Orchestras on the brink?

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

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.

"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.

At a cultural summit last week at the Ontario provincial legislature, urban guru Jane Jacobs was quoted as saying of the symphony, "To even contemplate that this organization could die is like saying 'Bees make a nice humming sound, but we can do without them. We can listen to crickets instead.' They don't do the same job in the habitat."

In St. Louis, the orchestra lived beyond its means for several years; its artistic leaps forward were not matched by growth in its endowment.

An example of orchestral health, on the other hand, is the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the largest-budget orchestra in the world, according to Mr. Volpe. The orchestra is "in a modest surplus situation," but is not immune to the current slowdown. Rental income from Symphony Hall is down, for instance.

But Volpe makes success in the music business sound like success in any other industry: A diversified product line is important, for one thing. "The New York Philharmonic is a great orchestra - but it's only one 'brand,' and they don't even own their hall."

The BSO, meanwhile, has three "brands" - the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Pops (almost as old as the BSO itself) and Tanglewood, summer home of the BSO in western Massachusetts. Each of these brands has its own market - and funding base.

Deborah Card, executive director of the Seattle Symphony, presides over another musical organization in the black: It ended its last season with a surplus of $909, she recounts. "All orchestras need to connect with their local communities," she says. "Different communities have different traditions. Ultimately, the only people who support you day in and day out are those who live in your community."

In guiding the musical tastes of a community, there needs to be "a balance between leading and following," she says. "We tell our audiences, 'We're presenting things we believe you will like.' Somebody has to put eggplant in front of you for the first time."

One of the biggest challenges for orchestras, their managements say, is the lack of music education in the schools to prepare new generations of audiences. As a result, orchestras are programming educational concerts intended to introduce not only new music but standard repertoire that people used to be exposed to in schools. A sign of the times: diaper-changing tables for the littlest concertgoers in the restrooms at Benaroya Hall, the Seattle Symphony's new (since 1998) home.

In discussions of the role of orchestras in the cultural landscape of their communities, it is striking how often the comparison with sports comes up. Volpe recalls from his earlier days with the Baltimore Symphony a fundraising campaign run shortly after the Colts had departed and civic pride was smarting a bit: "We said Baltimore has three major-league franchises: Johns Hopkins, the Baltimore Symphony, and the Orioles. We couldn't lose another team. Cities define themselves by certain institutions."

Stephanie Tretick is a violist with the Pittsburgh Symphony and is treasurer of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians. But talking about the financial health of orchestras, she sounds as attuned to the challenges as managers like Volpe. "You can never think you're sitting pretty." She suggests, perhaps in jest, that musicians might be taken more seriously if they weren't said to "play" the music. "It's not play, it's work. Maybe if we said, 'The orchestra 'operated....' "

"For a city to lose its symphony orchestra - it would be an incredible tragedy. You lose something really basic to the humanity of the community."

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