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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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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NEWS AND LINKS: Pasadena Pops, Los Angeles County Arboretum finalize agreement for 2012 and beyond; new details emerge

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
News

 

Turning yet another page in a five-month-long saga, the
Pasadena Pops and the Los Angeles County Arboretum have finalized a multi-year
agreement that will see the Pops move to the Arcadia facility next summer as
both the facility’s resident orchestra and presenting partner.

 

The contract is for three years with an evergreen clause,
says Paul Zdunek, CEO of the Pasadena Symphony Association, which runs both the
Pops and the Pasadena Symphony. (Under a normal evergreen clause, a contract
automatically extends year by year unless one of the parties to the agreement
gives notice to cancel.)

 

The Pops announced that it will play at the Arboretum in
2012 on June 26, July 21, August 18 and September 8. Happily, for fans of both
the California Philharmonic — which shifts from the Arboretum to Santa Anita
Racetrack next summer (LINK) — that means the two organizations will not
conflict on dates, a good thing from a parking and traffic point of view.

 

Zdunek hopes to provide details on the 2012 season by the
end of this week — the next 2011 Pops concert is Saturday on The Lawn Adjacent
to the Rose Bowl, when the orchestra’s new principal conductor, Marvin Hamlisch,
leads a program devoted to music from the Broadway stage (DETAILS).

 

As the Arboretum’s presenting partner, the Pops also expects
to offer other programming beginning next summer. “We are beginning to work on
that now,” explained Zdunek. “We needed to get the contract done first. We
envision family concerts, outdoor theatre, silent films, as well as Asian-influenced
performances, to name a few.”

 

Among the enhanced amenities envisioned for next year’s
concerts are VIP parking packages for subscribers, multiple entry points for
ticket holders and purchasers; a stage with large LED video screens that will
project stage action using three cameras and an enhanced sound system with
multiple JBL Audio speakers throughout the grounds; and what the Pops is terming “VIP
flushable comfort stations with individual hand-washing facilities inside, air
conditioning and lighting in each unit…that will feel like using another
restroom in an indoor venue.” (Yes, these things actually exist; I’ve seen and
used them before).

 

The Arboretum will mark the Pops’ third venue in four
seasons. After performing at Descanso Gardens in La Caada for more than a
decade, the orchestra shifted to its present location outside the Rose Bowl
last season.

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(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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