PROFILE: New Pasadena Symphony Pres/CEO Lora Unger takes the next step in a storybook career

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

Unger2014-LRIf Lora Unger seems like she’s riding a whirlwind this weekend, you might want to cut her some slack. In addition to presiding over the opening concerts of the Pasadena Symphony’s 87th season today at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. in Ambassador Auditorium (LINK), Unger also takes over today as President and Chief Executive Officer of the Pasadena Symphony Association, which runs both the PSO and the Pasadena Pops.

Unger replaces Paul Jan Zdunek, who has been named Chief Capital Development Officer with Singpoli Capital Corp. in Pasadena. Zdunek took over the PSA in December 2008 in the midst of a major financial crisis that resulted in part from financial losses incurred in the recession. One of his first moves was to hire Unger and together the two have worked with others since then to steer the PSA back to financial and artistic health.

If the transition seemed sudden, it was — in retrospect — anything but. “Our board has been working on a succession plan for several months,” explains Unger. “As any healthy organization should it was looking for what would be the next step should one become necessary. The board wanted to be in a position where it had a plan in place before it had to make a decision and I went through a very thorough process of interviewing with various committees. I have a huge amount of love for this organization and was honored and happy that, when Paul decided to step down, the board unanimously voted that I should succeed him.”

If at age 36 Unger seems young to be leading one of the nation’s premiere regional orchestras (although remember that we live in an area where 33-year-old Gustavo Dudamel is in his fifth season as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic), her new position merely represents the latest in a series of almost preordained steps since she was a sophomore at the University of Louisville.

“I went to Louisville on scholarship as a violist,” she explains, “and while I was certainly a capable violist I wasn’t a very good violist. Nonetheless, I was very, very lucky because the viola paid for my education. I was like a basketball player who earns a college scholarship but isn’t good enough to go on to the NBA.

“Halfway through my sophomore year,” she continues, “my teacher was so kind to me because he said, ‘Laura, you know how to play the viola, but I really think you should go take some business classes and find out what else you want to do in life because I don’t think playing the viola is what’s going to be your life.’

“That idea was frightening to me,” she remembers. “My parents are immigrants from Russia and they’ve always had to earn money to take care of us but they were never passionate about their jobs. I knew that if I was going to have to work, I wanted it to be something I was passionate about. Even though I wasn’t a great musician I was extremely passionate about music: about music history, learning music, orchestras, etc. and I had already invested so many years into it. I’m an extrovert, a people person. The idea of sitting alone for five hour a day practicing was killing me. I hate practicing. The business side of music turned out to be absolutely liberating.”

That first, hesitant step was an accounting class. “I found that every business class I took came so much easier than music,” she recalls with wonderment. “At the same time I thought ‘I’ve spent so much of my life in classical music, it’s what I know and love,’ so on a whim a clarinet teacher suggested that I reach out to the executive director of the Louisville Orchestra just to get some experience doing anything in the business.

“My first job was in “the dungeon” organizing the orchestra’s extensive collection of first-edition records [EDITOR’S NOTE: if you don’t know what a record is, ask your parents or grandparents]. I still consider my cough that recurs occasionally to be from the nine months I spent in that record collection! In my junior year because of that job — because I had paid my dues, so to speak — I was able to intern in the orchestra’s marketing and public relations department.”

Like so many who have done unpaid internships, Unger used that as a building block. “I had just enough time with the Louisville Orchestra to put it on my resume when I applied to be the artistic liaison with the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival,” she says. “When I got that job I thought ‘this is going to be the thing that will make me decide whether want to do arts administration or not’ and I fell in love with it hook, line and sinker. In some ways that was the best job I have ever had because I was able to experience 5-12 concerts a week, with 60 to 90 of the best musicians in the world. Moreover, I got such an amazing education because everybody allowed me to poke around in every department and find out about every aspect of the business.”

