Death Knell for Columbus Symphony Orchestra?

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Reaction to budget cuts at the Columbus Symphony Orchestra has been mixed. Some have expressed shock, others think it’s time the orchestra faced economic reality. At the moment it seems reconciliation between the symphony board and orchestra members is as wide as a chasm.

Times have changed for the financially troubled CSO. Now the Symphony board has decided to terminate 22 of the 53 full-time musicians. Doug Fisher, a long-time CSO bassoonist and the president of the local musicians’ union says the news is discouraging.

“There isn’t a single orchestra in this country that has ever solved its problems by firing 40% of the players,” Fisher says. “It makes absolutely no sense that that’s what they want to do.”

The orchestra ended last season with a $2.2 million dollar deficit. That shortfall cleaned out what was left of the orchestra’s financial reserves. At orchestra headquarters adjacent to the Ohio Theater, Tony Beadle, the symphony’s executive director, described the atmosphere this way.

“We’re basically maxed out,” Beadle says. We’re paycheck to paycheck. The arrival of the mail everyday is pretty exciting because we hope there will be checks there.”

CSO board chairman Robert Trafford says a $3 million shortfall looms on the horizon toward the end of the current season. The board undertook a study that examined how much financial support the orchestra could reasonably expect from the Columbus community. $9.5 million was the finding. Trafford presented the plan of budget cuts to musicians January 17th.

“What we’ve done is to present with a great deal of thought and clarity what we think ought to be done and why,” Trafford says. “Quite frankly we’d begun to talk to the musicians about it when they walked out.”

Union president Doug Fisher says musicians gave $1.2 million in contract concessions in 2005 with the understanding the money would be used to raise more. But the board, he says, did not deliver. Executive director Tony Beadle, who’s been with the orchestra a year and a half, says fund raising is getting more and more difficult.

“Not only are we competing with other arts and other forms of entertainment we’re competing with the concept of cocooning where you get a DVD and stay home,” Beadle says.

But the author of the book “The Life and Death of Classical Music, Norman LeBrecht says balancing the budget on the backs of an orchestra’s musicians is inconceivable.

“I’m puzzled and stupefied by this,” LeBrecht says. “When I see that the reason given for it is an annual deficit for $1.5 million I do have to sit down and reach for the smelling salts because $1.5 million is peanuts.”

LeBrecht is an assistant editor of The Evening Standard in London. Though he’s less familiar with the CSO, he says he’s well acquainted with other symphonies in U.S. cities of similar size to Columbus.

“Here we have a prosperous town, it’s the capital of a prosperous state and the board of its orchestra are saying that it cannot afford to sustain a full symphony orchestra and wants to reduce it to chamber size. That in effect is the eradication of Columbus, Ohio from the cultural map.”

The symphony has considered looking to local government for help. It backs a proposal that would have city and county government contribute to a fund to support local arts groups. Spokesmen for Mayor Coleman and the Columbus City Council say there are no immediate plans to contribute tax dollars to the orchestra, like they did for COSI. Without new streams of revenue Beadle says the downsizing plan is the CSO’s only recourse.

“We had to come up with a plan that would sort of reestablish our credibility with the community,” Beadle says. “That’s what was hurting the most; nobody wanted to believe that the symphony was going to correct its collision course that it was on. And it was only a matter of time before we closed up shop.”

Board chair Trafford says he’s confident this is not the end of the CSO. But musicians’ representative Doug Fisher disagrees.

Well I’m not lying to you; it’s the truth. We have no faith in this board,” Fisher says. “They’ve convinced us that they do not want to support this orchestra at this level and they want to fire 22 of us. And if that is what they really want to do, I think the orchestra is finished.”

The orchestra has a possible recording project for the Denon label in March. They’ll perform Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony and the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. Fisher says the album would memorialize the orchestra at its artistic height.