In my article on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra last week, I said that in recent years more than a dozen US orchestras had ‘gone to the wall’. I am glad to say this was wrong. 13 orchestras did in fact file for bankruptcy protection between 1986 and 2008, but 11 later emerged as going concerns. Only two actually went under. I’d forgotten that in the United States bankruptcy can be more like Limbo than Hell; there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
How those 11 pulled themselves back from the brink is a marvellous example of the American ‘can-do’ mentality. The Virginia Symphony mounted a public campaign, calling for donors on local radio, and playing free concerts all over the city of Norfolk. In April the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra launched a campaign to raise 2 million dollars, after the players raised $1 million themselves through pay and pension freezes.
The most dramatic pull-back from the abyss came from the Charleston Symphony, where the board announced in November of last year that they had to raise 250,000 dollars by the end of December. They pulled it off, partly by phoning every donor that had ever given to the orchestra. Now the Philadelphia orchestra has come clean with its need for 15 million dollar loan to tide it over its current crisis, which this year led to a 3.4 million loss. They haven’t formulated an eye-catching recovery plan yet, but they’re sure to before long.
…It’s in Europe, where orchestras can get up to 60% of their running costs funded by the state, that you encounter the complacency that comes from decades of feather-bedding. They’d better wise up. The recession may be easing in the private sector, but in terms of public spending there are surely tough times to come.
While it’s true that the grass always looks greener from 3,000 miles or so away, I find it encouraging that the American model looks pretty good from the European perspective. I’ve always thought that its strengths are under-appreciated by those who work in it.