Unger went on to get a Master’s degree in Arts Administration at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. “It’s one of the few schools in the country where half the classes are MBA students and half the conservatory students,” she explains. As an aside she notes, “I’ve always preferred to be in an urban environment.” During her graduate studies she also worked in public relations department of Cincinnati Symphony.

Unger then became a Fellow with the League of American Orchestras, which she describes as “a breeding ground for potential executive directors.” She spent six months working with the New Jersey Symphony and then with the Aspen Music Festival, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and San Francisco Symphony, learning all aspects of the business side of music.

“After that,” she laughs, “I needed a ‘real’ job.” She started her professional career at the Modesto Symphony where she worked four years and first teamed up with Zdunek. They were part of the team that helped hire Lockington as music director, and they also hired him to become the Pasadena Symphony’s fifth music director beginning, officially, today.

“There was a lot of turnaround work in Modesto,” explains Unger “but eventually I got the itch to go on to a bigger orchestra. That’s the way it is when you’re an orchestra manager ‘brat.’ It’s ‘how am I going to grow to a bigger orchestra?’ I don’t enjoy cold climates so I went to the Jacksonville Symphony for two years. There were a lot challenges there, as well, including cost restructuring and difficult labor negotiations, but, again, it was a great learning experience.

“However,” she wraps up her travelogue by noting, “I needed to come back to the west coast. When Paul got the job here I was only supposed to come help on a temporary basis but it became one of those things where you’re in so deep you can’t leave until its fixed.”

As she moves into PSA’s the top executive role, Unger has a vision for the association’s future. “For the last five years,” she notes, “we’ve redefined our concert experience, of who we are, which has meant growing and building our base. During that time, we’ve demonstrated that there is a concrete demand for our product. People are buying tickets.” In the media release announcing Unger’s appointment, Kay Kochenderfer, President of the PSA Board of Directors, said, “Over the past five years, we’ve seen a 20 percent increase in Classics Series ticket sales, an astonishing 200% increase in POPS sales, and an 85% subscription retention rate.”

Now comes the next step, says Unger. “My vision for this orchestra,” she says, “is to take that community momentum and support and critical acclaim of which we are so very proud of and move to a higher level of growing the philanthropic support and reputation of the Pasadena Symphony. We’re an 87-year-old organization that when I came here five years ago had elements of a small club. In a robust city like Pasadena where you have a philanthropic commitment and stature of organizations like Caltech, the Norton Simon, the Huntington Library and Pasadena Playhouse, the Pasadena Symphony is an equal pillar of arts and culture. So my goal is to help this organization grow and thrive so we will never again be put in a position where we could ever be in position of vulnerability as we were in 2008.

“We know that our product is great,” continues Unger, “because people are buying tickets. That’s great and we deeply appreciate them. Now we need to turn that excitement into meaningful and priority philanthropic support. We need to be just as top-of-mind for philanthropists who have an inclination for arts and culture as the city’s other pillars so we bring them closer into our symphony and pops family.”

It starts with building the board, believes Unger. “We’ve brought on 13 new board members in the past three years,” she reports, “and it’s more diverse than ever before. We need to have the board be advocates for this organization. They need to bring in their networks and then diversify those networks, as well, so that new networks keep expanding. When your board is just one network, you’re limited by how much money you can raise. Networks need to keep growing and expanding for an organization to be successful.”

The leadership of Lockington, Feinstein and the Pasadena Symphony’s new principal guest conductor, Nicholas McGegan, will also be a critical factor in a successful future, says Unger. And she’s in it for the long haul.

“Coming to Pasadena has been really synergistic for me,” says Unger. “A lot people in our industry have to bounce around a lot and make many sacrifices to get to where they really want to live. I’ve lived in many parts of the country but when I moved to Pasadena I had this exhale, of saying to myself, ‘there is nowhere else I would rather live!’ I really mean that! I fell in love with this community so quickly and completely. I feel so at home and connected here. You’ve got the craziness and grandeur of L.A. eight minutes away and the ocean 30 minutes away. I can stay here in Pasadena and have everything my heart desires. It’s a great Midwestern town with a California feel. I want to grow roots here.”
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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PREVIEW: Pasadena Symphony to open 87th season with Bernstein-Gershwin program Saturday

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group
This article was first published today Sunday in the Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune and Whittier Daily News.

