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Sounding a sour note

The Louisville Orchestra joins the ranks of symphonies that are filing for bankruptcy protection.

June 11, 2003|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

Against the ostinato of a sour economy, another symphonic ensemble, the Louisville Orchestra, has decided that the next number it plays will be Chapter 11.

A unanimous decision Monday by the board of directors made the orchestra, whose budget for its 2002-03 season was $6.5 million, the ninth in the country over the last year to suspend operations, either by seeking bankruptcy protection or by simply going out of business for good.

"It's basically the same tune, with individual twists," said Timothy Zavadil, a clarinetist and spokesman for the 71 now out-of-work Louisville Orchestra musicians.

In all these cases, said Jack McAuliffe, vice president and chief operating officer of the American Symphony Orchestra League, mid-size metropolitan orchestras already limping because of financial or management weaknesses have been staggered by a national downturn that has siphoned away anticipated donations from cash-strapped corporations, foundations, and state and local governments.

"When the economy went down, they just weren't robust enough to weather it," McAuliffe said.

Some of the best-regarded orchestras in the nation have been coping with large deficits brought on by bad times, among them the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra and the Pittsburgh Symphony. But the biggest symphonic players typically have large endowments that can help them weather recessions without fear of folding -- "a cushion to fall back on that most of the smaller ones just don't have," said McAuliffe.

The opening note in a 12-month dirge sounded last June when the 123-year-old San Jose Symphony, the oldest in the West, went silent under a $3-million debt. By December, it had filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy -- which means belly up, as opposed to the Chapter 11 protection that allows for an attempt to reorganize, recover from debt and go on.

Since then, symphony orchestras have failed in Colorado Springs, Colo.; Savannah, Ga.; Tulsa, Okla.; and San Antonio, Texas. The New York Chamber Symphony gave up when its founding music director left, and the Washington (D.C.) Chamber Symphony succumbed to fiscal pressures.

The biggest orchestra to fall has been the Florida Philharmonic, whose budget of about $11 million a year made it the largest performing group in its state. It filed for Chapter 11 protection last month after a desperate fund-raising appeal failed. A new community group is trying to save the Fort Lauderdale-based regional symphony with a retooled business plan and a fund-raising drive that so far has attracted $920,000 in pledges. The goal is $4.5 million, said Joyce K. Reynolds, a leader of the reorganization effort, and on Friday her group will ask a bankruptcy judge for more time.

Reynolds and Trey Devey, the executive director hired in September to try to save the Florida Philharmonic, said that it wasn't just the bad economy that brought it to bankruptcy but a series of controversies that weakened community support -- including a monthlong musicians' strike in 2000 and the resignation, a year later, of longtime music director James Judd.

"People were getting a sense that nobody knew what they were doing," Reynolds said. "We want to claim the creative reputation -- which was considerable -- and use that as a springboard for correcting the ills and getting ourselves financially responsible."

In Louisville, there is contention between musicians and management. The board wants the players to take a pay cut to help repay a $1.5-million debt. The musicians, who earn $799 a week, think the directors should do a better job of tapping prospective donors' pockets before raiding the players'. And both management and musicians question whether the orchestra has been getting its fair share from a local United Way-style umbrella group set up to raise money for the arts.

The better news, says McAuliffe, whose league is a service organization for 350 professional orchestras in the U.S. and Canada, is that orchestras that fail usually, over time, can be regenerated or replaced. Cities that lost ensembles during the downturn in the late 1980s and early '90s were able to grow them back -- including Oakland, Denver, New Orleans, Oklahoma City and Birmingham, Ala.

A troubling difference, though, is the rate of attrition. In the last recession, eight orchestras succumbed over four or five years, McAuliffe said. Now, more than that have fallen in a year. He thinks it's because this recession is "a perfect storm" affecting the overall economy and the stock market.

McAuliffe is hopeful, though, that the past pattern of symphonies sprouting anewcan repeat.

Meanwhile, says Devey, the Florida Philharmonic director, a lesson needs to be learned -- the one that Aesop's ant tried to teach the grasshopper about not just fiddling around all summer when winter is on the way.

"Orchestras that don't prepare themselves for the other economic shoe to drop will have difficulty. During the great economic times, the endowment should be built and the deficit should be slashed. Unfortunately, it went the other direction here."

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