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Classical music groups sound familiar note of financial despair

April 19, 2011 |  7:07 am


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.


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