Read my preview of the Pasadena Symphony’s season-opening concert on Saturday HERE.

Performance details:
Pasadena Symphony; David Lockington, conductor
Nov. 1; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Preconcert discussion one hour before each performance.
Ambassador Auditorium; 131 S. St. John St., Pasadena
Tickets: $35-$110
Information: 626/793-7172; www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Salonen, L.A. Phil premiere Saariaho’s organ work

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

Los Angeles Philharmonic; Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
Janáček: Sinfionetta; Sibelius: Lemminkäinen Suite
Saariaho: Maan varjot (Earth’s Shadows) (U.S. premiere); Olivier Latry, organist
Next performances: Tonight at 8 p.m. Tomorrow at 2 p.m.
Information: www.laphil.com

EThe Los Angeles Philharmonic has never seemed to quite know how best to use the pipe organ in Walt Disney Concert Hall. Nonetheless, the orchestra is celebrating the instrument’s 10th anniversary throughout this season (it took all of the hall’s first season to fine-tune the organ; thus its debut was a year after the hall debuted). Perhaps after several orchestral concerts and recitals in 2014-2015, that best use will emerge. For now, we can simply delight that we are hearing a real pipe organ in a concert hall.

The first of several orchestral concerts this season celebrating the organ are being conducted by the orchestra’s conductor laureate, Esa-Pekka Salonen (pictured above), who was instrumental (pun intended) in the design and creation of Walt Disney Concert Hall, including the imposing, intriguing instrument that was later nicknamed “Hurricane Mama” by organist and composer Terry Riley.

To celebrate the organ, it’s certainly no surprise that Salonen chose a work by Kaija Saariaho. She, like Salonen, is a Finnish composer and Salonen has conducted many of her works with the Phil. Her music is an acquired taste and I freely admit that I haven’t found the key to enjoying it fully yet.

Maan varjot (Earth Shadows) received its U.S. premiere last night at Disney Hall. The Finnish title comes from lines in Shelley’s ode to John Keats:
“The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly.”

The 15-minute work was commissioned the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal and three European organizations. The world premiere took place in Montreal last May — like Disney Hall, that organ (created and built by Casavant Frères of nearby Saint-Hyacinthye, Quebec) was inaugurated in the second season of the city’s new concert hall. The soloist was French organist Olivier Latry and Kent Nagano conducted the OSM.

Latry was on hand here last night, as well; in fact, no other soloist has played the work, with good reason — the technical requirements for both organist and orchestra will probably limit its reception.

Although Saariaho grew up playing the organ, this is one of the first pieces she has written for the instrument. The three-movement work is not really an organ concerto, as she explains in the program note: “I didn’t want to create a duel of decibels. Rather, it is a work with a prominent solo organ part, some kind of a fruitful and inspiring companionship, in which two strong but civilized personalities can co-exist without having to fight too much for the place in the sun.”

The first movement featured mysterious, dissonant tones with Latry weaving the organ in and out of the orchestral fabric; deep organ bass notes resonated from the instrument’s distinctive wooden pipes throughout the building (see Hemidemisemiquavers below for info on the Disney Hall organ).

In the preconcert lecture Saariaho said the second movement is the heart of the piece and, consequently, this is the one section where the organ is most prominent.

The third movement wandered between the wild, the weird and the wacky as Sarriaho gave Latry the biggest opportunity to show off both his considerable technical skill and the instrument’s varied colors.

Salonen conducted the piece without a baton and the orchestra handled the difficult writing with aplomb. After its conclusion, much of the audience gave everyone involved — organist, composer, orchestra and conductor — effusive applause.

The organ work was bracketed by two muscular orchestral pieces from the early 20th century that rank high on my list of unjustly neglected works (technically Sibelius’ Lemminkäinen Suite was begun in 1893 but it was revised several times up to its final version, which wasn’t published until 1954).

