The Business of Music: Cerny takes lead as president, CEO of Symphony

Cover photo by Gittings Photography

Fort Worth Symphony President and CEO Keith Cerny brings wide experience to the new job

Keith Cerny became president and CEO of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra in January 2019, filling a role that had been vacant since Amy Adkins left to become president of All Saints Health Foundation in July 2017.

It was a return to North Texas for him.

Between 2010 and early 2018, he was general director and CEO of The Dallas Opera before leaving to become general director and CEO of Calgary Opera, one of Canada’s largest opera companies. He was there just eight months before taking the job in Fort Worth.

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“My family was back here, I had two sons at that point in high school and I was trying to commute every week and I found pretty early on that that just wasn’t going to be sustainable, unfortunately,” Cerny said.

“I did some great artistic projects there. I loved working with the board and the staff, but just trying to get back and forth was too hard,” he said.

In Fort Worth, he immediately faced a difficult task – finding a replacement for the popular music director, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, who is stepping down after his 20th season with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.

Cerny brings a wide range of experience to the job, including classical music, technology, and business. That business aspect is especially important when running an operation that depends heavily on donations for survival.

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“Keith is the perfect CEO for the job at hand and it is remarkable how much he has already achieved since Jan. 11,” Board Chair Mercedes T. Bass said in an email. “I know for a fact that the leadership of the FWSO, as well as the board, are thrilled with his accomplishments.”

Some history: Fort Worth Symphony musicians voted Dec. 7, 2016, to accept a new contract running through July 31, 2020, ending a work stoppage that began on Sept. 8, 2016.

The Business Press reported that a donor gave $700,000 to bridge the gap between the Symphony Association and the musicians, leading to the breakthrough in negotiations, and substantially reducing the FWSO’s annual projected shortfall for the next few seasons.

Adkins announced her resignation shortly after the union negotiations and a contract with Cerny was negotiated the next summer. He could not start until January because he wanted to give the Calgary Opera adequate notice and finish a project, Bass said.

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“Running a symphony is a very complex business and I was determined that we would find the right person no matter how long it took,” Bass said.

Bass said the search committee interviewed one or two candidates a month, sometimes conducting a second or third interview, looking for “someone with the ultimate experience in handling a large enterprise such as ours.”

“I am thrilled to say we were extremely lucky in not having selected any one of them. Keith Cerny is a jackpot. He is totally the right man in the right job,” Bass said.

Cerny’s musical studies began with the San Francisco Boys Chorus. He began playing piano at age 10 and performed extensively in his teens as a pianist and conductor with a number of organizations, including the Berkeley Contemporary Chamber Players.

He studied music and physics at the University of California at Berkeley, graduating with highest honors in both disciplines. After Berkeley, there was a Fulbright fellowship to London where he studied and freelanced for four years as a pianist, vocal coach, and conductor.

He later earned an MBA from the Harvard Business School, and a Ph.D. in econometrics and development policy from the Open University in the United Kingdom. After business school, Cerny worked for the management consulting firms McKinsey & Co. and Accenture.

He also studied voice for around five years, not so much to perform but so that he could coach opera singers.

“That was the musical side of my background, and when I was in my mid 20s, I decided I wanted to move more in the direction of arts management,” he said.

In 2004, he was named chief operating officer and chief financial officer of the San Francisco Opera, and has been in various arts leadership roles since, but always following his line of interest in music and business and technology.

That variety of experience works well in the search for Harth-Bedoya’s replacement.

“Being able to approach that from a musical perspective and really look at what they’re doing technically and musically, and how they’re interacting with the orchestra, is really important,” he said. “And, I can also look at how they interact with donors and staff and so on, and that very rounded perspective is really helpful.”

He says Harth-Bedoya has been “incredibly welcoming to me” and they are working together on a conducting fellows program. It is a great opportunity for young conductors to work with someone of Harth-Bedoya’s experience and talent.

Harth-Bedoya will transition to being music director laureate and do two different classical programs a year once he steps down from being music director, Cerny says.

The benefit to conductors in training is obvious but there is a benefit to the Fort Worth Symphony and the greater music world as well.

“We get the ability to help develop the next generation of conductors and this is something that Miguel is very passionate about,” Cerny said.

“I’ve hired conductors at all different stages of their careers and helping young conductors find their way is something I’m also passionate about. This was a nice way for Miguel and me to collaborate on a project, even in my first few months here,” he said.

Cerny and his wife, Jennifer, have been married for more than 30 years and have four sons – Matthew, Michael, William and Nicholas, who is in his senior year of high school and the the only one still at home. The Cernys are in the final stages of renovation of their home in Arlington Heights.

The Business Press recently conducted an in-depth interview with Keith Cerny, president and CEO of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, for our Nov. 18-24 cover story. Here are excerpts of that interview.

How are symphonies different from opera companies?

Cerny: There are many elements that are the same. In terms of my own musical training, on the conducting side, I’ve studied the symphonic repertoire pretty much in balance with the opera repertoire, so I come with a strong background in actual repertoire.

