When El Paso Symphony Orchestra insiders talk about the success of the orchestra – the longest continuously performing symphony in Texas – invariably they talk about its executive director for the last 16 seasons, Ruth Ellen Jacobson.
While other orchestras across the country, in cities much more affluent than ours, have closed their doors during that time, the El Paso Symphony has stayed in the black, and Jacobson has been the driving force behind that financial stability.
The new season starting Sept. 18 is a very special one: the orchestra is celebrating its 85th anniversary. More than 300 symphony supporters turned out to celebrate the milestone at the 85th anniversary gala in August and to enjoy a private rock concert with Windborne, the acclaimed band that performed the music of the Rolling Stones with the orchestra the next night at Plaza Theatre.
The gala raised more than $50,000, including proceeds from the auction of a painting by Hal Marcus commissioned by the symphony. Supporters Ken and Beverly Jinkerson placed the highest bid, $17,500, and promptly donated the painting back to the symphony.
Throughout the evening, the symphony’s executive director was everywhere, greeting donors and musicians, newcomers and old friends. She may be managing a complex organization with a $1.7-million budget that provides an estimated annual economic impact of more than $4.3 million, but she also is a warm and gracious hometown girl whose roots go deep in our area.
Jacobson grew up in West El Paso, the oldest of four children of Jack and Mildred Marcus. Her mother was born in El Paso and was a member of the family that owned the Given Brothers chain of 27 apparel stores across the region. Ruth Ellen’s father, Jack, was from Romania. He moved to the States when he was 13 and later graduated from Purdue University with an engineering degree. He joined the U.S. Army and was stationed at Fort Bliss when he met and married Mildred.
Jacobson grew up listening to classical music. “My parents were members of the symphony forever, since I was a small child,” she recalls. Her grandparents, Charles and Deborah Given, who built the first house on Rim Road, were also symphony subscribers, and her uncle, Herbert Given, served on the symphony board.
After attending Radford Academy, she earned her education degree from UTEP and later took business courses and passed the CPA exam. She has three grown children and four grandchildren who live in Austin, California and New Jersey.
Today she is a tireless advocate for the orchestra – people comment frequently on her work ethic and focus. Supporter Steve Yellen, who became a classical music fan about five years ago after hearing the Brandenburg Concertos, calls her “24/7” for her “total commitment.”
And he recalls something she once told him: “Work is not a place you go anymore – it’s something you do.”
For that level of dedication, along with her clear vision for the orchestra, her passion for education and her lasting impact on our community, Jacobson was recently named one of six Women of Impact by El Paso Inc. She will be honored Oct. 1 at an awards breakfast at El Paso Country Club.
Jacobson spoke with El Paso Inc. about the business side of a symphony, attracting a younger audience and how an orchestra helps recruit new companies.
Q: How did you get started with this job 16 years ago?
You know I am a CPA, I have a business background, and Judy Robison called me in the summer of 1999 and asked me if I could fill in at the symphony for a while as interim executive director. Judy was president of the board at the time. I had known her for years – we were neighbors and our kids grew up together.
I had been in the Symphony Guild, but I wasn’t active with the symphony. I think they were looking for someone with business sense who could hold down the fort.
Q: You ended up not just holding down the fort, but staying all these years. What was it like the first year?
It was a big learning curve – huge. The executive director manages all the assets of the symphony. That includes fundraising, compliance with the law and outreach and education programs. It also includes negotiating contracts such as the management agreement with the orchestra’s union and contracts with guest artists. It includes working with the board and managing the staff.
Q: Has the staff grown since 2000?
Yes and no. New programs have been added that required their own staff members, including Andy Moran, who’s the youth music director and the resident conductor of EPSO, but the core staff has not grown. Actually it’s been the same people for years.
Rosemary Flores, our director of operations, has been here the longest; she started in 1992. Pam Kihnley, who writes our grants, started right after Rosemary. Linda Fischer, who handles our bookkeeping, and Diana de la Torre, who manages ticket sales, started working at EPSO after I did. Linda is the newest and she has been here 11 years.
I’m very fortunate; not a lot of people get to start a job with staff already in place like Rosemary and Pam.
Q: What’s your favorite part of your job?
I have a lot of favorite parts! I love it at the end of the concert when it’s ended successfully and it’s been wonderful – that’s really a good feeling.
I can’t tell you how exciting it is to see 300 kids on the stage in an El Paso Youth Symphony Orchestra concert and know that you’ve had a big part in making that happen – that’s huge.
Besides celebrating our 85th anniversary this year, we’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of our youth orchestra. Something I am most proud of is that all of the youth orchestra’s high school graduates have gone on to attend colleges and universities. That’s 100 percent of them!
And then there’s Tocando, our newest program, the afterschool music and tutoring program for children in lower-income areas. The program has been at Hart Elementary for the past two years and is expanding to Mission Ridge Elementary this year. Anyone who sees these children play their music will understand how important this program is.
It opens a world of opportunity to these children and their families and I expect to see future doctors, lawyers, teachers and business leaders coming out of this group of students.
I love our Young People’s Concerts for fifth-grade students from across the region – some 13,000 to 15,000 kids are bused into the Chavez Theatre.
