Symphonies struggle, but there's potential good news

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Do you want the bad news or the very bad news?

Actually, the declining health of the classical music world isn't news at all. Things have been sliding for many years, starting with the myopic phase-out of music education in most public schools. The market share for classical recordings has shrunk steadily. The number and quality of commercial classical music stations has plummeted; the amount of air time given to classical music on many public radio stations keeps shrinking.

It's easier than ever to get thoroughly depressed. This season, stories about troubled times have appeared almost daily, as even a random search through the Web site of musicalamerica.com, a leading news source in the classical music industry, will attest.

Last Saturday, Houston Symphony Orchestra musicians, whose contract expired in October, refused to play a scheduled subscription concert. The one-day walkout was meant to dramatize their displeasure with management and a possible 14 percent cut-back in pay - all related to the orchestra's mounting debts (a projected $2.3 million deficit this season).

In January, the Tulsa Philharmonic, looking at a $1 million debt, canceled the remainder of the 2002-2003 season and may shut down permanently, after 54 years. That would leave Oklahoma without a full-time professional orchestra.

Last week, the San Francisco Opera, facing more than $16 million in accumulated debt by the end of this season, announced a 25 percent cut in its budget. The number of productions and number of performances for each production will be rolled back; so will administrative salaries and, probably, others.

Meanwhile, the 69-year-old Utica Symphony Orchestra in upstate New York needs a minimum of $112,000 by the middle of this month just to make ends meet, or it will face a shutdown.

The Colorado Springs Symphony filed for Chapter 11 protection last month; the month before, the San Jose Symphony, strapped with $3 million of debt, filed for Chapter 7 - effectively dissolving after a remarkable 123 years in operation.

Then there are the worried signals that have been coming from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, where word of a projected $1.5 million deficit this season was enough to start talk about bankruptcy. A slew of forthcoming (and not necessarily related) vacancies in top artistic and administrative posts make that ensemble seem more vulnerable than ever.

Had enough? I haven't even gotten to our own scene.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which ended last season with more than $600,000 of red ink, faces an equal or larger deficit this season. (Fortunately, the musicians have been brought into the process of making tough budget-slashing choices, so the Houston scenario should be avoidable.) The Baltimore Opera Company will scale back from 26 performances of five works this season to 17 performances of four works next season.

Just about everybody locally is complaining about flat or declining attendance. Ensembles that could at least count on sell-outs for their annual holiday programs reported sluggish sales this past Christmas.

Contributed income is down; government funding is down; the value of endowments is down (thanks to the fluttering stock market). You name it, it's down.

And yet, all may not be lost. I'm no wild optimist, by any means, but there are positive signs out there.

The Nashville Symphony, for example, hardly registered on the national map a few years ago. Now, the orchestra, led by Kenneth Schermerhorn, has several strong-selling compact discs of American music to its credit (on the budget label Naxos, itself a rare good-news classical music story) and the prospect of a brand new home. Slated to open in 2006, the $120 million Nashville Concert Hall, designed by David Schwarz in a trend-bucking, neo-classical style, will boast 1,900 seats and natural lighting (a first, apparently, among this country's concert halls).

This isn't just a plus for Nashville - part of a steady reclamation of a neglected downtown area - but a decided plus for classical music. Anytime anyone anywhere can raise the money and enthusiasm needed to build a new home for a symphony orchestra it's worth ringing the bells. And Nashville isn't alone.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic, which has never had a truly stellar venue since being founded in 1919, will move into the 2,265-seat, $274 million Walt Disney Hall in the fall. Frank Gehry, of Gugenheim Museum Bilbao fame (and the designer of a new wing for Washington's Corcoran Gallery), did the sculptural design of curvy walls and roofs that promises to make as bold a visual statement as the orchestra's music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, usually does.

A little less-splashy good news is out there, too.

It's pretty cool, for example, that the Boston Symphony Orchestra will launch an "online conservatory" on Friday, an interactive, multimedia educational venture developed with Northeastern University. Visitors will be able not only to learn more about works coming up on the orchestra's programs, but also to play around with them - alter tempo or instrumentation. Just as neat is the track record for this orchestra's Web site - it already enjoys 3 million hits a year and has generated $10 million in revenue since being launched in 1996. Quite a success story, especially in these gloomy times. (The site is www.bso.org.)

The San Francisco Symphony also has an Internet hit - the SFS Kids Site (www.sfskids.org), part of the orchestra's regular Web site. This colorful project offers plenty of educational hooks for young people.

Whether the Internet will ever play a major role in preserving classical music remains to be seen, but it's encouraging that organizations have been finding imaginative ways to go cyber, way beyond programming news and online ticket sales. We'll doubtless see many more.

In the meantime, if you're feeling very nervous about the future, remember that music conservatories aren't reporting a dearth of applicants. Seems like a lot of people still want to get into this world, even if job prospects are iffy, at best. And the quality of music-making is still wonderfully high in so many places, in so many separate genres of classical music.

I'd like to think that the moneyed folks who appreciate the priceless nature of this art form will not let it be irreparably harmed by a dismal economy or dwindling audiences. I'd like to think that administrators, staffers and musicians - everywhere - will discover in themselves new energy, ideas, initiatives to battle each setback.

All I know for sure, though, is that classical music, like the greatest art and literature, will ultimately survive. It has to.

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