Thu, Jun 02, 2011 - Page 13 News List

City orchestras
in survival mode

The instability of support from private sponsors and large corporations is forcing cultural institutions to return to the drawing board

By Vivien Schweitzer  /  NY Times News Service, New York

San Francisco Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Photo: Bloomberg

From the recent string of crises at symphony orchestras you might conclude that orchestral business models are as outdated as the musicians’ Victorian attire. The Philadelphia Orchestra filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April; the Honolulu Symphony and the Syracuse (New York) Symphony Orchestra recently folded; and musicians of the Detroit Symphony saw their pay cut after a six-month strike. In a turbulent economy that has carried a wide range of organizations, including arts groups, banks and newspapers, to the brink, orchestras are being forced to re-examine their missions and structures to accommodate a changing fiscal and social landscape.

Music Makes a City, an engaging documentary from last year about the Louisville Orchestra that was just released on DVD, offers an inspiring and cautionary tale of creative chutzpah and financial mismanagement. The orchestra, which itself filed for bankruptcy in December, was founded shortly after the floods that crippled Louisville, Kentucky, in 1937.

It began as a ragtag ensemble that rehearsed, according to the film, “in a gloomy room that smelled of stale beer.” A young conductor, Robert Whitney, quickly drummed the ensemble into shape, but financial problems loomed from the start. Charles Farnsley, the mayor of Louisville from 1948 to 1953, suggested that the orchestra, instead of spending money on glamorous soloists, commission new pieces: a policy that the board, though initially shocked, adopted. The endeavor was facilitated in 1953 by a US$400,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to commission and record 52 compositions a year for three years. The DVD features lively interviews with some of the composers chosen, including Elliott Carter.

This remarkable venture, which resulted in works by Lukas Foss, Paul Hindemith, Roy Harris, Gunther Schuller and many others, put Louisville and its orchestra on the international cultural map and attracted luminaries like Shostakovich and Martha Graham to visit the city. But that wasn’t enough to fend off the regular financial crises that have dogged the orchestra over the decades since, until its recent bankruptcy filing.

This perennial instability has stemmed in part from an over-reliance on bailouts from private sponsors and large corporations, some of which reduced donations during difficult economic periods or moved out of town. “No one wanted to face the reality that one day support would end,” said Jorge Mester, the orchestra’s current music director, in a telephone interview.

One solution being discussed is to reduce the Louisville Orchestra’s 71 salaried players to 55 and fill in the gaps with freelancers. “The musicians, of course, don’t want to abandon their colleagues,” Mester said. While the ideal is an orchestra that plays 52 weeks a year, he added, “it’s not a calamity” to use freelancers. He doesn’t fear that quality would suffer.

A reliance on freelancers is growing increasingly prevalent in many industries. Some first-rate orchestras, like the New York ensembles Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and Orchestra of St Luke’s, have long had freelance structures. But even with lower overheads many freelance music organizations are now playing fewer concerts and producing less income for the musicians.

Stewart Rose, a horn player with St Luke’s since 1983, also plays with Orpheus and the New York City Opera Orchestra and is currently on a temporary arrangement with the New York Philharmonic. He enjoys “the variety that comes along with freelancing,” he said in a telephone interview. But the time lag between performances during a slow stretch can be demoralizing, he said. “It’s really been tough for everyone with the decline in the amount of work out there.”

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