Symphonies Struggle for Survival

Syracuse symphony is latest orchestra to face money problems.

April 6, 2011, 3:41 PM

April 7, 2011— -- Start with the economy, mix in the American public's changing taste in music, overly large concert halls, and union-management struggles -- and you have the challenges of symphony orchestras around the country.

Most recently, the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra announced Tuesday they would be filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.In early February, the 50-year-old symphony serving central New York set a fundraising goal that, to management's delight, was surpassed by $100,000. But in early March, it came up just over $144,000 short in meeting another benchmark that would help ensure the continuation of operations."Certainly we were disappointed, but we're also encouraged by the fact that we're continuing to have a great deal of support from individuals and corporations and establishments that are interested in raising funds for us and assisting us in any way they can," interim executive director Paul Brooks told for the Syracuse Symphony, they never reached that March goal, forcing the management to ask for $1.3 million in concessions from the symphony's musicians. The musicians made a counter offer of $915,000 that was not accepted and on March 28, the organization's board of trustees voted to suspend artistic operations, cutting short the organization's 50th anniversary season by 20 concerts.Prior to closing, the organization has had several recent changes in management and seen its share of troubles. In summer 2010, an angel investor stepped in after management realized on June 29 that they would not have the funds to continue their everyday operations beyond July 15.Such problems are not unique to Syracuse.Honolulu's Symphony filed for Chapter 7 liquidation on December 13 of last year.The Louisville Orchestra filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, also in December.The Detroit Symphony's musicians have been on a very public strike, forcing the cancellation of many concerts this season.David Rubin, a former member of the board of the Syracuse Opera and a member of the city's Cultural Resources Council, says the question is whether a city like Syracuse has the resources to support a nearly $7 million non-profit organization."I was at a program a couple of weeks ago with mainstream repertoire, all Mozart, on a Friday night, where the hall was barely half full," Rubin told symphony's director of communications, Vicky D'Agostino, acknowledged that their attendance had been dropping for the last three years, but cites other factors such as the economy and competitive entertainment/sporting events.

Orchestras Face Financial Trouble

D'Agostino also noted that their pops concerts, which included Broadway show tunes and Frank Sinatra favorites this season, had been getting higher attendance than their classics concerts.Despite an overall drop in attendance, the Syracuse Symphony had sold out a few concerts during this concert season including their first pops concert and first classics concert. A now cancelled April performance with world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma sold out too.

According to the National Endowment for the Arts, in the last 25 years paid concert attendance at classical music events has been dropping. There was a 20 percent drop between 2002 and 2008."I really don't see this traditional model of the classical orchestra that grew up in the 1880's and is now about 130 years old," Rubin told "I do not see it surviving for long in most cities, and I see that it has the best chance in the cities we've discussed [New York, Boston, Chicago, etc.]. But even then I don't see it's going to last forever because this is simply not a music form that Americans are studying anymore in school, and Americans are not playing piano and violins anymore."Judith Kurnick, vice president for strategic communications for the League of American Orchestras, cites one reason for the change in public taste: the cutting of arts programs in schools."For the last 30 years they have been consistently cut and we have seen a corresponding drop in the audience participation rate for those art forms, and that was a recent finding from the National Endowment for the Arts research and it's very disturbing," she said.Robert Birman, the CEO of the Louisville Orchestra, said that Louisville's orchestra plays in a concert hall that is too big for the number of people they attract and that playing to a lot of empty seats makes it difficult to manage perceptions.And while ticket sales are just one funding source for orchestras -- about 30 percent, according to Kurnick -- "the second is philanthropic support, so that's corporate, individual and government support. And the third is endowments."Added Birman, "When corporate America is laying off workers, it is very hard to justify making discretionary grants to arts organizations."

Kurnick is quick to point out that not all orchestras are struggling to fill their auditoriums. In fact, in some cities like San Francisco and Milwaukee, paid attendance is up. "Orchestras are learning that it's not just about going out and selling tickets," she said. "It's about creating a sense of relationship, and I think orchestras are doing a lot more in that direction. And when that happens, I think the ticket sales and the audience kind of follow because they feel there's an understanding of what it is that you get, that the music making is a way of bringing people closer together and that there's an investment that the patron has in the experience."

