Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Closure of the Columbus Symphony

As a diehard lover of classical music, it always pains me to see articles like a recent one in the Wall Street Journal about the shutdown of the Columbus Symphony in Columbus, Ohio.

"On June 1, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra took what may be its final bows. Tears flowed from the musicians as well as from members of the capacity crowd in the Ohio Theatre."

"The 57-year-old orchestra is out of money. The symphony canceled its summer pops season and told the musicians that they would not be paid for the rest of the current contract, which ends Aug. 31."

What followed, in this article and in later letters to the editor*, was a stimulating debate on the role of the traditional classical music orchestra in the modern era.

Some of the quotes addressed the harsh truth that full orchestras are expensive, and some communities simply lack the scale to sustain one:

"I think that cities outside the very largest in this country must recognize that it is no longer possible to sustain a full-scale symphonic establishment, but that it is nonetheless well within their means to maintain a fine chamber ensemble, and that such a group would do credit and lend artistic luster to any urban area."
--letter to the editor, WSJ, June 26, 2008.

This letter writer went on to say that if fans want to see a Brahms symphony, they can go to Cleveland. As much as it pains me to say it, he has a point.

Other comments addressed the intractability of the musicians' union, and the irresponsible deficit spending of the orchestra's trustees.

There's enough blame here for everyone to have second helpings. Why on earth did this symphony think it could run several years of operating deficits? Why did it never have the foresight at some point over its 57-year history to establish an endowment?

Even not-for-profit organizations, as much as they think they are immune to the law of profits, are still subject to the laws of physics. You can't spend money you don't have and expect to survive.

Let's make sure we take an equally hard look at the musicians' union and its role here. What possible reason would drive the musicians' union to play a game of chicken, by walking out of negotiations and offering a desultory 6.5% pay cut "compromise" as part of an $11.1m budget that was likely to be in the red anyway? Is it better to look like you're driving a hard bargain and making smart negotiating ploys for your union--even if it results in the closure of your symphony and, definitionally, a 100% pay cut for everybody? How about setting aside all the positioning and negotiating tactics, and offering a viable solution instead?

And of course it's during an economic downturn (and Ohio, for a variety of reasons, is suffering a harsh one right now), that institutions on a marginal financial footing will fail.

And let's get one truth out in the open right now. As much as it pains this classical music lover to say it, classical music is a dead art to most Americans. You can even argue somewhat convincingly--this hurts me to say even more, but I'll say it anyway--that the symphonic era had its apogee in the 1800s. If you disagree, can you show me the Brahms and Beethovens of our era?

Worse, in today's era of overscheduled childhood, the barriers to competence in learning to play any orchestral instrument are too high. They require more time than kids have to spend. Ergo, kids just don't play in band anymore.

Given that backdrop, the one party that's not to blame is the Columbus, Ohio public, which supports their symphony as well as any mid-sized American city can be expected to in an era of challenged attention spans.

What does all of this mean? That marginal symphonies, especially the ones with a lack of fiscal restraint, will one by one drop off the map in many of America's second and third tier cities.

"...an orchestra must decide what it aspires to be -- and then find the funding to do it."--WSJ
If you're on the board of a symphony and you don't want it to become a statistic, get it on firm financial footing. Right now. Don't head into a recession with a weak balance sheet (e.g. the San Antonio Symphony) and operating deficits. Establish a permanent endowment. Get your costs down now, and develop a productive partnership with your musicians' union such that both sides have a stake in your symphony's long term survival.

And if you are a classical music lover, you too can help prevent your symphony from becoming a statistic. Buy season tickets. Bring friends to a concert and introduce them to this outstanding art form that deserves a much bigger audience than it has.

* Note: a WSJ online subscription may be necessary for access to this link.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Maybe if the richest suburb, New Albany, hadn't built a brand new arts center that competes, then the Columbus Symphony would not have failed.