Catherine Underhill, 61

Symphoria managing director reflects on five-year mark

By Mary Beth Roach

Q: You and Symphoria have reached a milestone in that you are in your fifth year. What are some of the challenges that you have overcome in the past five years.

A: I think sustainability is one, which means dependable revenue from multiple sources and managing the expense side, so that we don’t go over budget. I would say credibility because we arose from the ashes of the former institution. I think a lot of people questioned whether Syracuse and Central New York had it in them to support a professional orchestra. And I think we’ve demonstrated that it does, that there is a demand for it. The more we’re able to demonstrate our value to the community, the more the community supports what we’re doing.

Q:What are some of your achievements?

A: We’ve gotten funding from a lot of different sources. We’re up to more than 1,400 subscribers, which is great. Our donor households have grown every year. We’re gradually getting traction in the business community. Our subscribers have grown substantially year over year, which is actually not the trend we’re seeing nationally. And our ticket sales have grown year over year, which is, for a young organization, certainly to be expected. But we’re trying to accelerate that growth trend as much as we can.

Q: What are some of your goals for the next five years?

A: Our board is still quite small. We have 13 people at the moment, so we’d like to diversify the board membership so we have more community perspectives at the table. We need to continue to grow audience. We need to continue to grow our visibility and general awareness in the community. As a new organization, with a different name and sort of different look and feel, there are plenty of people who still don’t know we exist. And we have a relatively small budget. We are a $2.2 million organization. We’re limited in our marketing reach, and that’s one of the things we hope to be able to address going forward.

My role is to support what the musicians are trying to realize. In that way it’s a very different kind of dynamic. Since it’s a co-op, one of only two, the other being the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, the musicians have a strong voice in shaping our strategic direction, our programming, our public persona. And so my role is to help them realize their vision, but the musicians have quite a significant voice in shaping the organization, which is unusual, and I think contributes to our flexibility and our ability to be responsive to the community.

Q: Are there any plans for retirement in your future?

A: Not immediately. I have three kids; the youngest is going to be heading to college next year. We’ve been looking at colleges. So unlike other people of our age, many of our peers, we are not yet empty-nesters. My husband has a great job here that he loves with Housing Visions. I also teach at LeMoyne, in the masters in arts administration program, which is a ton of fun, and I really enjoy that. Eventually, I hope to be able to retire and still be able to kneel down enough to dig in my garden.

Q: How do you find balance?

A: I really enjoy gardening. We have two big dogs, they require some TLC. I have my 17-year-old at home. I love the water. We have a summer place that my family has had for many years up in the Adirondacks, so I try to get up there. I like to swim, I like to be in the water as much as possible in the warm weather.