Quest for the best: Mercedes Bass and the Fort Worth Symphony reach for the stars

Fort Worth Symphony board chair Mercedes Bass has put together a world-class team to build the local orchestra into an internationally acclaimed institution. With Mrs. Bass (from the left): Kevin John Edusei, principal guest conductor; Keith Cerny, president and CEO; Robert Spano, music director. (FWSO)

The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra’s 2022-23 season raises the curtain on a transformative “new vision,” defined by heightened artistic excellence and directed at international acclaim.

The driving force behind this ambitious initiative is philanthropist Mercedes Bass, chairwoman of the orchestra board and a longtime classical music aficionado.

“There is no reason that Fort Worth should not have the best,” she said in an interview. “You can’t just have a vision. You have to have a plan and it is our hope that we will reach our goal.”

A native of Tehran, Iran, Bass was born into a well-to-do family, which followed the Old World tradition of enrolling children in piano lessons at a young age as part of a classics-driven education.

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“We always had classical music by Russian composers playing at home,” recalled the former wife of Sid Bass, a member of Fort Worth’s billionaire Bass family. “It was part of our life and world.”

After completing her education in England and a bachelor’s degree in business in Switzerland, she emigrated to the United States. In 1988, she married Sid Bass and then moved to Fort Worth in 1992.

“When I came to Fort Worth with my husband, I wanted to do something for my new city,” she recalled.

He passion and knowledge of music, both orchestral and opera, had deepened over the years, making the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra the ideal choice for her philanthropy.

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Since she shared a love of classical music with her mother-in-law, Nancy Lee Bass, she saw patronage of the orchestra as a way to carry on the family legacy.

Nancy Lee Bass also learned to play piano as a child and was a generous supporter of many cultural organizations, including the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. In addition to other contributions, Nancy Lee and Perry Bass donated  $8 million to the symphony in 1991.

“My mother-in-law had a very, very strong love of classical music and she encouraged me to become involved with the symphony,” Mrs. Bass said.

The Nancy Lee and Perry R, Bass Performance Hall is named in their honor and has served as host of the symphony, the Texas Ballet Theater, the Fort Worth Opera and the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Nancy Lee Bass was an avid supporter of the Van Cliburn competition and served on its advisory board.

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Mercedes Bass’ vision for the symphony involves putting all the necessary elements in place to create a world-class organization.

Relying on her own keen sense of how classical music should sound, she developed a plan that would bring together the finest musicians, outstanding business leadership and a shared organizational goal of world-class stature.

“She is so inspirational to me, in what she knows about music and leadership,” said high-powered Fort Worth attorney Marianne Auld, chair of the symphony’s executive committee. “Fort Worth is a great city and has long supported the arts.”

“With her leadership, we could put the symphony on the international map,” Auld said. “And Fort Worth would be better for it.”

For Auld and others, there is no one more committed or qualified than Mrs. Bass to lead the symphony to new heights. She’s a longtime patron of the arts whose generosity included a $25 million donation that she and Sid Bass made in 2006 to New York’s Metropolitan Opera. At the time, it was the largest individual donation to the opera, according to The New York Times.

Her leadership roles include serving as an Aspen Institute trustee and on the Aspen School advisory board; vice chair and member of the executive committee of the Carnegie Hall Corp. Board of Trustees; and vice chair as well as a managing director and a member of the executive committee of the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Opera. She also has served on the board of trustees of the American Academy in Rome.

Besides being board chair of the Fort Worth Symphony, she is vice chair of the Artistic Initiatives, Joint, and Strategic Planning committees.

The cornerstone of turning her symphony vision into reality was the hiring of Keith Cerny as president and CEO; Maestro Robert Spano as music director; and Kevin John Edusei as principal guest conductor.

“Thank goodness for the board, they took charge, provided leadership and put us on a path forward,” Mrs. Bass said.

Cerny was hired in January 2019 to fill the position that had been vacant since Amy Adkins left to become president of All Saints Health Foundation 18 months earlier.

He brought expertise in both music and business, making him the ideal candidate for the role. Music has been a part of his life since he began singing with the San Francisco Boys Chorus. Then came piano lessons and performances as a pianist and conductor with organizations in the San Francisco area during his teens.

After studying music and physics as an undergrad at the University of California at Berkeley, he was awarded a Fulbright fellowship in London, where he studied and worked as a pianist, vocal coach and conductor.

Afterwards, he earned his MBA from Harvard University and a Ph.D in econometrics and development policy from Open University in the U.K.

His professional accomplishments include serving as executive director and CFO of the San Francisco Opera; general director and CEO of the Dallas Opera; and general director and CEO of the Calgary Opera in Canada.

In the interim between the departure of Adkins and the arrival of Cerny, Mrs. Bass said she took on a larger role to keep the orchestra operating smoothly, helping to overcome financial challenges at the time.

“Keith has brought in a whole new business model,” Mrs. Bass said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t have the knife that could cut the butter until we found Keith.”

For his part, Cerny said when he first met Mrs. Bass, “I was struck by how ambitious she was and is” as well as her commitment to artistic quality.

Once he arrived, Cerny was tasked with finding a replacement for renowned conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya, who was stepping down after his 20th season as music director, and also with filling staff vacancies and developing a strategy to “make every year stronger than the year before” in terms of musical quality.

But just as Cerny was completing his first year, the organization was faced with the unexpected challenges of the pandemic shutdowns.

Several concerts scheduled for the 2019-2020 season were canceled as was the 30th season of the popular Concerts in the Garden.