The kinds of day to day management issues that we work on with our orchestra are very similar here to what I’ve worked on in San Francisco and other places as well. So, that side is really similar.

One of the big differences in the opera world, a really big opera company might do 80 performances, 90 performances.

Fort Worth Symphony does 200 concerts a year and so the sheer volume of what we do is different, and also the variety, because we’re doing everything from music of Queen to Mahler’s Third Symphony to mariachi to Star Wars.

Our orchestra is remarkably versatile. They take all this in stride and play all those different genres. So, that’s a big difference between the two.

How are the finances?

Cerny: We are right now in the middle of the audit for the 2018-2019 season. It’s looking like it was a solid year, so I’m pleased about that, especially because I only joined the company halfway through and there was actually no CEO for about 18 or 20 months between when Amy Adkins stepped down and I started.

We’ve recruited a very experienced head of development, and are really strengthening our development team and that will also help this year and going forward.

One of the things I really am enjoying about the job is the incredible good will toward the symphony when I meet with donors, which I do a lot. I had a meeting with a big foundation this morning, they’re predisposed to want to help us.

I’m very happy that we now have a full-time head of development (Julie Baker, vice president of development). … It’s a full-time job for the team and full time in a fun way. We want to be out in the community, talking to people all the time.

Development is a skill like everything else. I’m very pleased that a lot of our musicians have been volunteering their time to help with the development efforts. … [At a recent donor event] we had quite a few musicians volunteer their time to come talk to the donors. And, that’s really something very special.

What about the future?

Cerny: I’ve also been working with the board and staff and musicians on the strategy for the organization, and a lot of what I’ve been working on there is helping the organization really understand the economics of everything that we do.

We know we’re going to have to raise money in different amounts for different areas of our operations, but I’ve been working with my artistic team to set a very specific margin targets. In our case, it’s fundraising targets. For example, the symphonic series you do 10 programs a year, three times each, that’s 30 performances, here’s how much that we’re willing to take on from a fundraising point of view.

And then, as we program the 2021 season, which we’re doing right now, making sure that we’re fitting within that goal. So, taking that process and then replicating it for Concerts in the Garden, our pop series, our special series, our education program, and so on, so that we’re looking very clearly upfront about what are the economics going to be?

For example, in Concerts in the Garden, our musical reputation isn’t influenced by whether we do more Queen and less Led Zeppelin or more Abba and less Star Wars. And so, putting a lot of good business perspective on if we’re going to do 16 or 17 Concerts in the Garden, how do we have a really fun, vibrant summer festival but not have holes in our pocket because things just aren’t selling out.

Same thing like on our movie projects. There’s a big difference economically between, to pick four specific examples, Jurassic Park, Fantasia, Ghostbusters, which we did, and Home Alone. It’s great fun to have those evenings. The audiences love them. The economics are really different, and understanding those up front, building the financial systems and tools so that we can really make smart decisions about that, just to strengthen the organization financially, is a big part of the strategy.

Educating and developing the future audience

Cerny: One of the aspects of Fort Worth Symphony that’s so distinctive … is the breadth of our education program, because we reach about 65,000 young people a year, which is an enormous number.

In round numbers, we reach about 200,000 people a year – 35,000 or so at Concerts in the Garden, 65,000 for our education program and then the rest is symphonic series and pop series and all the one offs and so on, that having essentially a third of our programming reaching out, not only Fort Worth or even Tarrant County, but in rural areas across the state is something we’re very proud of.

We go all over. The National Endowment for the Arts quite a few times has helped underwrite what we call the Texas touring program, which is going into about a dozen different rural communities.

Concerts in the Garden

Cerny: Concerts in the Garden is a really wonderful aspect of what we do as an organization. We get about 35,000 people a year come to Concerts in the Garden. We finished our 29th anniversary this past summer, getting ready for the 30th, which is a big deal and it really, from my point of view, and this is the first time I had seen it this summer in action, it’s the perfect blend of community outreach, reaching a broader audience, people having a lot of fun, really enjoying their summer in the beautiful botanic gardens, and it’s central to what we do.

We get all the benefits of having a summer home, without having to physically take the whole orchestra and all the staff somewhere else. And, we’re absolutely delighted that there’s this huge level of community interest in the program.

How large is the orchestra?

Cerny: We have a collective bargaining agreement with the American Federation of Musicians, which covers all of the employment we have with musicians. We have a core orchestra of about 62 players at the moment, and then when we do large works we’ll bring in additional players to round out what we need.

Sixty-two gives us a great base to start. For example, if we’re doing a program of Mozart, we have what we need certainly and probably then some, or baroque music. If we start moving into the big Mahlers the Bruckners, the Shostakovichs, some Stravinsky works, where we need large orchestras, then we have a mechanism built into the agreement where we can bring in players for the rehearsals and performances in that way. So, 62 I think is a good number for us.