Growing up in rural northern Illinois, the only exposure he had to classical music was his dad’s record player.
“I remember driving home from something with my dad and he said, ‘Trey, you‘ve got to see this,’ and he pulled out a compact disc. He said, ‘there’s no needle and there’s this laser,’ and it was a recording of the Cincinnati Symphony. It was the Tchaikovsky ‘1812.’ I played it over and over and over again.”
Little did he know that he would one day be president of the CSO.
Devey, 37, a trained musician who also holds a master’s degree in business administration from the prestigious Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, arrived in Cincinnati in January. Named to succeed long-time CSO president Steven Monder in November, Devy knew what he was getting into. A perfect storm had been brewing since the stock market went into a tail spin and took a chunk of the CSO endowment with it (from over $70 million to $56 million on Dec. 31, 2008). The orchestra had posted a $3.8 million operating deficit for the 2007-08 season (ending August 31) and the musicians’ contract was up for renewal in January, 2009.
Now, in February, it seems those winds have calmed a bit, and the nation’s fifth oldest orchestra is on course again.
Announced earlier this month, the CSO has reduced its operating costs by $2.8 million, ratified a new contract with the musicians through March, 2013 and embarked on a concerted effort to set priorities for the organization. Elements in the reduction include an 11% cut in the players’ salaries (through fiscal 2011, with incremental raises thereafter), wage cuts by the administrative and artistic staff, including music director Paavo Järvi, elimination of five staff positions (through attrition, retirement and layoffs) and cessation of the orchestra’s recording and touring activities, at least for the time being.
The CSO’s previously announced trip to Carnegie Hall in 2010 is not affected, nor are its recordings already made by Telarc, Holst’s “The Planets,” recorded in November, Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony, due for release in March, and a still-to-come album with Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops.
The modest, soft-spoken Devey seems the ideal person to lead this corporate endeavor. Former president and executive director of the Syracuse Symphony and Florida Philharmonic, he most recently served as a consultant for the Boston Consulting Group in Chicago, where he worked with some of the nation’s Fortune 500 companies.
What has gratified him the most in working with the CSO is the extent of commitment and collaboration he has experienced within the organization.
“There’s a culture here which I think is quite healthy,” he said Feb. 5 at Music Hall. “It’s one of teamwork, of putting the institution first. I feel like it’s not only my role to help the organization get better, but to preserve some of the things that are real standout attributes of the organization right now, and that is a culture of everyone pulling together.”
Devey wants things handled expeditiously, too, he said. “What I’d like to see – and we’ve dealt with this on a couple of little issues along the way – is a real attitude where, if a problem comes up, we fix it right away.
“Bad news doesn’t get better with age. Problems don’t go away if you don’t address them. Let’s have everyone in the organization come forward, not only saying, ‘this is an issue,’ but ‘here’s the three ideas I’ve got to fix it.’ If you’ve got that kind of mentality in an organization, the sky is the limit.”
The CSO cutbacks just announced do not constitute a long term strategy, he said.
“You can’t save your way to success, though given the financial realities we face right now, we’ve got to make some tough decisions, and what I was pleased about was that this involved every part of the symphony family, musicians, staff and artistic leadership. Now we can move forward.”
However, “you’ve got to know where you’re going,” he said. “If you don’t know that, you’re probably not going to get there. You’ve got to have a pretty clear sense of the vision of the organization.”
Where the CSO is “walking a tightrope,” he said, “is maintaining the artistic excellence of the organization and at the same time, being sure that we’re financially responsible and stewards of the community’s resources. What it boils down to is we’ve got to prioritize. There are some things we’re probably not going to be able to do short term, just to protect the financial strength of the organization, but at the same time, we’ve got to do some things that keep the CSO on the map and operating at the highest level.
“This is an internationally respected orchestra and the reason we’ve got the quality that we do in terms of the musicians is because it’s a premier institution. If you’re coming out of a conservatory, do you want to audition for an orchestra that is doing really interesting things artistically, like recording and touring, or one that doesn’t? You know you want to be involved with one of the greats, an orchestra that’s pushing the envelope. Obviously, this is where Paavo has been showing the leadership – to say, ‘let’s decide what are the couple of things we really think are important and go do them.’
“The Carnegie Hall tour comes to mind immediately. There are so few orchestras that get invited to Carnegie Hall. There’s an opportunity for us to raise the flag, not only for the CSO, but the Cincinnati community. It’s a statement about the quality of all the arts organizations here that we’re able to do those sorts of things. It says that culture runs deep here, and we’re not going to let people forget that.”
