America’s Symphony Orchestras Taking it on the Chin?

JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra
Getting it right: Music Director JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.
The news this past weekend that the Philadelphia Orchestra’s board of directors has voted to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy is just the latest in a string of ugly news items about the precarious financial state of professional symphony orchestras in America.

That the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra, 111 years old and one of the best-known, best-loved ensembles in the classical music field, should be facing bankruptcy proceedings comes as a surprise to most people. This orchestra, with its stellar roster of past music directors including Eugene Ormandy, Ricardo Muti, and Leopold Stokowski of Disney’s Fantasia fame, would seem to be nearly immune to financial stresses.

But the fallout from the economic recession has affected private and public funding alike, with corporate donors snapping their wallets shut … and many well-heeled retirees and other donors looking at their financial and real estate portfolios and feeling much poorer.

In the new economic reality, the prognosis for the Philadelphia Orchestra and other professional classical music ensembles is grim unless severe cuts are made to operating expenses. But those steps can also be risky. Just a week before the Philadelphia announcement, the Detroit Symphony, another well-established body whose list of past music directors including Antal Dorati, Paul Paray and Neeme Järvi is almost as impressive as Philadelphia’s, nearly went under after proposing more than a 15% reduction in player salaries, plus other concessions.

Rather than agree to their base pay dropping from ~$104,000 to ~$88,000, the musicians went on strike in the Fall of 2010. It was only when the board of the DSO was ready to pull the plug on the orchestra’s existence that the players agreed to come back to work.

On Saturday, April 9, the DSO performed for the first time in over five months, and the musicians are now committed to completing the current orchestral season. After nearly two years of wrangling, it’s the best outcome anyone could have hoped for.

Looking out across the country, it’s difficult to find much good news in the orchestral field; the Honolulu Symphony was recently liquidated and the Louisville Orchestra has also filed for bankruptcy.

But one bright spot is in Buffalo, where the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, under the inspired 11-year leadership of music director JoAnn Falletta and a pragmatic, forward-looking Board led by Cindy Abbott Letro, is weathering the economic stresses with better success. Another venerable orchestral institution, the BPO is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, and its roster of past music directories includes such luminaries as William Steinberg, Michael Tilson Thomas and the composer-conductor Lukas Foss.

Considering that the Buffalo urban community is much smaller than many other metropolitan markets like Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco that support professional symphony orchestras, what the BPO has been able to accomplish is nothing short of amazing.

In 2008, the BPO concluded a capital campaign that added more than $32 million to the orchestra’s endowment, and posted a balanced budget in the 2009-10 season. In 2010, it went on tour for the first time in ~20 years. The BPO’s symphony programs are some of the most interesting and inventive being performed by any orchestra in America (I know: I’ve attended several of them). And the orchestra is continuing to release new CDs of fascinating orchestral repertoire on Naxos, the world’s largest classical music label.

Key to the BPO’s success goes beyond public monies, or support from foundations plus a few wealthy individuals. It’s about creating a strong link between the orchestra and the wider community – something easy to talk about, but challenging to accomplish without building strong chemistry and a sense of shared destiny. And in that regard, the attitude, approachability and personality of the music director cannot be overstated.

Richard Morrison, esteemed music critic of The Times of London, writes in the pages of BBC Music Magazine of “the existential crisis that could soon devour orchestras across the world with exemplary management, hard-working musicians, high standards and realistic attitudes.” He can “easily envisage a future in which dozens of ailing cities across Europe and America lose their orchestras forever.”

Not that Morrison is happy about his prognosis: “Some might argue that, in this age of universally-available Internet concerts, the physical presence of an orchestra in any particular region no longer matters. I can’t agree. It would be a tragedy if the opportunity to hear live classical concerts was bestowed only on people living in the wealthiest cities,” he opines.

If the example set by the Buffalo Philharmonic is one that could be replicated in other urban areas, Morrison’s grim prediction could turn out to be wrong. Let’s hope so.