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Utah Symphony and Opera Boss Leaves the Stage

May 15, 2007

By The Salt Lake Tribune

May 15–Anne Ewers, president and CEO of Utah Symphony and Opera, is leaving Utah’s largest performing arts organization after five turbulent years in which the company completed a controversial merger, weathered a financial crisis and won raves for its musical offerings.

Ewers will become president and CEO of Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center Inc., a performing arts center with a $35 million annual budget and that is home to eight resident arts companies, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, Opera Company of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Ballet.

“That’s the piece that’s so appealing to me, as it allows me to touch all the art forms that I love,” said Ewers, 55, a former opera conductor who earned undergraduate degrees in music and theater. “It’s the chance of a lifetime, and I felt like I couldn’t turn it down.”

The news of Ewers’ departure throws the US&O into a state of transition and comes six months after the symphony’s music director, Keith Lockhart, announced he will leave his post at the end of the 2008-2009 season. Lockhart could not be reached for comment Monday; in a statement, he said, “I will miss Anne in Utah as a visionary leader.”

Ewers’ last day at the Utah company will be June 9. A committee will begin meeting next week to choose her successor, and officials hope to hire a new CEO by fall, said US&O board chair Patricia A. Richards. In the meantime, US&O Chief Operating Officer David Green will serve as interim CEO.

“We always felt that Anne’s talents and energies were such that she would be an attractive candidate” to other organizations, Richards said. “I think it reflects well on our organization that somebody of the size and stature of the Kimmel would seek executive leadership from our ranks.”

But other observers fear Ewers’ departure will create a leadership vacuum at a crucial time when the US&O is digging itself out of a financial hole.

“We longtime symphony and opera subscribers wish her the best in the East, but it is very bad timing,” said Linda Schweikardt, former president of the Utah Opera Guild. “She had her finger in every pot there is between the symphony and opera. To take all fingers out at once is going to be tough.”

A hard-charging leader with boundless energy, Ewers was president of the Utah Opera from 1991 to 2002, during which time she more than tripled the company’s annual budget. In 2002 she oversaw the merger of Utah Opera with the Utah Symphony, an ambitious move designed to streamline operations, boost visibility and solidify the companies’ finances. Two years later she launched the summertime Deer Valley Music Festival, four weeks of outdoor classical and pops symphonic concerts.

Ewers bruised some egos in Utah with her blunt, relentless managerial style, while others marveled at her work ethic and persuasiveness. Most agree she took over the two-headed arts organization, with its $17.5 million budget, at a difficult time. Arts funding slowed after the 2001 terrorist attacks, and some disgruntled symphony and opera fans pulled their donations to protest the merger. Ticket sales also slumped.

Things came to a head in 2005, when orchestra members complained publicly and a consultant concluded that the US&O was in “peril.” In the two years after the symphony and opera joined, the organization ran up deficits totaling $3.4 million. Although Ewers said the shortages were covered by the company’s cash reserves, she still took heat for the mess.

“Anne was definitely seen as a lightning rod, for better or for worse,” said Christine Osborne, a symphony bassoonist who has served on numerous US&O committees. “It’s been a fairly tumultuous five years, for a lot of reasons that were not necessarily her fault. Whether you liked her or not, I think you had to admire the effort she put into her job and the dedication with which she promoted the organization. I’ve never seen anybody work so tirelessly.”

In the past two years, the Utah Symphony and Opera appears to have rebounded. Ewers said Monday that donations and ticket sales are up, while the Deer Valley Music Festival is exceeding attendance projections.

“I would not have left [the US&O] until we had gotten to this point,” said the Illinois native, who commissioned “The Grapes of Wrath,” a well-received original opera now playing at the Capitol Theatre. “I feel like the organization is really moving ahead.”

Orchestra members said Monday that while they appreciated Ewers’ contributions, they are already looking forward to the fresh perspective and energy that a new CEO will bring.

National arts blogger Drew McManus said a leadership change might help the US&O recover from the struggles of a merger that is perceived nationally as “flawed” in part because Ewers was too closely connected to the process. “The organization will have a new executive walk in to put the pieces in place they’ve been missing,” he said.

By Ellen Fagg and Brandon Griggs

EWERS’ UTAH TIMELINE:

–1991: Anne Ewers arrives to run Utah Opera

–2002: Ewers becomes CEO of the newly merged Utah Symphony & Opera

–2004: The US&O launches a summer music festival at Deer Valley

–2005: The US&O begins a restructuring after a consultant finds it is in financial crisis

–2006: Utah Symphony music director Keith Lockhart announces he will leave in 2009

–2007: Ewers announces plans to leave US&O

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Copyright (c) 2007, The Salt Lake Tribune

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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