Leoš Janáček’s Sinfionetta is worth discovering if only for its and the composer’s backstories. Janáček wrote the piece at age 72, the result of a dozen-year correspondence of some 700 letters between Janáček and Kamila Stösslová, a young married woman 38 years his junior, who would become his muse.

In 1925 they heard a military band concert in which the musicians played standing. So taken with the idea was Janáček that the first movement of this 25-minute work features 13 brass players (nine trumpets and four other horns) who for this concert were standing in the first row of the bench seats behind the orchestra. The balance of the work is, in effect, a standard four-movement symphony.

The Phil played with equal mixtures of rhythmically crispness and luxuriant tones and Salonen conducted exuberantly. Hearing Sinfionetta again was a genuine pleasure and the audience’s response was enthusiastic, particularly for the first work of a concert.

After intermission, Salonen turned to Sibelius’ Lemminkäinen Suite. The story of Salonen resisting the music of his countryman early in his conducting career is well known but this four-movement, 50-minute work — based on portions of the Nordic legend, The Kalevala — was an exception. Salonen was age 22 when he led the first complete LAPO performance of the work in 1991, a year before he officially became the Phil’s 10th music director. He and the orchestra subsequently recorded it (amazingly for a 23-year-old recording, it’s still available).

Last night was a richly rewarding performance, demonstrating again the exquisite acoustics of Disney Hall and reinforcing the joy of hearing a work played live as opposed to a recording. This was particularly true in the work’s best-known section, The Swan of Tuonela, which featured a stunningly soulful performance by Carolyn Hove on English horn. We’ve become so used to hearing Hove’s beautiful playing since she joined the Phil in 1988 that we sometimes take it for granted but on this night she was extraordinary.

Salonen conducted this movement without a baton (he used a stick in the other three) and he and the orchestra rose to the heights of Hove’s gorgeous solo work. The audience responded with a thunderous, and well-deserved, standing ovation.

HEMIDEMISEMIQUAVERS:
• This week’s preconcert lecture host was Eric Bromberger, a violinist with the La Jolla Symphony who writes program notes for several different organizations including the San Diego Symphony and the Washington Performing Arts Center at the Kennedy Center.

He began by interviewing Saariaho and Latry. I wished he had asked Latry the differences between the new Montreal organ and the Disney Hall instrument but no such luck. Latry did say that the Disney Hall instrument has grown in its 10 years of existence but didn’t elaborate on what he meant.

After the short interview Bromberger discussed the Janáček and Sibelius works with skill and enthusiasm. In part because he was wearing a headset microphone he was clearly understandable even in the back of BP Hall, and he handled the iPod technology smoothly (something that doesn’t always happen). Overall this was one of the best preconcert lectures I can remember attending.
• This week’s concerts are among those offering $20 seats for selected seats, in addition to student and senior rush tickets (INFO). The lower prices didn’t seem to help; there were more empty seats than at any LAPO Disney Hall concert I can ever remember.
• The next orchestra concerts in the organ celebration are Nov. 20, 21, and 22l, with LAPO Music Director Gustavo Dudamel conducting. These are also scheduled to feature a first hearing — this one the world premiere of the long-delayed Symphony No. 4 (“Organ”) by Stephen Hartke — along with the most famous work for organ with orchestra: Saint-Säens’ Symphony No. 3. Organist Cameron Carpenter will be the exemplary soloist. LINK
• After those three concerts Dudamel, Carpenter and the orchestra journey to Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa for what we used to call a “run-out” concert. This will give people a unique opportunity to compare the Disney Hall organ with the C.B. Fisk instrument in the Orange County hall. Incidentally, the Hartke symphony was commissioned by former Orange County Philharmonic Society Board Chairman Edward Halvajian (1935-2009). LINK
• In an organ concert of a different stripe, theatre organist Clark Wilson returns to Disney Hall for his annual Halloween concert on Oct. 31, this one with music accompanying the 1922 silent film landmark Nosferatu, the first film so-called Vampire film. Feel free to come in costume but take note of the restrictions outlined in the LINK
• The Disney Hall organ — 6,145 pipes (72 stops, 109 ranks), ranging in size from a pencil to a telephone pole — is one of the larger and most impressive instruments in Southern California. Frank Gehry, the Disney Hall architect, and organ builder Manuel Rosales, Jr. collaborated on the unusual visual design, including the curved wood façade pipes made of Douglas fir — I liken their look to an overturned bag of French fries. Rosales and Glatter-Götz Orgelbau of Germany built the mechanical design, construction, tuning and voicing. Behind the façade are three levels of pipes, including metal pipes made of tin and lead alloys and wood pipes made of Norwegian pine. (More info HERE)
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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NEWS: Lora Unger named CEO of Pasadena Symphony Association

