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Orchestras on the brink?

Financial woes in some cities force a rethink of the relevance of these cultural flagships

By Ruth WalkerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 29, 2001


These are the times that try musicians' souls - and divide the well-managed orchestras, in touch with their mission and their communities, from the others.

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"Sept. 11 has changed everything."

It's as true in the world of classical music as anywhere else. Several symphony orchestras in North America face dire financial difficulty - not caused by the terrorist attacks, but brought into sharp relief by the recession that they made all but inevitable.

"In a time of crisis, people tend to gravitate to family, faith, and serious music," says Mark Volpe, managing director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. "We were sold out in October."

But, he adds, "the go-go years of the 1990s masked some structural problems in certain orchestras."

Budget woes are forcing a reexamination of these cultural flagships and their relevance: What is the place of a 19th-century institution playing largely classical European masterworks in multicultural 21st-century North America?

And what does it mean to a city to lose its symphony? Toronto has come perilously close to finding out. So has St. Louis.

Even the venerable - and well endowed - Chicago Symphony is looking at an operating deficit this year for the first time in 15 years. And the San Jose Symphony has closed its doors for the season.

At Halloween, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra was looking immediate bankruptcy in the eye. But former Ontario provincial premier Bob Rae convened negotiations to restructure the orchestra into long-term viability. Talks continued well past their original deadline. At press time, sources were reporting that a deal had been reached, with federal and provincial government funding, ensuring at least the completion of the current season. Next goal: hiring a new executive director.

But Jack McAuliffe, vice president of the American Symphony Orchestra League (ASOL) in New York, suggests politely that four troubled ensembles "are a very small proportion" of the 1,800 orchestras that make up the league. Symphony orchestras "have shown extraordinary staying power" over the years. Attendance at live concert performances has been about 32 million a year over the past five years, "about as high as it's ever been," he says. It's true that the traditional audience made up of subscribers to "28 Thursday evenings" has fragmented into subscriptions that are more typically just half a dozen concerts. But more listeners for fewer concerts each is "arguably much healthier."

Meanwhile, the stock-market boom raised the value of orchestras' endowments, along with those of their individual and corporate donors. Individual giving nearly doubled over the past decade, and corporate donations rose 36.5 percent. Overall, according to ASOL statistics, orchestras emerged from the 1990s much stronger than they went in. For 1999-2000, 71 percent of orchestras reported surpluses, as compared with only 51 percent in 1990-91.

With the economic slowdown over the past year, however, orchestras are having to scramble to respond. Nonprofits "don't have a lot of cushion," Mr. McAuliffe says. "When they get into trouble, they have to be able to act more quickly. Orchestras aren't a business. They're an art form that tries to behave in a businesslike manner."

In this context, while all orchestras are having to count their pennies, it may be said that every really unhappy orchestra is unhappy in its own way.

Some of Toronto's problems are clearly Canada-specific: The orchestra lost considerable government funding when Tories came to power in the mid-1990s, and the culture of individual and corporate philanthropy hasn't developed as fully there as south of the border. The acoustics at Roy Thomson Hall haven't helped, nor did an ill-advised attempt to market its serious young Finnish music director, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, as a sex symbol. In June he let his contract lapse.