When the Oakland Symphony abruptly filed for bankruptcy in September, 1986, Joyce Anderson took it personally.
"It should not have happened," she insists. "It's our orchestra. It fills a function that nothing else does. We miss it and we want it back."
At the time, orchestral life in Oakland seemed dead beyond hope of resurrection, buried with the stake of a Chapter 7 bankruptcy in its heart and $3.7 million in debts.
But today Anderson is about to get her orchestra back, thanks in large measure to her grass-roots campaign based among former subscribers. A longtime patron and then subscriber of the defunct Oakland Symphony, she became president of the new Oakland East Bay Symphony League.
"I was grieved," she states simply. "I wanted to get it back, so I went to work. You gather up yourself and all your resources, and put it back together."
Recent years have been difficult for orchestras around the country--so much so that the struggling orchestra has become an icon of common arts wisdom. Oakland was the first U.S. orchestra to fail since 1952, and it appeared to initiate a sudden crisis among regional orchestras. By the summer of 1988, symphony orchestras in New Orleans, Nashville and Oklahoma City were also being declared dead, while others continue to teeter at the brink of fiscal extinction.
But in all four supposedly mortal cases, the silence was not final, proving that musically at least, there is life after debt. It was not the orchestras that failed, as much as it was orchestra boards and managers. Today, the four orchestras are back. In Oakland and Oklahoma, they are legally reorganized under different names.
These revivals are forcing a reappraisal of the plight of the symphony orchestra in the '80s. Propelled by new board leadership and stubborn community demand, orchestras missing from action and presumed dead are returning to musical life. It seems that while the organizational heads of orchestras may die--often from self-inflicted wounds--the musical body of those institutions is surprisingly hard to kill.
Although the Oakland Symphony story burst very suddenly upon the public, the Oakland arts community and even orchestra musicians, the debacle was a long time coming, as abundantly detailed in "Autopsy of an Orchestra," an analysis of the bankruptcy that has become required reading for orchestra boards across the country. Commissioned by six grant-making organizations to identify the lessons to be learned from the Oakland experiences, "Autopsy" was written by Melanie Beene, Fenton Johnson and Patricia Mitchell.
The report chronicles a 10-year pattern of unrealistic financial and development planning, leadership turmoil and discontinuity, and a disastrous foray into theater ownership and operation. Some of the problems were unique to Oakland, such as the drowning in New York of Calvin Simmons, its charismatic young music director, in 1982. Other tribulations were products of the time and shared with similar orchestras.
But the real crisis seems to have been one of management--of acknowledging and meeting problems in a timely manner. In answering its own questions about the dissolution, "Autopsy" concludes: "The probable 'truth' is that at 3:30 p.m. on Sept. 12, 1986, the past caught up with the Oakland Symphony. When the critical moment came, the organization lacked the energy and commitment necessary to rise to the challenge."
But not all was lost in the debacle. Just four days before the association decided to liquidate assets under Chapter 7, its volunteer auxiliary group, the Oakland Symphony Orchestra Assn. League, declared itself a separate nonprofit organization. The musicians also incorporated later and offered several benefit concerts.
That, Anderson says, "gave us enough of a toehold."
Thanks to the work of Anderson and many others, a new/old Oakland East Bay Symphony is prepared to offer a modest season of concerts beginning in March. Proceeding cautiously, it is close to announcing the appointment of a music adviser for two years, while searching for a music director.
"The League is a factor, in great part, in how the orchestra is coming back," says Judith Lovell, heading a staff of two for the revived institution. "The interesting part of the reforming of a professional orchestra in Oakland is that it was a grass-roots movement among former subscribers."
Two-thirds of the new orchestra will be former members of the symphony, providing a substantial degree of musical continuity. But the board is new, and Lovell and her cohorts are intent on avoiding the mistakes of the past.
"We need to carve a distinct niche in a very busy arts community," Lovell says. "The growth of the organization will be extremely conservative, as we want our plans to be fully realizable, and income-driven."