CEO Lora Unger is the force behind the rise of the Pasadena Symphony and POPS, recognized as one of the top performing symphonies in Southern California.
Originally from Kentucky, CEO of Pasadena Symphony and POPs Lora Unger made the move to Pasadena as part of the team that would later revitalize the orchestra. Unger played a significant role in the transformation, spending five years reinventing the orchestra’s brand—changing their venues, artistic leadership, programming and business model. “My big focus has been increasing our donor base, our sponsors, building our board and really exciting things are happening for the orchestra. In five years we reinvented ourselves and the last two years we’ve been growing support. We’ve built our audience base in leaps and bounds,” says Unger.
Even at an early age, Unger cultivated a business savvy mindset beyond her adolescent years. Fortunate enough to go to school with a rich arts education, Unger was encouraged to learn an instrument. After her teacher mentioned the possibility for earning a scholarship for playing a viola, Unger quickly became motivated to be a dedicated viola player, later earning that viola scholarship as her teacher had mentioned. “My parents really instilled an absolutely disciplined, hard work ethic that has carried me throughout my life. Nothing comes easy, you have to work hard for it. My parents worked very hard as immigrants and it was something I was very passionate about early on to ensure that if I’m going to dedicate my life to working as much as one needs to work, I need to feel like I’m passionate about the cause that I’m working for. The arts was a perfect fit for me,” Unger explains.
Unger’s understanding of the arts and keen business sense was crucial for getting the Pasadena Symphony and POPS brand back on track. “I was hired as part of the recovery team in 2009 to put the symphony and POPS on the right footing because at the time it was on the verge of bankruptcy,” explains Unger. While serving her initial role as Chief Operating Officer, a role she held for five years, her predecessor left the organization. With a spot open, the board unanimously voted to promote from within and they promoted Unger to be their CEO in November 2014.
With the classical sounds of the Symphony and the modernized tunes of the POPS, there’s something for everyone, of any age, to enjoy, each within their own renowned venue. “For the Symphony side, we have the Ambassador Auditorium which as one of the best acoustics in the country—not only California but across the U.S.” explains Unger. Music director David Lockington has made good use of the Ambassador Auditorium’s acoustics with his own artistic vision. “I couldn’t ask for a better music director,” says Unger of the Grammy-nominated conductor. “When we hired David, we had a search committee that involved the orchestra and halfway through the process the search committee said to management and the board, ‘Please stop searching. This is the one we want. He’s our guy.’ David is a masterful technician. He’s creating a new sound. Every concert that I hear the orchestra under David’s baton, I hear the sound evolving.”
In addition Lockington’s leadership, Unger credits Marvin Hamlisch and Michael Feinstein with making the POPS summer series a must-attend summer event that patrons even plan their vacations around. The series brings plenty of joy to young and old alike, with a mixture of families, friends and community in attendance—with a few peacocks present as well. “Marvin Hamlisch (former principal POPS conductor) was an integral part of our recovery of the POPS. When Marvin came, it was an absolute game changer. Programmatically, we really found our groove in focusing on the Great American Songbook to be the artistic platform for the orchestra and we moved to the arboretum our opening season, Marvin insisted on having Michael Feinstein. I remember Marvin saying to me, ‘He will drawn them in. It will be a homerun. It will be fabulous.’ It was all of the above and so much more,” Unger recalls. “Michael had an immediate connection with our audiences. That night was just specular. At the time, Marvin was very ill and it turned out that concert, which was in July 2012, was Marvin’s very last concert of his life.”
When the time came to appoint a new POPS conductor, Unger had a few people whispering in her ear, “What about Michael?” Though Unger admits initially she was unsure if the singer-musician would be willing to try his hand at conducting but made a call to his manager anyway. Unger remembers asking, “Has Michael ever considered conducting?” to which his manager paused and replied, “It just so happens that he has.”
Once Unger heard Feinstein was open to the possibly, she completely shifted gears, spending the next hour selling the manager on why conducting the POPS would be “the best job of his life.” “It was a no brainer for me,” says Unger. “I knew in my gut. If you are a brilliant musician as Michael Feinstein is, you can learn to do anything in music. And he has. He’s grown by leaps and bounds. He took the foundation that Marvin built with us and took that to a totally different level. You cannot find what we do with Michael Feinstein at the POPS anywhere else. We have people coming to the arboretum from Santa Barbara, Orange County, Beverly Hills and way into the Valley. Our geographic footprint from the POPS has ballooned in a huge way.”
And the audience keeps growing as attendees keep returning summer after summer, filling the arboretum’s lawn to capacity for the experience Unger has striven to create. “We think about the experience from the moment you buy the tickets to where your parking is to how people greet you when you get to the venue, and the venue itself. It’s really special and I’m just honored to be able to provide it to the community.”