Pasadena Symphony Association’s Face of Success

The Pasadena Symphony Association boasts big-name music icons in David Lockington, Michael Feinstein and others on ticket stubs, programs and just about everything else the nonprofit prints up. But around Pasadena, the nonprofit’s president and CEO has quickly become the face of the organization.
Lora Unger had only been the organization’s top administrator for a few months when she went to lunch this spring with two PSA board members and a prospective member. While enjoying lunch at Parkway Grill, a person unknown to all four diners approached the table.
“This total stranger walked by and said, ‘Are you Lora Unger?’” PSA board president Kay Kochenderfer recalled. “Lora said yes, and [the stranger] said, ‘Oh, I love the Pasadena Symphony!’”
Unger would insist that the music created by the Pasadena Symphony and Pasadena Pops orchestras are the headliners, but she’s become a star in her own right as the top administrator since being named CEO in November 2014. Just ask one of the stars himself.
“This orchestra is not like others, and the attitude of any group starts at the top,” said Feinstein, the Emmy Award-winning and Grammy Award-nominated Principal Pops Conductor. “I think she has a passion and a great love for music, which translates into creative programming that excites the audience.”
That there are shows at all for an audience to enjoy is in partial credit to Unger, who has worked with PSA as a general manager and chief operating officer.
Hired by former President and CEO Paul Jan Zdunek near the end of 2008 as part of a crisis management team, Unger helped make sweeping changes throughout the organization. The 88-year-old organization was not immune to the economic crisis devastating philanthropy all through Pasadena, and Unger said she arrived to find an organization “literally on the brink of disaster.”
So according to Unger, the leadership team went to work on redefining just about everything: PSA’s artistic product and leadership, venues, the business model and the staffing structure were all affected in big ways by the administration’s changes.
“Sometimes an organization needs to hit rock bottom to be open to making change,” said Unger, who in 2009, along with Zdunek, pulled the plug on the name “Orchestras of Pasadena” — implemented just two years before — and returned to the organization’s roots as the PSA. “Coming in here during the crisis was very difficult, but we had the opportunity to implement best standards of the orchestra industry, and certainly the combining of the Pops and Symphony gave the community a year-round product and more meaningful community footprint.”
Has it ever! When Unger’s promotion was announced last years, Classic Series ticket sales had gone up 20% and Pops sales were up 200% compared to five years before. At an 85% subscriber retention rate, the crowds kept coming back. Perhaps most important for the nonprofit organization, 50% of the operating budget is covered by ticket sales, well above the national average of 38%.
“In the last five years, we’ve invested all of our time to get people to love the product [because] you can’t be an important community asset without people engaging in your product,” Unger said. “Philanthropy, for an orchestra, means that you have people feel that you’re giving them so much more of a valuable experience that is beyond the ticket price. That’s where the magic happens.”
And the person holding the magic wand, according to one who waves the conductor’s baton, is Unger.
“Over the years, I have worked with many administrators of orchestras, and I think Lora is unique in her talent and abilities,” said Feinstein. “She has a real vision of what she wants the Pasadena orchestra to be and then makes that vision a reality in an almost alchemical way, which is no small feat.”
While “vision” is a word often bandied about by those describing leaders, it’s meant in a literal sense in Unger’s case. Early in 2011, Unger attended Pasadena Symphony Association board member Jacob Maarse’s funeral services at All Saints Church and began to imagine a holiday concert being played there.
“I had a vision,” said Unger, who added that she thinks of the holiday concerts as a way to honor Maarse, who died three days before Christmas in 2010. “This was the perfect melding of a European-style cathedral with perfect acoustics and intimacy.”
The holiday concert had previously been put on at the Civic Auditorium, but Unger and Zdunek have never been afraid to move the concerts. Since Unger has been on board, the Pops moved from the beautiful-but-small Descanso Gardens — where speakers hung in the trees — to the spacious-yet-sparsely vegetated lawns in front of the Rose Bowl before settling in the Los Angeles Arboretum in Arcadia.
“That was the best of both worlds: a beautiful setting and the huge space to make the business model work,” said Unger. “As soon as we came to the Arboretum, it was the perfect synergy.”
The Symphony Series also went on the move under Unger’s leadership, transitioning from the Civic Auditorium to the Ambassador Auditorium, which in some circles is called the “Carnegie Hall of the West.”
“Moving to the Ambassador Auditorium really saved the Pasadena Symphony Series, and I don’t say that lightly,” said Unger. “You need to have a perfectly exquisite acoustical hall [and the music] can’t be taken seriously unless you’re performing in a venue that is right for your product.
In many ways, Pasadena as a whole is right for the products offered by the Pasadena Symphony Association. Unger has held administrative positions in Santa Fe, N.M.; Cincinnati; Modesto, Calif.; and Jacksonville, Fla., as well as a host of other roles all over the country. Kochenderfer said the experience of working in other markets has served her well working in the crowded music marketplace of Southern California.
“She has an amazing wealth of knowledge about the orchestra business itself and approaches her position with an extremely high level of enthusiasm and passion,” Kochenderfer said. “She makes a phenomenal CEO.”
Also a trained violist, Unger holds a music degree from the University of Louisville and a master’s in arts administration from the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. The calluses from her fingers as a musician are long gone, but her appreciation of the product the PSA provides has never been more acute.
“If you don’t have a genuine passion for the product, there’s no way you can inspire others to support it,” said Unger. “You have to feel it and be the No. 1 fan to inspire others to support the orchestra.”
That was on display during the lunch at Parkway Grill: the prospective board member, Elizabeth Besch, recently joined the board. It’s fitting in a sense, since seemingly all of Pasadena is getting on board with Unger’s vision for PSA.
“It’s a pillar of the arts and sciences community that makes Pasadena so unique and famous,” Unger said. “The Symphony and Pops deserve their place in the community to be a priority for philanthropic support and philanthropic giving. We’re an orchestra for all.”

Leave a Reply