By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
Los Angeles Newspaper Group
If 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.”
(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.