Compensation Disputes

Citing the musicians' recent contract with the Syracuse Symphony in an interview with earlier this year, Jon Garland, chair of the musician's orchestra committee, said, "Our union contract, or our agreement, as I think I'd prefer to refer to it by, has been recognized all over the country as being a model for growth and success. We're one of the first orchestras to have an ensemble program. We have small groups that go out and play in schools, and we play a diverse set of concerts. We play things ranging from big band to swing music to classics to educational concerts to school concerts. You name it, we do it."In cities like Detroit there have been major disputes between management and the musicians. Detroit's musicians have been involved in a strike to receive better compensation, forcing the cancellation of many concerts. But in Syracuse just weeks before announcing plans for the organization to file for bankruptcy, Brooks had nothing but good things to say about the relationship between the two groups."I think we're working more collaboratively with the musicians than we ever have in the past. We're working very closely with them to try to figure out how to reduce expenses going forward and I, frankly, think that relations are very good."

Now the Syracuse Symphony will be filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and liquidating. It had already cancelled over 20 concerts and laid off all of its musicians due to the suspension of operations that was announced on March 28. Garland and his fellow musicians were hopeful that the symphony's management would be able to come up with $400,000 in additional revenue to continue operations."We were extremely disappointed that that they didn't believe they could do that [raise $400,000] and not only that, they were asking the musicians to sacrifice even more after the two years of sacrifices we have already made, which for each musician I might add, it amounts to over $7,000 since July 1 on a base salary of you know, not too much. The current base salary of the orchestra is less than $30,000," Garland told explained that the musicians thought the orchestra's management should have been selling subscriptions for the 2011-2012 season along with the "Save the Music" fundraiser, since they always use the subscription money to help cover operating costs.One of the suggestions made to the musicians by the management was also to reduce the size of the orchestra."The worst thing to do is likely to make the product worse," Garland explained. "And certainly reducing the orchestra's size and quality, which would be the inevitable by-product of reducing it by 12 players or 10 players that they're certainly not going to help sell the product."

No Plans For Refunds In Syracuse

The symphony has no money to pay for refunds. This has led angry ticket holders to call the Attorney General's office demanding refunds.In a message on the symphony's website, Brooks writes, "We deeply regret this decision and offer an apology to the people in our community. We appreciate the support you have shown over the years for the Symphony and especially in recent months as we fought together to keep the organization in operation."In another message released Tuesday, Brooks and Rocco Mangano, chair of the Syracuse Symphony's Board of Trustees, wrote that one of the reasons the symphony is folding is so that any future orchestra that is formed in Syracuse, "will not be burdened with a $5.5 million debt; a $2.5 million unfunded pension liability or an orchestra that restricts its ability to configure itself to fit the times."

While the Syracuse Symphony's fate has been sealed, many other orchestras like Louisville's are still fighting for survival."An orchestra is like a steamliner. It's very slow to be able to turn around and to change. There's nothing you can fix and change quickly," warned Birman, of Louisville. "As a good example, in Louisville, I already have my concert dates negotiated past 2013, so we already know what we're committed to do for two years in advance. Therefore, it makes it very hard when the economy turns so quickly to be responsive and to react and to be nimble."Birman knows of specific orchestras who are borrowing money against their endowments, while some orchestras are playing to more empty seats and watching their donations drop.Yet, despite the uncertainties about the future, some positives still shine through. Kurnick said that at a conference held by the League of American Orchestras, representatives of 14 orchestras were brought in, and while seven of those orchestras were having financial issues, the other seven were doing just fine.And on Saturday night the Syracuse Symphony played what would be its final concert at Syracuse University's Crouse College before a full reporter Matt Phifer is a member of the ABC News on Campus bureau in Syracuse, N.Y.

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