Devey credits Järvi, music director since 2001, for raising the CSO to increasingly higher levels of accomplishment. “What he’s done with the orchestra in the last several years has been remarkable, the kind of acclaim the orchestra has received, the initiatives he has sparked. And the level of playing of the orchestra is just out-of-this-world good. I listen to his performances and hear things I’ve never heard before. And it’s not done in a way that sticks it in the audience’s face. It’s subtle, but really nuanced.”
Though he had been in Cincinnati barely four weeks at the time of this interview, Devey said he had made some important observations about the city and the CSO audience.
“A big strength is the tradition. You’ve got an orchestra with a 114-year history of success. It has persevered through lots of difficult financial challenges and has emerged successfully at every corner. It has stood the test of time and with that tradition, it’s a virtuous cycle.
“I see strength at the level of participation and the diversity of offerings that exist here. You have what’s going on at Riverbend and the Symphony schedule, which flows into the May Festival, which flows into the Opera. There is an overall framework that makes lots of sense and always gives an outlet for experiencing really great artistic events.”
Devey has “a very high opinion” of the CSO audience. “It’s a knowledgeable and enthusiastic audience. I’ve been pleased at the range of people I’ve seen in the hall relative to some other places – lots of young people and different types of people from every background.”
CSO marketing efforts have produced at 14% increase in classical concert attendance relative to last year, he noted. “This is paid attendance, so things are on the upswing there.”
On a personal level, Devey and his family – wife Amy and daughters Elsie, 6, and Clara, 3, who will be commuting on weekends from Chicago until the end of the school year – have been pleased with their reception in Cincinnati.
“When I was involved in discussions about coming out here -- and Amy came out as well -- we talked about the feeling that we got here. It's a very welcoming and down-to-earth community as far as everything we could tell, and that’s our style. It seems to me such a friendly place.”
Trey Devey File:
Born: Chicago, Illinois
Education: Bachelor of Music summa cum laude, Northern Illinois University
Master of Business Administration, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania (Palmer Scholar, graduated in top 5% of his class)
Experience: President and chief executive officer of the Syracuse Symphony and Florida Philharmonic
Consultant, Boston Consulting Group, Chicago
Daughters: Elsie, 6. Clara, 3
Devey on CSO music director Paavo Järvi:
“The music director’s role is an extremely challenging one where the most important job is helping to put together programs that are interesting, exciting and engaging, and standing on the podium and helping to build an orchestra that is playing at the highest level possible so that people are on their feet in every performance and there’s real passion and energy for the institution. Paavo is a superstar musician of the first order but as a concertgoer, you don’t really have the visibility into his impact on all the other programs. Paavo is deeply engaged in helping to identify those conductors that we should be having in Cincinnati, the artists that we should bring to Cincinnati. Because of his relationships around the globe, he is taking those relationships and bringing great musicians to Cincinnati. From an artistic perspective, he has taken this orchestra to a whole other place and the energy and commitment that he brings to do that is without equal. Then you’ve got all of the other parts of being a music director that include being out in the community, and there are a lot of things that people don’t necessarily see with that. His calendar when he is in town is 7 a.m. until 1 in the morning and is jam-packed.”
Devey on the CSO board of directors and chairman Marvin Quin:
“If you look at some of the conversations that happened at the beginning of the season, the board came together and talked about ‘where are we going from here? Are we going into full-out retreat or are we going to preserve this precious institution?’ They made a decision that this is a great orchestra and we’re going to keep it at this level. There was a commitment on the part of these community leaders to sustain the CSO. Now you can say, well, that’s just talk. But it’s not just talk when the also said, ‘we’re going to increase our annual fund objective by 75%.’ (Board members increased their personal support by 24%.) That's the objective they set out and there has been strong progress along that goal. I can’t say the orchestra is all the way there, and clearly the economy has cut against us during this period. But the board really put a stake in the ground and said, ‘this is this great orchestra. We going to keep it that way, and to do so, we’re going to need to increase support.' They’ve done everything that I think they can to do that. Marvin Quin has been an exceptional leader, and he has said ‘we going to address the issues that we’ve got to address financially,’ and that takes a lot of courage. It’s easier if you’re a board member to kick the can and let somebody else address the challenges because you’ll be on to new things in a couple of years. So I’ve got to give Marvin a lot of credit for helping us engage in some tough conversations."