The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is digging itself out of a hole.
The TSO announced Thursday that it is posting a small surplus on the 2013-14 season: It has made $222,000, compared with losing almost $1.3-million the previous season. That brings the orchestra's accumulated deficit down under $12-million.
"It has been achieved through board leadership and supplemental fundraising," explained Jeff Melanson, the orchestra's chief executive officer, who began work in November. He credited TSO board chair Christopher Hodgson for putting a push on fundraising so that the new leader could come into the job in a break-even year.
"They wanted to put me on a solid footing," Melanson said, adding, "I have never run a deficit in my career. That era is over at the TSO."
An extra $700,000 in fundraising and an extra $400,000 in ticket sales balanced the budget, and Melanson sees more fundraising as the only way to keep the organization growing artistically.
He suggested that government grants, which make up 22 per cent of the TSO's budget, are unlikely to increase and that it is difficult to make much more on ticket sales. Indeed, all the performing arts in North America are finding it more difficult to draw audiences these days and U.S. orchestras, in particular, seem to be suffering badly, with some averting bankruptcies by reducing the number of musicians in the pit.
The TSO, on the other hand, was in an happier mode in 2013-14, celebrating music director Peter Oundjian's 10th anniversary as the orchestra's conductor, making a well-received tour of Europe in August, and releasing Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherazade as its first recording in a multiple-disc deal with Chandos Records, the prestigious British classical label.
In Toronto, the 88-player orchestra gave 132 concerts for an audience of more than 250,000.
Melanson identifies three areas where the TSO must grow. First, he wants the orchestra to reclaim its history as a launching pad for new careers and to remember that what are now masterworks were the provocative new creations of their day.
"We need to do a lot more across genres, working with the indie music scene and across disciplines, working with film and dance," he said, stressing that such commissions should not be exercises in academic new music. But, he added, "There will be more of a focus on world premieres." He also suggested pop concerts should put more focus on Canadian material.
He also wants to build up the TSO's youth orchestra, a training program for musicians from the ages of 12 to 22; check that it does not duplicate efforts at the Royal Conservatory of Music; and make sure money is never a barrier to access for the students. Currently, the orchestra's 82 members, who already pay the costs of private lessons and instruments, have to cover about $1,000 in tuition fees to join.
The youth orchestra is also a natural way to reach young audiences. That is the third area Melanson wants to build: The TSO currently entertains about 50,000 children from Toronto schools every year; he would like to multiply that five times so that every student in the Toronto District School Board gets to a TSO concert.
Meanwhile, the organization also needs to retire its deficit.
"A not-for-profit cannot carry that kind of weight on its balance sheet," he said.