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

Unger2014-LRJust when we thoughts things had settled down at the The Pasadena Symphony Association the wheel turns again. The association, which, operates the Pasadena Symphony and POPS, today announced that it has tapped Lora Unger (right) as its new Chief Executive Officer, effective November 1. Read the Pasadena Star-News story HERE.

Unger replaces Paul Jan Zdunek, who has been named Chief Capital Development Officer with Singpoli Capital Corp. in Pasadena. For the past several years, Singpoli has sponsored the Pasadena Symphony’s indoor classics series.

Zdunek took over the association in December 2008 in the midst of a major financial crisis that resulted in part from financial losses incurred in the recession. One of his first moves was to hire Unger and together the two have worked with others to steer the PSA back to financial and artistic health.

Among the changes were moving the Pasadena Symphony’s indoor season from the cavernous Pasadena Civic Auditorium into the more intimate Ambassador Auditorium, one of the world’s acoustic gems, in 2010. Two years later the Pops shifted into its summer home, the Los Angeles County Arboretum. The PSO also presents a holiday concert at All Saints Church, Pasadena.

Other changes were messier. Long-time PSO Music Director Jorge Mester left in acrimony and Pops leader Rachael Worby also stepped down. Eventually Zdunek and the association hired Marvin Hamlisch as the Pops’ principal conductors only to have him die suddenly in 2012. Despite the grief from Hamlisch’s death, Zdunek and the board took a gamble by hiring entertainer and historian Michael Feinstein to replace Hamlisch, a toss of the dice that has paid off well both artistically and financially.

The Pasadena Symphony’s music director, David Lockington, will lead his first concert in his new role on Nov. 1 at Ambassador Auditorium (LINK). Noted British conductor Nicholas McGegan will assume his new role as the symphony’s principal guest conductor January 17 (LINK).

In a media release, Lockington said he is “thrilled for Paul and absolutely delighted that Lora will be assuming the role of CEO of the Pasadena Symphony Association.” Lockington pointed out that he has “worked with Lora for over four years. She is visionary, smart and an astute strategist. Her style is a stimulating blend of seriousness and humor which makes for a creative working environment.”

Unger, who is a trained violist, holds a BA in Music with a Minor in Business Administration from the University of Louisville, and received her MA in Arts Administration from the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and Cincinnati College of Business Administration.

Prior to coming to Pasadena she worked with the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, as well as the Cincinnati, Modesto, and Jacksonville Symphony Orchestras in public relations, marketing and artistic operations. She was a League of American Orchestras’ Orchestra Management Fellow with residencies at the Aspen Music Festival, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and San Francisco Symphony. She is a member of the Association of California Symphony Orchestras and a presenter at their conferences

“Given the enormous contributions to our success that Lora has made for us, we’re delighted to elevate her to the position of CEO, following thoughtful deliberation by the Board,” said Kay Kochenderfer, president of the PSA Board of Directors, in the media release. “Over the past five years, we’ve seen a 20 percent increase in Classics Series ticket sales, an astonishing 200% increase in POPS sales, and an 85% subscription retention rate.

Read the full media release HERE.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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