Syracuse Symphony Orchestra suspends operations

For 50 years the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra has been a cultural cornerstone, but mismanagement, a tight budget and an unanswered fundraising plea forces the SSO to closed its doors.

Syracuse Symphony Orchestra invited Buffalo Philharmonic conductor, Joann Falletta to conduct a concert featuring classical guitarist Eliot Fisk on March 25. But it was not the strummed acoustic chords that resonated with the audience that night. Before the concert’s second half Falletta, the recipient of 11 honorary doctorates and a slew of other astounding credits, addressed the audience.

Correction: This article originally stated Prof. Daniel Godfrey had been liaison between SU's Setnor School of Music and the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra for the nearly three decades The article has been updated to reflect that he has been in that role for the past year. We regret this error.

Buffalo, she said, is among the poorest cities in this nation and yet the BPO had thrived there for 75 years. After complimenting the SSO as an equally important cultural gem she left the audience with a somber request: “Please,” she said, “take care of them.” 

Little did Falletta know that she was conducting the last concert of the orchestra’s 50th anniversary season. As of March 29 the SSO’s board of trustees voted to suspend operations, meaning that concerts (more than 20 of them) for the rest of the 2010-11 season have been cancelled. The board will not refund tickets. They told ticket holders the reason was simple: “we have run out of money.”

The end of an era

Cancelled performances include the much-anticipated birthday celebration with cellist Yo-Yo Ma slated for April 27.

A press release on April 6 from Interim Executive Director, Paul Brooks, and Chair of the Board of Trustees, Rocco Mangano, announced that the symphony entered Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceedings. “The SSO as we now know it,” they stated in a press release, “will cease to exist.”

The decision to suspend operations resulted from a crisis situation earlier this year in which the symphony unsuccessfully scrambled to fundraise $375,000 by Feb. 4 just to meet payroll. In March the SSO again failed to reach its fundraising goal of $445,000, but all this did little to mend the $5.5 million needed to balance the budget for the 2010-11 season.

“This symphony has gone through amazing growing pains,” Assistant Principal Cellist and Board Member Greg Wood said, citing several similar incidents from the symphony’s past.

What makes this situation different, Wood said, is a combination of poor artistic programming and managerial leadership.

“There wasn’t enough done to really check to make sure that we could program things that were already in our library,” Wood said. “There was a lot of waste. We’re talking about thousands of dollars of music rental costs for a piece of music like Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin, which Syracuse hates anyway.”

When the warhorses of classical music, such as Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and Tchiakovsky’s 1812 Overture, were scheduled in the 2008-9 season the SSO saw a surge in subscription and ticket sales. Since then attendance has dwindled from 146,229 in 2009-10 to just over 49,000 for the current season.

A combination of declining attendance, deflated corporate and private donations and the lingering effects of the 2009 recession provoked an unprecedented request from the board last summer, as they asked the musicians to accept pay cuts amounting to $180,000. The musicians, hoping to save their 50th anniversary season, voted to accept the concession, equal to two weeks’ worth of salary and a shortened season from 40 weeks to 34 weeks with the same quantity of performances.

Less than two weeks after this vote, the board again propositioned the musicians saying that the 2010-11 season could not proceed unless the musicians agreed to another $540,000 in concessions. The musicians agreed.

“At that point,” Wood said, “we were led to believe that if we agreed to those concessions, our 50th anniversary season would happen in its entirety. [The board] convinced us that there were enough fundraising campaigns in place and they were doing enough soliciting of funds to make the season happen with the savings they had gotten from us. They didn’t promise to balance the budget, but they promised we were going to be able to operate for the entire season.”

That’s why when the board once again requested another salary cut on March 29, this time to the tune of $1.5 million, the musicians refused arguing they had nothing more to give. The board immediately voted to suspend operations, admonishing the musicians for “not bargaining in good faith,” Wood said. 

Community impact

The board’s decision has affected the entire Syracuse community, especially the Setnor School of Music at Syracuse University, which boasts a close educational relationship with the symphony.

“The special energy that comes from a relationship with a symphony orchestra is not something we’re going to be able to replace,” music composition Prof. Daniel Godfrey said.

Godfrey has been the liaison between the Setnor School of Music and the SSO for the past year, and has composed several new pieces premiered by the SSO. Godfrey agrees that mismanagement caused the SSO’s demise, and likens the situation to the death of a close friend.

“I think large not-for-profit organizations stand or fall depending on the creativity, energy and foresight of the board,” Godfrey said. “The board declared bankruptcy and in so doing simply made public an admission of their own failure…What the board tried to do this year to try to save our symphony was too little too late.”  

Godfrey is referring to the last-ditch fundraising campaign called “Keep the Music Playing,” launched on Jan. 26 when the SSO tried to reach its Feb. 4 goal of $375,000. By March 25, the progress report totaled $719,153 from 2,287 community donations but fell short by $100,847 for its end-of-March goal. But for many, including Wood, the question was “Why weren’t we told sooner?”

“The board has always been operating in crisis management mode,” Wood said. The SSO has been operating at a deficit and has not been able to balance its budget since a change in management in 2006, but the fiercest community fundraising campaigns were not initiated until January this year.

Looking ahead

The board has suggested reviving the orchestra as a smaller entity, reducing the number of musicians from what was 61 core and 14 contract musicians to a core group between 51 and 57 musicians. The problem with that, according to Wood, is that players try to compensate by playing harder, which results in tendonitis and other injuries. Godfrey points out another dilemma:

“The problem is that some of the best players are the youngest ones,” Godfrey said, “and they’re the ones that can move most easily to other orchestras. Those people are not going to stick around. So a lot of that young, really energetic kind of musicianship – which is such a good compliment to the veteran musicianship that’s there – is what’s threatened when you reduce the size of the orchestra.”

Wood admits that a handful of younger SSO members are already auditioning for other orchestras.

With the university’s help, the SSO managed to come together for one last concert of the season on Saturday, April 2 in the School of Music’s Setnor Auditorium. The orchestra received two tearful standing ovations before the concert started and another after the final piece was performed. Conductor Daniel Hege addressed the audience saying, “It is because of the hearts in this community that we think we have a hopeful future.”

The musicians were laid off the following Monday.

Re: SSO Demise

Thank you for your comment, Mr. Godfrey. The article has been updated and a correction posted clarifying the length of time you've worked as the liason between SU's Setnor School of Music and the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra. As to your second point, we appreciate feedback on that as well however the statement associating part of the symphony's closing with programming is the opinion of another source quoted in the article.

SSO Demise

The article is factually incorrect in two places. 1) I have only been officially the liaison between the Symphony and the University for the past year, and 2) the claim that programming is part of the core issue in the symphony's demise is spurious. The balance between the "old chestnuts" and contemporary or less-performed works has not changed substantially for the past two decades. Contrary to common "wisdom," studies show that orchestras in the U.S. have lost subscription strength when their programming focuses too narrowly on conventional repertoire.

Dan Godfrey

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