The bankruptcy of several North American orchestras
“Daily Telegraph” - Norman Lebrecht laments the bankruptcy of several North American orchestras


ORCHESTRAS in North America are entering the nightmare zone. A crisis in Toronto has triggered shockwaves across the continent, with even the mightiest fingering their inside collar. The Toronto Symphony has gone bankrupt in all but name. Its British director, Ed Smith, resigned in September, declaring it to be "beyond repair". The orchestra has a debt of C$7 million (=A33 million) on an operating budget of C$25 million. It has no music director. Only a government bail-out can avert disbandment.

Several Canadian ensembles face similar predicaments. Calgary, with a six-figure loss, has locked out its musicians for the past month. In the US, the Florida Philharmonic - which survived last winter only by the music director, James Judd, forgoing his salary - needs to find half a million dollars in a month to keep playing. The San Jose Symphony has suspended its season following a $2.5 million (=A31.8 million) loss. St Louis, best out West when Leonard Slatkin was in charge, is haemorrhaging $7 million a season. It faces, says chairperson Virginia Weldon, "bankruptcy within the next year".

Most alarming of all, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra which, under Sir Georg Solti, was the brashest band on earth has, in a matter of weeks, lost its record contract, its radio slot and its financial stability. Chicago is down $1.3 million and will lose $2 million more in the year ahead.

Ed Smith, who steered the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra through Sir Simon Rattle's glory years, has blamed Toronto's "internal culture" for its downfall. But that culture is not unique to Toronto. It is common to every North American orchestra, great or small, and it will destroy them unless change is embraced.

Every move they make is shackled by deadweights. James Levine has just been announced, to general smiles, as the next music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Boston has craved rigour during Seiji Ozawa's long tenure, and Levine is a tremendous orchestral trainer, who has furnished the Met with a superlative ensemble.

His appointment, however, will not take effect until 2004, by which time the surgeon will be past 60 and the patient will have been on traction for so long that a recovery can be ruled out. Orchestras like Boston have let themselves be chained finger and toe to the long-term plans of short-measure maestros. Artists are booked and programmes fixed three years in advance. Nothing can be changed without paying off a contract. In the most volatile economy since the Industrial Revolution, orchestras have surrendered the freedom to manoeuvre.

Six weeks after the attacks on Manhattan, members of the New York Philharmonic began playing lunchtime chamber music for anxious workers in the vicinity of Ground Zero. How nice, said the workers. What th ey might not have appreciated is that, while rock stars of every vintage have thronged the city to give freely of their music, New York's finest classical musicians are drawing full fees for their compassion. "I thought it would be good for morale to do it that way," said NYPO executive director Zarin Mehta.

Whose morale, exactly? It may well be that public-spirited cellists would have preferred to play for free, but that would have entailed weeks of arm-wrestling with a neanderthal union, the notorious Local 802. Better, thought Mehta, to pay and let play.

The union has won its members an enviable lifestyle. In the last set of pay talks, one Big Five orchestra after another was pushed to the wall until Chicago finally broke the six-figure barrier, promising back-desk violinists an income of $100,000 for a 20-hour week. No wonder Chicago has gone into the red.

With a waning, ageing audience and a fast-shrinking media profile, CSO president Henry Fogel took decisive action to secure the orchestra's future. He shut its education centre. Any hope of reaching a younger public is off for the recession.

Chicago will not go bust overnight. It has a $100 million endowment and enough nice old ladies to pay the bills. But confidence is ebbing. The only way orchestras will survive the next decade is by rushing their sclerotic culture to the nearest ER room.

No other industry has been so resistant to renewal. Orchestras play much the same menu, at the same time, in the same venues, for the same duration and wearing the same waiters' uniforms as they did when Roosevelt was president. Experiment is ruled out by archaic rules. The culture is governed by compromise and fear.

Isolated managers and conductors have tried to make a difference, but their efforts have run into a wall of musicianly indifference. Change, if it is to come, must rise from the ranks. There is no sign yet that musicians have taken note of this winter's early warnings. If they are not heeded, the American orchestral behemoth will trudge on into certain oblivion.

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