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The Intersection of Business and Art

An Interview with Trey Devey

Trey Devey feels his career has hit just the right note.

As a music lover whose business background is underscored with an undergraduate degree in trombone performance, Trey is today president of The Cincinnati Symphony and Cincinnati Pops Orchestra (CSO).

Founded in 1895, the CSO is the fifth oldest orchestra in the United States.  It performs more than 120 concerts per year, has a recording history stretching back to 1917, and is in constant demand for international tours.

Trey (Chicago, 2005-2008) is at the helm of a $39 million organization, working in close collaboration with the orchestra’s board of directors and artistic leadership.  However, he sees his mandate as something much broader.

 “My role is to work with all CSO stakeholders,” he explained. “Besides my obligations to the board, I am answerable to our musicians, our full-time staff, our volunteers, and, of course, to our audience.”

Hardly new to such challenges, Trey is past president and executive director of the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra, the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, and the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra.

Though he no longer plays trombone, he says his classical musical training puts him in a position, not just to understand how an orchestra works, but to fully appreciate its end product.

“We begin the week with little more than a vision and some sheet music,” he explained. “Then, through collaboration with our conductor and the orchestra, this vision is transformed magically into a sublime piece of music that brings our audience to its feet every time.”

Trey says that his experience at BCG, meshed with his formal musical training, has brought him to the intersection of financial and artistic decision making. This music-slash-business background has also given him a broad understanding of what a performance means in terms of preparation, delegation, instrumentation, and of the number of people and job roles required to make it all possible.

Trey admits, however, that his early days in the job were daunting. He inherited a $6.5 million structural deficit on a $39 million per year operation.  “We had to do a major cost cutting during my first month on the job,” he said, adding that this involved a 15 percent cut in wages and benefits across the entire staff: artistic leadership, musicians, librarians, stagehands—everybody.

These efforts reduced the orchestra’s deficit by $2.8 million.  The CSO then raised $64 million in investment income, spinning off $3.2 million per year for operating costs.

“Of course, those costs continue to grow, and we’ve still got great challenges ahead,” said Trey. “We must work to maintain artistic standards. We’re in competition for talent against orchestras from other major cities.  And, naturally, we want to work on interesting artistic projects.”

The CSO’s response to these challenges, he said, is addressed through three central themes: providing an unparalleled concert experience; deepening its engagement with the Cincinnati community; and making the orchestra the city’s ambassador to the world.

“In regard to the experience element of those themes, research shows that people feel more satisfied when they buy an experience rather than a thing,” he said.  A $100 million project to rehab the orchestra’s traditional home—Cincinnati’s wonderful 3,417-seat Music Hall, with old-world décor and extraordinary acoustics—speaks volumes to CSO’s commitment to provide its concert-going audience with just such an experience.

As for community commitment, Trey says CSO continues to reach out and engage the people of Cincinnati.  Case in point, a recent collaboration with the local airport authority guarantees that CSO recordings can be heard continuously throughout the terminal at Cincinnati airport.  Also, in what might, to some, appear an unlikely collaboration, the orchestra has partnered with local hip-hop dance studio, Elementz, to perform a series of concerts.

As an ambassador, CSO continues its already strong legacy as an international brand—more than 10 million recordings sold worldwide; 48 performances at New York’s Carnegie Hall; and tours of Japan and Europe.

In addition, CSO has launched its own recording label—Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Media—which released its debut recording in 2009. Trey describes this first release as a somewhat “edgy” recording. “It’s all new music by living American composers by the likes of Jennifer Higdon and Charles Coleman.  No Beethoven or Brahms.  Although that’s not to say we won’t release traditional recordings.”

Trey’s ability to manage all this comes, he says, from lessons learned at BCG.  “I can’t say enough about what I took from BCG,” he said. “The ability to frame an issue and to take a structured approach to problem solving has proved invaluable.

“I am surrounded by people who are passionate about their jobs. Our department heads and project leaders really break down complex issues and help equip me to make decisions. Our management team keeps a firm footing at that intersection of business and art.”

And let’s not forget the power of music to inspire and elevate the spirit.  At the end of his work week, Trey says, concerts are his reward.

“To a fault, I believe in the power of this music,” he concluded.  “I love that I can experience these concerts, first hand, at such a high level.  My work week concludes with 100-plus professional musicians from four continents coming together to play music by the greatest composers that every lived.  Now that’s job satisfaction!”