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Louisville: a local view

0 Robert Levine

This was sent as a letter to the Louisville Courier-Journal but not published. Unfortunate, as it is a very thorough look at the situation from an experienced local observer:

One really doesn’t know whether to laugh or to cry in response to Chuck Maisch’s column about the Louisville Orchestra that appeared in the Courier-Journal on September 18, 2019.

Maisch states correctly that the Louisville Orchestra has been on unstable financial footing seven times since 1984. Where he is incorrect is that “Save the Orchestra” campaigns were launched in every instance: in fact, as long as my family has been deeply involved (since 2000, when I joined the board of directors and later the executive committee for two three-year terms, and 2006, when my husband joined the board and later became the chairman of the L.O. for two years), there has been no “Save the Orchestra” public campaign, despite many, including all the musicians, imploring management to release publicly a statement quantifying the amount of the fiscal shortfall so that the community might have an opportunity to step forward and meet the gap.

In fiscal year 2010, the budget shortfall was less than 10% of the total budget of seven million dollars. At that time, both the Fund for the Arts CEO and the extant L.O. executive director were not overly concerned about the deficit. If you survey all the major symphony orchestras in the U.S., you would find many years when their budgets did not balance, and creative solutions needed to be found. The process is rarely pretty, and often involves a harum-scarum, rag-tag variety of skin- of-the-teeth, seat-of-the-pants stopgap measures: welcome to the world of arts management. The result in most cases where such measures were undertaken: the orchestras, like the Louisville Orchestra, stayed in business. What’s more remarkable in the case of our gem of an ensemble is that the L.O. continued to polish its product artistically.

Isn’t it hard to believe that only two years ago, in fiscal year 2009, the Louisville Orchestra had an operating surplus of $91,000? In a year when the economy was no healthier than ours is today? That fact proves that it takes about six months of negligence and ill will on the part of one or two leaders and a score of people who will follow to destroy something that took 75 years for a city to build.

So what’s wrong with the concept that a smaller orchestra is the answer for us? Plenty. The entire premise is based on a lack of understanding of symphonic music, its market niches, and what most people want to hear when they use their scarce leisure dollars to come to the orchestra. An orchestra of fifty seats or less can essentially perform only music written before 1800 – yes, Mozart, yes, Haydn, yes, Bach, but music with a mannered, more chamber-type sound that is generally loved by a rather effete demographic. It’s also very, very difficult to play well, as any orchestra musician will tell you. The extreme tonality and cadence of the music reveals every flaw, and even a novice can identify when it’s played sloppily. The Louisville Orchestra we had until the end of May 2010 was absolutely capable of performing this music beautifully, but a solid diet of it simply isn’t satisfying to most symphony music lovers. We enjoy the occasional selection, dropped into a program somewhat like a palate cleanser, a scoop of grapefruit sorbet between the foie gras of Schumann and the New York strip of Beethoven – both of which would require at least another 20 musicians to perform their important works. In fact, it’s the Brahms and the Beethoven that people really come to hear. They enjoy the smaller works, but that’s not why they buy tickets, and if that and more sparse modern works comprised the entire program, most people would rather go see a movie, or stay home and put their custom-designed Pandora stations on the iHome. I would.

“Oh,” current management says, “but we can hire the additional musicians required to perform Beethoven, Brahms and Mendelssohn individually, and thus play what people really want to hear.” Let’s say we do that for every concert – because those are the concerts that will sell tickets. The analysis has been done by consultants with deep knowledge and experience of orchestras and their challenges, and the reports are sitting on the shelves of the L.O. offices: in fact, to hire enough individual musicians to rehearse and perform the romantic and impressionist works that are the hallmark of great symphony orchestras very quickly shoots the operational budget right back to the level where it was – the level that Maisch claims we are unable to raise.

Let’s say that hiring 50 musicians and operating an orchestra of that size would require $4 or $5 million per year: roughly $2 or $3 million less than the budget of the L.O. last year. Would that be an easier amount to raise, and would is result in a more manageable orchestra for Louisville? Not unless management and every member of the board showed a real appetite for working very, very hard, asking everyone imaginable to contribute. Has the current leadership demonstrated that chutzpah? If so, why did they not call my acquaintances or me and ask us to contribute more than usual? They will say that they met with key givers: yes, they always are eager to meet with the small group of philanthropists who have been beyond generous to the L.O. for the past four decades. But any nonprofit development professional knows that a budget is not just met by a few people with deep pockets – and the few angels the L.O. has had are rightfully tired of being the fall-back guys when so few others are solicited.

Let me state the situation this way: was everyone reading this letter called and asked to make a charitable gift to the Louisville Orchestra in the last nine months? Did anyone meet with you about it? In a very few cases, yes, there were calls and meetings: incredibly, the L.O. still has a handful of stalwart people on its board whose only desire is to work their hardest and talk to everyone they know to meet the budget and contractual obligations. They have continued to do so, but they are salmon swimming against a mighty current of naysayers. Most of the board of directors take the message of the president and executive director as gospel: the message that it can’t be done, it’s impossible, it’s too big for Louisville, and we need to pull the plug and start over.

What about publicity: were there stories in this newspaper that announced specifically how much money was needed, when it was early enough in the season last year for the news to generate giving, which would have enabled the L.O. to end fiscal year 2011in the black? Was there a public appeal for funds to enable the L.O. to keep running? Were we told exactly how much money was needed and encouraged to pull out all the stops and try to raise it? Was there, in fact, a “Save the Orchestra” campaign at all last year? No. The old saw with L.O. management is that the community is tired of hearing the sad tale. To the contrary, the community is tired of hearing from L.O. management that the goal is too lofty and can’t be reached, while never even revealing what the magic number is that would meet the goal.

And maybe it is too lofty. The truth is that we don’t really know: because unless the L.O. management is willing to operate in the full light of full disclosure and invite all our citizens to open their wallets and piggy banks and meet the gap any given year of operation, we have no idea if a 71-seat, $7 million-per-year orchestra is too large for Louisville. If it is too large for our pocketbooks, if we actually were to get the word out and do a broad-based campaign that would let the community choose whether we keep an orchestra the size of which would permit the performance of the greatest symphonic works and if the community’s answer were “no, it’s a dinosaur, we don’t care enough about it” then we should accept the verdict and move on. Then let Maisch and whatever executive director he would like to hire try to raise the money to put together a group of chamber players – a group most likely comprised of non-union musicians since he does not seem interested in adhering to union guidelines, and see how he does. I would wish him all the best, but I don’t know many people who would assist, because it isn’t the music they want to hear, and the price tag even for such a small group would be steep.

Maisch was correct in one other regard: he stated that in every other year of crisis, the magnificent orchestral music our performing artists provide this community was preserved. In that context, it’s especially heartbreaking that current management had a different goal, so that about twenty of last year’s musicians have relocated to other cities, and now, at least through November, the Louisville Orchestra is silent. What a sad legacy the current leadership has left the city of Louisville.

Vivian Ruth Sawyer
Louisville, Kentucky 40207

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