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Ever since the financial struggles of the San Diego Symphony (in which I was Principal Trombone from 1988-1997) resulted in the bankruptcy of that orchestra in 1996 (fortunately that had a happy ending), I have been pondering the state of professional orchestras in our culture.  So the Syracuse Symphony‘s decision on April 5 to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy hits very close to home.  But it does occasion the exercise of some arts advocacy chops – so here goes.

One way to understand the place of a professional orchestra in its community is through the metaphor of an ecosystem.  A full time professional orchestra attracts a caliber of musician to a town who otherwise would not have sufficient work to live there, and provides vital resources for the local cultural ecosystem – teaching lessons, playing for all manner of extra work from weddings to church services to freelance work with other arts organizations, and providing the hub of a cultural district that attracts people downtown after business hours.  It also attracts professional people who want strong cultural options to move to a place.  There are ripple effects throughout the arts community, in economic activity, and in the Gestalt of living in a city where culture thrives and is supported.  One example is that (especially in smaller cities) the youth orchestra program is often started and maintained by the professional orchestra, as the case in Syracuse.

Access to a high quality of creative and performing arts positively affects the energy of individuals and communities.  They bring the people in a community together for a shared public experience, and foster a sense of community and civic pride.  They also bring people in from the suburbs or further; a good number of people in Clinton (and no doubt other towns in Central New York) regularly come to Syracuse to attend SSO and other performances even though it’s an hour’s drive.  (By the way – we need more good restaurants in Syracuse within walking distance of the Civic Center for pre-concert dinner!)

In places where the the arts institutions have languished an essential element of society is simply missing – whether or not all members of a community are aware of or directly affected by its absence.  In San Diego the loss of the SDSO from 1996-98 was soon followed by the loss of the classical radio station, and the bleak prognosis for musical culture there cast a long shadow on the self image of the entire city as well as on its public image to the outside.  In a city where the professional orchestra has gone out of business the cultural ecosystem is immeasurably diminished.  Simply stated, a city without strong arts cannot be taken seriously.

Syracuse Symphony musicians also play for many other cultural organizations who rely on the Symphony bringing talented musicians to town – the Society for New Music, the Hamilton College Oratorio Society, and other choral organizations, to name just a few.  They teach at area colleges who also depend on the availability of this talent pool (ten are on the adjunct faculty at Hamilton), play in churches, synagogues, and schools, and help to produce a much higher level of training for up and coming young musicians in Central New York.  They are outstanding artists.  And it takes years of playing together to develop the high level of musical cohesion of such an orchestra.

So it must be emphasized: the musicians of the Syracuse Symphony are vital cultural infrastructure crucial to the cultural – and hence the economic – vitality of all of Central New York, not only Syracuse itself.

I personally find unacceptable the notion that this area cannot support a full time orchestra.  It is essential for all of us who care about the viability of this region and its cultural life to look for ways we can work together toward bringing the Syracuse Symphony back and keeping these great musicians in town, preventing a diaspora of artists who have learned to play so well together.

It’s important to keep the musicians before the public to remind ourselves just how valuable an asset they are to Central New York, so that people will rally to this cause.  After the last two months of the season were canceled I determined that what I could do was to arrange on a few weeks’ notice for a very special performance of the SSO musicians at Hamilton College, and developed an idea for a program to underscore how necessary this is for us to have.  Please check back in coming days for an announcement about this performance (pending an official announcement from the SSO musicians).

7 Responses to “The Syracuse Symphony and Cultural Ecology”

  1. Heather, many thanks for drawing attention to the many ways the SSO benefits and helps define the central New York community. And thanks, too, for arranging to bring the SSO back to Hamilton.

  2. David Ross says:

    Thank you, Heather, for a verizon insightful essay which deserves wider dissemination.

  3. David Ross says:

    Oy! VERY insightful, not verizon. The joys of autofill.

  4. Bill Thickstun says:

    Shockingly, the Philadelphia Orchestra board voted to file for bankruptcy over the weekend, despite holding an endowment of $140 million (see

    The Philadelphia Inquirer seems to suggest it’s mainly about getting out of their pension obligations. With what’s been going on in Wisconsin and across the midwest this year, it’s hard not to see a trend here.

    • admin says:

      Well, pensions are a major factor cited by the SSO board as well. It’s disturbing that bankruptcy seems to be increasingly seen as an expedient way to quickly dispense with pension and similar liabilities. The collateral damage – loss of a major cultural institution or permanent damage to its reputation – are collateral costs without a price tag attached to them. The cost of these losses is in fact priceless. Would that managements and boards decided instead that “failure is not an option.” If we consider culture indispensable, then let’s figure out how we can keep it – whatever it takes. How about deciding to change the ethos such that culture is something we all as a society recognize the need to invest in?

  5. Kathy Volke says:

    Thank you Heather, for the insightful interpretation of the many ways in which a symphony orchestra impacts the vitality of a community. As a former professional violist, I drew away from this form of employment back in the early 1990’s because of the stagnancy of wages and benefits. It was far easier to make money by virtue of a private business, sans the patronage system which most orchestras are saddled with. Until symphonies develop business models that are self supporting without the necessity of a handful of rich people caring about their culture, the relevance and financial security of this cultural icon will remain in doubt for the long term. With dwindling resources and a changing/shifting cultural climate, I sadly suspect that the changes that we see taking place will continue to escalate.

    • admin says:

      Kathy, the problems you bring up – stagnation of wages and the dependency on rich people caring about symphonic culture, as you say – are very real. I’m sure you know the arts have always relied on some form of charitable support, so it’s hard to imagine how the business model might for orchestras evolve in such a way that reduces dependency on tenuous external sources of revenue (including government support) but still provides a living wage for professional musicians. I am impressed by the dynamism and entrepreneurial spirit of successful chamber and new music ensembles, and am wondering what lessons can be applied from such groups, with their much smaller budgets, to symphony orchestras. From the opposite angle, the sums of money that make or break professional orchestras are relatively small potatoes in other places, notably fund raising in higher education.

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