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An orchestra turns out the lights

Photo courtesy of Wichita Symphony Orchestra

For fifty years the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra was a cultural cornerstone, but it just couldn’t make it over the hill.

By the time Joann Falletta got to Syracuse for a special performance, the symphony was gulping for air. The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conductor arrived on March 25 to conduct a classical guitar concert starring Elliot Fisk, a highlight of the Syracuse Symphony’s fiftieth anniversary season. But behind the scenes, a myriad of mismanagement and money troubles meant that the SSO was on its last legs.

Little did Falletta know she was conducting a swan song, the last symphony orchestra concert in Syracuse.

On March 29 the SSO’s board of trustees voted to suspend operations, meaning that concerts for the rest of the 2010–11 season (including a birthday celebration with cellist Yo-Yo Ma) were cancelled. “We have run out of money,” the board announced in a press release and, to the outrage of many subscribers, refused to refund tickets. “The SSO as we now know it will cease to exist.”

The decision to suspend operations resulted from a crisis situation earlier this year in which the symphony unsuccessfully scrambled to fundraise $375,000 by February 4 just to meet payroll. In March the SSO again failed to reach its fundraising goal of $445,000, but all this did little to mend the $5.5 million needed to balance the budget for the 2010–11 season.

The SSO’s past is full of economic woes, but, according to assistant principal cellist and board member Greg Wood, what makes this situation different is a combination of poor artistic programming and managerial leadership. “There wasn’t enough done to really check to make sure that we could program things that were already in our library,” Wood said. “There was a lot of waste. We’re talking about thousands of dollars of music rental costs for a piece of music like Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin, which Syracuse hates anyway.”

A combination of declining attendance, deflated corporate and private donations, and the lingering effects of the 2009 recession provoked an unprecedented request from the board last summer when they asked the musicians to accept cuts of $180,000 and a shortened summer season. The musicians, hoping to save their fiftieth anniversary, voted to accept the concession.

Less than two weeks after this vote, the board propositioned the musicians insisting that the 2010–11 season could not proceed unless the musicians agreed to another $540,000 in concessions. The musicians accepted. “At that point,” Wood says, “we were led to believe that if we agreed to those concessions, our fiftieth anniversary season would happen in its entirety. [The board] convinced us that there were enough fundraising campaigns in place and they were doing enough soliciting of funds to make the season happen with the savings they had gotten from us. They didn’t promise to balance the budget, but they promised we were going to be able to operate for the entire season.”

That’s why when the board requested yet another salary cut on March 29, this time to the tune of $1.5 million, the musicians refused, arguing they had nothing more to give. The board immediately suspended operations, admonishing the musicians for “not bargaining in good faith.”

The board’s decision was distressing news for the Setnor School of Music at Syracuse University. “The special energy that comes from a relationship with a symphony orchestra is not something we’re going to be able to replace,” professor of music composition, Daniel Godfrey, says. Godfrey acts as the liaison between Setnor and the SSO and agrees that mismanagement caused the SSO’s demise.

“I think large not-for-profit organizations stand or fall depending on the creativity, energy, and foresight of the board,” Godfrey says. “The board declared bankruptcy and in so doing simply made public an admission of their own failure … What the board tried to do this year to try to save our symphony was too little too late.” (Godfrey is referring to the failed last-ditch fundraising campaign called “Keep the Music Playing,” launched on January 26.) “The board has always been operating in crisis management mode,” Wood agrees. The SSO has been operating at a deficit and has not been able to balance its budget since a change in management in 2006.

The board has suggested reviving the orchestra as a smaller entity, reducing the number of musicians to a core group between fifty-one and fifty-seven. The problem with that, according to Wood, is that performers try to compensate by playing harder, which results in tendonitis and other injuries. Godfrey points out another dilemma: “The problem is that some of the best players are the youngest ones,” Godfrey says, “and they’re the ones that can move most easily to other orchestras. Those people are not going to stick around. So a lot of that young, really energetic kind of musicianship—which is such a good complement to the veteran musicianship that’s there—is what’s threatened when you reduce the size of the orchestra.”

Wood admits that a handful of younger SSO members are already auditioning for other orchestras.

The SSO managed to pull together for one last concert on Saturday, April 2, at Syracuse University. The orchestra received two tearful standing ovations before the concert started and another after the final piece was performed. Conductor Daniel Hege told the audience, “It is because of the hearts in this community that we think we have a hopeful future.”

The musicians were laid off the following Monday.

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