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Classical music groups sound familiar note of financial despair

April 19, 2011 |  7:07 am

Philadelphia

The news on Saturday that the Philadelphia Orchestra is planning to file for bankruptcy reverberated like an ominous tympani roll through the world of classical music. If one of the most prominent and prestigious orchestras in the country can be undone by money problems, what group is safe?

Blame the usual gang of suspects: lackluster donations, inflexible unions and audiences that are graying and dwindling in number. 

Orchestras and opera companies around the country struggle even in the best of times, which means that financial disarray is just another day at the office for many. But the state of classical companies is looking especially bleak considering the bad news in Philadelphia comes on the heels of a number of other organizations announcing their own problems.

From the East Coast to Hawaii, classical groups both large and small are playing a song of financial woe. Southern California hasn't been immune to the trend. L.A. Opera had a close call with fate in 2009 when its production of the "Ring" cycle threatened its very existence. The year before, Opera Pacific in Orange County shuttered for good.

Here's a survey of some of the most recent classical and operatic fiscal tragedies.

Detroit Symphony: Musicians recently ended a six-month strike, the longest for any classical group in recent memory. But the orchestra's problems are far from over. The money problems that resulted from lower ticket sales and donations haven't gone away, leading some to think that the group could end up back in the same place when the current contract expires in a few years.

Honolulu Symphony: The oldest symphony orchestra in the U.S. west of the Rocky Mountains declared bankruptcy in 2009 and brought operations to a halt. This month, however, organizers struck a new deal with the musicians' union, which means a resurrection of the orchestra could be imminent.

New York City Opera: The second-largest opera company in New York faces a $5-million deficit and has recently suspended plans for next season as it tries to right its fiscal ship. The company is said to be exploring a move to a different venue outside Lincoln Center.

Philadelphia Orchestra: The latest report states that the company's Chapter 11 claim is set to be heard Wednesday in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Pennsylvania, and that the orchestra's emergence from bankruptcy could happen by the end of the calendar year.

Syracuse Symphony: The Upstate New York company decided earlier this month to dissolve the organization and enter bankruptcy in order to deal with debts estimated at $5 million.

RELATED:

Phil Classical music still effective at dispersing loitering teens

Detroit Symphony musicians officially vote to end strike, accept steep pay cuts

L.A. Opera gets $14-million emergency loan

Opera Pacific cancels season

 

-- David Ng

Photos: Members of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Credit: Jessica Griffin / The Philadelphia Orchestra

 


 
Comments () | Archives (7)

Inflexible unions? Do your research, please. The musicians have already made givebacks totaling $25 million over 3 years.

Since management usually gets at least part of the blame for the above orchestras' troubles, credit should be given to Ernest Fleischmann and Deborah Borda for putting the L.A. Phil on solid financial footing, as well as Salonen for making it one of the most forward-thinking orchestras around. Of course, having Dudamel helps also, but the aforementioned three deserve credit for laying the foundation that's allowed the L.A. Phil to relatively prosper during these tough times.


Orchestras have only themselves to blame for their predicament. Having been on the board of a symphony orchestra that failed, I can say first hand that their resistance to change in the face of overwhelming evidence of a changing
marketplace is the main reason for their downfall. Many orchestra boards are populated by 'purists' who have a love for classical music by are oblivious
to the reality that classic music – like other forms of music – is entertainment.
And as such, needs to evolve with its audience. Do we make movies the same way we did fifty years ago? Of course not! Do we listen to music the same way we did in the past? Absolutely not! Classical music was the pop music of its day...a fact lost on most people in charge of orchestras.

If orchestras are to survive they need to stop living in the past and reach out to new audiences in new ways with new music and a new attitude. How about hiring Jeff Beck or Joe Satriani as a guest soloist?!?!


"lackluster donations, inflexible unions and audiences that are graying and dwindling in number"......WHAT ABOUT THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES WHO LOST HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS (PROBABLY IN THE BILLIONS) BY MIS-MANAGEMENT???.....THEY SHOULD ALL GO TO JAIL.....WHO ARE THOSE PEOPLE? WHAT ARE THERE NAMES??? THEY ARE 100% RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS.....THEY WERE IN CHARGE OF THE MONEY....WHERE IS THE $$$$$$????????

To john: maybe the "blame" should be much more deservedly put on those people who make decisions as orchestras' board members while being so ignorant of the field they are in that they, just like you, can't even tell the difference between classical and classic. The "solutions" you have proposed illustrate your incompetence very clearly.

@ben natan...Touche.
Well parried - but in fairness @John could also be a potential abstract ticket buyer. Considering the desperate states of so many orchestras and fine arts organizations a steady flow through the turn-styles, regardless of the sophistication of the patron, may be part of the answer. Classic verses Classical only exposes your stance my friend...

My "stance" is simply that EVERYONE is a "potential abstract ticket buyer". But NOT everyone should be making decisions for artistic organizations. The second sentence does not contradict the first at all.
The commenter named "john" above here is blaming the orchestras (!) while showing a certain lack of knowledge of the subject he is talking about and admitting (with terribly misplaced pride?) that he was "on the board of a symphony orchestra that failed", which strikes me as a very ironic and telling bit of self-incrimination.


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