program. Upcoming family-style events such as the Pops Series “An Evening with Charlie Chaplin” and a collaboration with the Puppet Arts Theatre on Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” continue to appeal to traditional supporters while bringing in new enthusiasts.

“We want to stay with what we do well, but we’re looking for ways to adjust how we present what we present to reach more people – without alienating our current audience,” Hudson said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer at Julie Whitehead at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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