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CVNC Insight Interview:
John Candler, President & CEO, Brevard Music Center

by Roger A. Cope

Brevard, NC, August 8, 2005: Brevard Music Center is just down Probart Street, an innocuous, unassuming residential neighborhood. Suddenly there is a sign indicating the facility, but when you make a right turn, there is still no evidence you are on hallowed ground. This is where the future stars of art music and opera train, where the stars of today perform, and where the stars of yesterday have walked, taught, and created a legacy. We're in mountain terrain, so although they occupy 140 acres, the Institute and Festival don't reveal themselves immediately – instead it takes a half-hour driving tour. The main infrastructure buildings, however, are near the main road, with just enough parking spaces.

At the Broyhill Administration building I gave my name to the receptionist, who responded cheerfully that she would check to see if Mr. Candler could see me now, adding, "Please hold." I held my right hand up to my ear and said with a smile, "Okay." She didn't get it.

Once upstairs, John Candler greeted me from halfway down the hall, with his hand outstretched. Dressed casually in khakis and an open collar shirt, he is tall, fit, and quick with a smile that puts you at ease. After a few minutes of introductory chitchat, however, it became clear that not all the details of our appointment made it from the Media/Communications Office to his desk. He knows my name because it's down on the calendar, but it's for tomorrow..., and he doesn't know my affiliation or what we're doing.

During the 2005 season, I attended 16 performances on the BMC grounds and in the Porter Center at Brevard College, and I was in this building to interview Conductor and BMC Artistic Director David Effron. I saw John Candler every time. He was present for every concert I attended. He looked relaxed and amiable and seemed to be enjoying himself. "I enjoy music," he explains. "I'm not a musician, and I think it's important to be seen supporting our product, our faculty, and our students. I love this work; I have the best job in the world, though it's a bit intense in the summertime. I relax in wintertime by backpacking in the mountains."

We discussed the actual corporation, and his relationship to it. "It's a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit educational organization," he explained. "I've been a member of the Board since 1981,” dating to a period when he was an executive with the now closed Ecusta Corporation, “and have been President since the end of the 1993 season. I've lived in this area since 1973 with two short job moves, one to Connecticut and one to Atlanta. Otherwise I've been happy to live here."

We talked about the challenges of operating an arts organization in contemporary economic times. "I'm always amused when I hear leadership of an arts organization say 'We've got to run this like a business' because a passion and drive alone will not allow any organization to survive." Continuing, he explained, "All arts trend toward confusion; it's a function of the creative energy within. Really, in American economics, the only difference between businesses (whether it's a soft lines catalog company, a gas station, or concert series) is the particular tax status. It must always be run like a business in order to ensure for the future. You need more [money] coming in than is going out. There are complicated choices in our contemporary environment.

In the past year, the public has seen a subtle shift of self-image, of declared purpose, and renewed presence of the BMC and its festival in the marketplace. These are points David Effron alluded to during our conversation. I asked if this was due to influence from a recent consulting contract and about the genesis of that decision.

JC: We did that about 18 months ago (1st quarter '04). We contracted with the Institute at Biltmore. They are professional planners who have objectivity. In addition to identifying our core purpose and product, they revealed to us how BMC has been CEO-centered in the past. We now know we need to trend away from that because I'm 62 – I won't be here in 12 years. We must behave in certain ways and plan for what we leave behind. There should be a platform for the organization and the next CEO that will ensure a stable future. While we hired a consulting firm, we take responsibility for the plan (results).

CVNC: Is that where the phrase Institute and Festival came from?

JC: It's always a surprise to find you've hired someone who then tells you what you already knew, but in the end that kind of objectivity has value. Yes, the "Institute and Festival" ID came from that process. Also, we discovered the gifts of these students. I certainly couldn't do what they can do. There is no way in the world, even if I spent as much time as they do, that I could ever come anywhere close to doing what they do. It's a gift – the desire, talent, and the work ethic – to be disciplined every day, to practice over and over. It's very impressive. Their ability to set and achieve goals is admirable. That's a difficult thing to do when no one is watching over your shoulder or making you do it. These are bright, smart, good students, worthy of investment.

CVNC: You really have two customer baselines. One buys concert tickets, and the second buys the educational experience. As to the first, who is your customer?

JC: We're the same as a symphony or other major cultural entity. Right now – and in the recent past – our customer is older, affluent, ... biased toward female, and generally has a higher high education factor. Part of our job today is finding replacements for current customers, and we shouldn't wait until we need them. We should be working on that right now to ensure the future customer base. One particular challenge is knowing the cultural experience of our future customer. Due to cuts in school arts programs and other influences that may reduce cultural programs, a person may not have had the same exposure to art and music while a child as our current customers had. So we must address how we are going to attract that future audience to the Center. Our "Variations Concert" series is one step in that direction. This brings in a show that is other than classical music (this year, Ricky Skaggs and Emmylou Harris), and in turn brings in a different segment of the population. So it's important to keep an eye on those kinds of trends.