Once restrictions were lifted, the organization wasted no time getting the orchestra back to performing live.

“Mrs. Bass and I moved heaven and earth to get back on stage,” Cerny said.

The 2020-21 season began in September 2020 with a modified schedule and reduced audience capacity to accommodate social-distancing. Safety precautions were put in place, including mandatory masking and temperature screenings, and many performances took place at Will Rogers Memorial Auditorium, a more spacious venue than Bass Performance Hall.

The orchestra benefited from $8.1 million in government assistance, including Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Shuttered Venue Operators Grant funds.

“We are very proud that we never had to cut salaries or let anyone go,” Mrs. Bass said.

Equally important, she noted, the organization administered more than 1,200 COVID-19 tests on musicians and staff with a positivity rate of less than 1 percent.

The organization’s successful new business model helped make re-opening for live audiences possible as did philanthropic support from Mrs. Bass; the Kleinheinz Family Foundation for the Arts and Education; Ed Schollmaier, in memory of Rae Schollmaier; and many other donors.

The symphony was able to maintain a balanced budget and successfully recover, Cerny said. The 2022-23 fiscal year budget is $15.1 million, an increase of $700,000 over the 2021-22 budget of $14.4 million.

“We are facing inflation like everyone else,” Cerny said. “But we have been very careful not to let our expenses grow too quickly. Post-COVID, our ticket sales were down and that put increased pressure on fundraising.”

The 2021-22 season helped usher in pre-pandemic normalcy with a return to Bass Hall, 10 symphonic concerts and seven pops concerts. The season also saw the return of the Concerts in the Garden series.

But the biggest announcement of that season was that Robert Spano would become the next music director of the orchestra. Spano, who has served the symphony as principal guest conductor since 2019, became music director designate in April 2021 and music director on Aug. 1, 2022.

Spano was finishing his final season as music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in 2021, a position he had held since 2001. He was  planning to retire.

But Mrs. Bass, who had known and admired Spano for many years, had other plans for his future. Besides his role with the Atlanta Symphony, Spano had served since 2011 as music director of the Aspen Music Festival and School, where Mrs. Bass’ leadership roles gave her an up-close view of Spano’s talent. She saw an opportunity to try to persuade the accomplished and world-renowned conductor, pianist, composer and teacher to join the Fort Worth Symphony.

The conversation initially began when Mrs. Bass told him she was seeking a successor for Miguel Harth-Bedoya, Spano said. He agreed to become principal guest conductor.

“I knew Mercedes well and was happy to do that for her,” Spano said. “The first time I came to conduct, I had a wonderful time.”

Yet, he wasn’t ready to make a deeper commitment. “I wanted a minute,” he recalled.

Finally, over dinner, Mrs. Bass recalled, she asked Spano whether he had made up his mind.

“He wanted to retire and conduct opera,” she said, “but he said: ‘Why not?’”

Spano said he was captivated by Mrs. Bass’ determination and ambitious plans for the symphony.

“It was incredibly exciting and I wanted to be part of it,” he said. “I was seduced and couldn’t say no.”

He committed to an initial three-year term, becoming the 10th music director in the orchestra’s 110-year history.

In addition to conducting most of the symphonic concerts, Spano oversees the orchestra and music staff and works closely with Cerny to define the orchestra’s artistic vision and broaden audiences.

“We are definitely on a mission,” Spano said.

Other key organizational changes this season included the hiring of accomplished German conductor Kevin John Edusei to succeed Spano as principal guest conductor.

“I was so happy to accept the offer,” said Edusei, who made his debut as a guest conductor with the orchestra in September 2021. “I sensed a great deal of ambition and commitment and with Robert Spano onboard, it was an easy choice.”

Also, nine new musicians were hired this year – two additions to the musician core and seven to fill vacancies.

“Our goal is to add one tenure-track position a year,” Cerny said.

The current season also adds additional symphonic performances, increasing from 10 to 11 programs, as well as additional pops programs, increasing from seven to eight.

Spano will conduct six of the symphonic programs, music director laureate Miguel Harth-Bedoya will conduct one and Edusei will conduct two concerts. Guest conductors will also be featured this year.

This year’s symphonic season spanned the musical spectrum, including highlights such as the season opener, A New Musical Era Begins: Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert, followed by an all Rachmaninoff program; an American jazz tribute, A Trip to Harlem;highlights of Richard Wagner; and A Trip to St. Petersburg: Glinka, Glazunov and Tchaikovsky.

Headlining a stellar lineup of soloists this season is cellist Yo-Yo Ma; pianists Joyce Yang and Jorge Federico Osorio; and violinist Gil Shaham.

Upcoming in the spring is a unique A Night at the Ballet program featuring the orchestra and Texas Ballet Theater performing together. The collaboration is part of a symphony initiative to use visual imagery to “heighten the audience experience,” Cerny said.

The season also includes a Family Series, a Chamber Music Series and the Meet the Composer lecture and question-and-answer series.

This season’s pops series lineup included “Queens of Soul,” the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the music of Star Wars, the music of the Beatles and music of Motown.

There are still many events ahead, including headline concerts such as Three American Tenors, a performance of arias and Broadway favorites performed by three tenors and the orchestra.

For Mrs. Bass, this season launches her dream of taking the Fort Worth Symphony to the next level. She is hoping the orchestra eventually will be invited to perform in Europe, South America and beyond.

“We really have a Class A orchestra,” she said. “We want the whole country and the world to know what a great orchestra Fort Worth has.”