Sept. 9 2009 12:00 AM

LSO continues search for executive director

Help wanted: Rejuvenated, small-market symphony seeks top executive to help organization continue to grow in times of economic turmoil and shrinking arts funds. Must have fundraising and administrative experience. Love and knowledge of music strongly preferred. Start immediately.

That’s the figurative classified ad from the Lansing Symphony Orchestra, as it continues its search for a new executive director.

Charles R. Hilary, president of the symphony’s board of directors and acting executive director, said the ideal candidate has to be able to raise money, lead an office and know music. “It’s hard to find those people,” Hilary said. “We’re holding out until we do.”

Hilary said a final candidate had been chosen, but he was unable to accept the position because of family issues. “He sure liked what he saw, and he had bought airline tickets to come back with [his fiance],” Hilary said. “That’s what kind of surprised us so much when he said ‘no.’”

Hilary said there are a few more candidates being considered (he declined to give their names), and he hopes the search will end soon.

The symphony’s last executive director, David Gross, left in March on short notice to lead the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra. He had come to the symphony in early 2007 from the Grand Rapids Symphony. “David got a wonderful offer from West Virginia,” Hilary said. “He had to make a quick decision.”

Ken Beachler, a local theater veteran and former executive director of Michigan State University’s Wharton Center, stepped in as interim director, before Hilary’s schedule allowed him to relieve him of the position last month.

Who ever winds up with the job will need to jump head first into a competitive fundraising climate in which Hilary said cultivating new forms of giving is key.

“Corporate sponsors — a lot are still there, but they are not giving the kind of money we hope we can get,” Hilary said.

In place of large-sum, corporate gifts, Hilary said the symphony needs to seek more small sponsorships and step up individual donations. Part of the plan involves getting symphony supporters outside of the board involved in the fundraising process in what Hilary called “a community-based council” that can help with specific projects, like special events, estate planning and just spreading the word about what the symphony means to the community.

Hilary said the symphony is also working to bring new listeners and supporters into the fold and bring symphonic sounds to younger ears. “I feel strongly about young people and attracting them to symphony music,” Hilary said.

For Thursday night’s rehearsal, piano teachers and students will be invited to watch and hopefully spend some time talking with this week’s guest soloist, star pianist Christopher O’Riley. “We’re trying to create some creative activities where you’re beginning to include the other arts in our community,” Hilary said. “I think that’s important, to work with the other arts as closely as we can and the Council for the Arts and try to engage the arts as much as we can.”

In general, Hilary sounds optimistic for the new season, and why shouldn’t he be? Even in a recession, ticket sales are up over this time last year. Hilary gives the credit for that feat to the work and support of symphony maestro Timothy Muffitt and the rest of the symphony’s staff.

“This is our 80th year,” Hilary said. “We’d like to start the next 80 years with a big bang.”