CVNC: And the second customer?

JC: Our second customer is the student musician. They come from 47 states and six foreign countries. We cap the enrollment at 400; we won't take more. Forty percent are high school students; the rest are undergraduate and graduate students – they're older. The older students are more advanced in their skills and purpose. The younger students may be discovering their place amid the hierarchy of musical preparation and talent and might not know what to do. Certainly the practice and work continues, but they are finding how much more of that may be necessary. For some, this is a place to find out if they want to do this, to gain perspective, to recalibrate. This process is certainly aided by faculty and upper-class students who are in a position to help out.

CVNC: On the product or sales side, 23% of income is from concert ticket sales. In terms of your budget plan, is that a loss-leader to produce, compared to expenses?

JC: Not including the "Variations Concerts," we're 6.3 percent above last year's ticket sales, which in the terms of our operating budget is a steady state; in terms of growth, that's been flat for past three-year period. We will have completed our 27th consecutive year of exceeding budget expectations, operating in the black. I've got a good Board. You can't do this job – or any job with this level of complexity – without the support of and direction from an informed Board.

If you consider the scope of BMC this is a stunning achievement. For the record, BMC had 1,800 applicants, and only 400 are accepted every year. Tuition and fees cost $4,100, 75% of students are on scholarship, and total scholarships came to $711,000. The average scholarship per student is $2,370, and 35% of the student body has been here before. [Of] the total, 176 are male and 224 are female, representing 84 colleges and universities, worldwide. The student body is made up roughly 19% piano, 39% strings, 10% vocal, 3% composition, and 29% winds, brass and percussion.

There are seven instrumental ensembles at BMC. The Brevard Music Center Orchestra is the flagship, appearing every Sunday afternoon and occasionally on Friday or Saturday evening. The Repertory Symphony Orchestra consists mostly of students and is host for the annual student concerto concert and annual National Federation of Music Clubs concert. The Transylvania Symphony Orchestra is made up of the Young Artists' Division (high school students), hosts faculty soloists, and presents an annual Young Person's concert. The Transylvania Wind Ensemble is the band for college students. The Transylvania Symphonic Band is all wind and percussion students and shares duties with the TWE. I Solisti di Brevard is a string chamber orchestra founded in 2004 that draws from the Young Artists Division by audition. Finally, itch is the Music Center's new music ensemble (all 20th-century compositions) consisting of six students from the Advanced Division on violin, cello, flute, clarinet, piano, and percussion.

CVNC: (After noting additional amenities for the public, I asked about an alfresco but covered temporary eatery located next to the 1,500-seat Whittington-Phohl Auditorium and adjacent to Thomas Hall, site of pre-concert lectures....) How has Café con Brio been doing?

JC: Well, that's not our operation. We supported the idea of an upscale dining experience on the property just before concerts. This allows people to park early, relax over a meal, and then enjoy the program. We felt it was a good idea last year. All we've done is lease the space to Falls Landing Restaurant. I think they did well last year, and I notice they offered two seatings this year. I haven't spoken to them yet, but I suspect that's gone very well.

CVNC: Have there been difficulties with artist cancellations, for whatever reason?

JC: Actually we've had very few cancellations. I recall we had one – I think it was Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg, who couldn't be here as booked – but otherwise we've had few problems with that.

CVNC: What about Blair Tindall, the oboist and New York Times columnist who was to give a pre-concert lecture on July 3 before an appearance by violinist Joshua Bell?

JC: A book she just published received some reviews that weren't of a positive nature. We didn't feel it was in the best interest of our students to have that kind of exposure. I exchanged e-mails with her, and we agreed to terminate the date. She had some other cancellations about the same time. And there was some other press in North Carolina - in Greensboro and Raleigh, I think.

CVNC: Will you tell us about your big-name visitor, Keith Lockhart?

JC: He has been superb. He is on the Board, is a trustee, and as a former student he understands the importance of this experience to a young person. And he has never asked us for money – he works for free. He has a passion for this place, has made choices to contribute and - after his own success – give[s] back.

CVNC: Are there any new projects coming up?

JC: We have funded the stage extension in the main auditorium. I think you heard how successful the temporary extension proved [in Mahler's Sixth Symphony], and we have a family willing to make that permanent. It will be an expensive but important contribution. The extension will be on a hydraulic-operated riser to accommodate both the main orchestra and the pit orchestra during operas. The extension makes for much better sound from our orchestra.

CVNC: What is the relationship to Brevard College, and will it continue?

JC: As you know we use their auditorium, the Porter Center [actually, the Scott Concert Hall of the PC] for some of our chamber music programs. We have been very pleased with that experience and will likely continue. Beyond that I see no development. We are two different organizations with different objectives.

CVNC: Where does Brevard Music Center rank in the realm of worldwide festivals?

JC: We are not perceived in the league of others, but in fact we exceed all the others.

Note: This interview concludes our coverage of the Brevard Music Festival for 2005. For reviews not linked herein, see our June, July, & August archives.

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