These concerts have been going for 76 years. If you grew up in El Paso, like I did, you went to a Young People’s Concert. It’s interesting that Andy Moran actually got his first taste of classical music while attending one of these concerts and now he conducts them!
I think that all these education programs help make the orchestra relevant in our community and accessible to everyone. This is not a new idea for us – we’ve been working on it for many years.
Q: You’ve worked with three conductors: Gürer Aykal, Sarah Ioannides and now Bohuslav Rattay. Are the conductor and executive director always on the same page?
I don’t think any two people are always on the same page. We each come from a different perspective. But there has always been a meeting of the minds, in that we all have had the same goal – we want to present the absolute best performances to our community.
Bo (Rattay) and I are a great example of working together. I’m coming from the financial side and Bo is coming from the artistic side. When we begin planning the season, we each have our own perspectives, but we respect each other’s position.
Artistically, Bo may come to the table with a certain guest artist in mind. He’ll say, let’s call these guest artists and if it’s out of our budget, we’ll find someone else. We run the numbers, we talk it out, make adjustments. We are a team. We really are.
Q: As we enter the third season with Bo at the podium and so many talented musicians on the stage, we know we have world-class music ahead. I’ve heard people say that Bo has taken this orchestra “to a new level.” What do you think that means?
Bo has added a spunkiness and charm that’s all his own. He is personable and approachable and enjoys being out in the community, interacting with people. I think this translates to the podium as well. His conducting is just plain fun to watch! It draws you in and lets you not only hear the beautiful sounds, but also to experience it.
I think this allows the audience to connect with him and the musicians at a level that is unique and refreshing. He appeals to a young audience and this is taking the orchestra to a different level of recognition. His programming of “old war horse” classics and new works is opening the audiences to all kinds of composers and that’s taking both the orchestra and the audience to a new level.
Q: Besides helping launch the youth orchestra and Tocando during your tenure, what else are you most proud of?
I would say starting KidsPalooza, which is a huge collaboration of the arts throughout Downtown every March. One afternoon we were lamenting among ourselves in the office about the low attendance of our “kiddies’ concerts” – not our Young People’s Concerts, but the guild’s concerts for younger children, like “Peter and the Wolf.”
Then we thought, why not get the whole Downtown arts community involved on the day of the concert? So we went to see director Michael Tomor at the art museum and the people at the history museum, and at that time, Insights Museum, and the Olo Gallery. We had a meeting and they all thought it was good idea.
We got some sponsors and put up some advertising and hired some acrobats. But that first Saturday, Rosemary and I didn’t know if anyone was going to show up. We stood in the middle of the empty street at about 9 in the morning asking each other if we thought anyone would come. Well, they did – we got slammed. We had over 15,000 people that day. Now, eight years later, attendance has about doubled.
I’m also very proud of how the orchestra has partnered with Fort Bliss for their annual Fourth of July concert. Four or five years ago, when we were no longer performing at Music Under the Stars, I was looking for another summer concert venue and was really shocked to find out there hadn’t been a Fourth of July event at the post in over 20 years!
We contacted the general at Fort Bliss and ran the idea of a concert and fireworks past him. He loved it and the rest is history. The soldiers were really excited to have us and we were excited to give them a free celebration.
We work with MWR (Office of Morale, Welfare and Recreation) each year and they are great – they’re our partners. We feel that Fort Bliss is the perfect place to celebrate our freedom, with the soldiers who make it possible. This year they counted about 15,000 people at Biggs Field.
When you add up all of our events and outreach, EPSO reaches well over 100,000 people a year with great music.
Q: You have gone to a lot of professional conferences over the years and you have seen firsthand that some orchestras are no longer around. What’s your take on these organizations?
A lot of the big, huge orchestras that are in the red and that have gone under – and there’s a lot of them – relied on their endowments. And when the market crashed, they lost a significant funding stream, so that’s what hurt some of them.
Q: Did you get hurt in 2008?
This is the good and the bad thing about us. We’ve never had a large endowment to rely on, so we’ve never had the luxury of that revenue. But we do rely on grants from foundations that were affected by the market crash. The board, staff and I met and looked at the budget line by line and made as many cuts as possible. I believe this was a crucial step in maintaining stability during that difficult time.
The good news is that we do have a foundation. It was started before I came on board and it is now close to a million dollars. At some point, the orchestra will have some money coming in from it for operations or education and outreach programs.
The arts are fragile. All the arts are fragile and for El Paso to have its own orchestra is nothing short of a miracle. And we need to make sure it stays on solid financial ground.
I can’t tell you how many people on my board and that I meet who own recruiting companies or who have to recruit new employees. They say that when they meet with people here and show them around, one of the first things they get asked is “Is there an orchestra here?”
Maybe they’re not all orchestra lovers, but it symbolizes that there’s more here than the monster truck show. Without an orchestra, a city is not going to be able to recruit high-paying newcomers – and forget attracting retirees. An orchestra helps balance out the city. Now we have this wonderful, fabulous baseball team and we have a wonderful, fabulous orchestra. I think that they’re both really important.
Email arts and culture columnist Cindy Graf Cohen at email@example.com.