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Syracuse Symphony Dissolves, Attorney General Schneiderman Seeks Inquiry

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In the latest sign of an already turbulent year for American orchestras, the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra has dissolved. The musicians of the 50-year-old ensemble took their final bow together on Saturday night following years of tenuous fiscal health. Musicians and administrative staff members were laid off on Monday. The orchestra is now maintaining a bare-bones staff.

The orchestra’s board met on Tuesday and voted to enter Chapter 7 bankruptcy in light of the organization’s more than $5 million debt. The board also restated there will be no refunds for current ticket holders. A call to the orchestra for comment on the board's vote was not immediately returned.

The no-refunds policy has caught the eye of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who issued a statement on Tuesday indicating he will look into the orchestra’s failure to cover its costs.

"If you pay for goods or services, by law, you should get what you paid for," Schneiderman said in the statement. "The Syracuse Symphony Orchestra left thousands of people holding tickets to performances they paid for but will never see. While our ability to recover refunds depends on what our review uncovers, my office will work diligently to provide whatever relief for ticket holders we can."

The Attorney General’s inquiry will seek to identify how many ticket holders have been left in the lurch, how much they are owed and the financial ability of the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra to pay them back.

“The SSO is without sufficient funds to continue operations because it fell short of its March fundraising goal of $445,000, failed to receive $1.3 million in concessions sought from the musicians for the 2011-12 season and has $5.5 million in balance sheet liabilities,” the orchestra’s interim director, Paul Brooks, posted on the SSO's now all but dismantled Web site. The orchestra's annual budget is $6.9 million.

"All I can tell them right now is that I can’t give them a refund,” said Jim Homa, director of sales for Syracuse Symphony Orchestra. Homa is manning the phones as calls come in regarding the now-moot tickets.

Homa’s office also oversees sales for the Syracuse Opera, which has two performances of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers in April. “Syracuse Opera ticket sales are ongoing,” Homa said. “That’s why I’m in the box office right now,” he added. The nearby Rochester Philharmonic has agreed to honor Syracuse Symphony tickets for select RPO performances this spring.

The Syracuse Symphony Orchestra has reportedly been in the red since 2006, running a deficit of about $500,000 per year. Ticket sales have declined 23 percent over the last three years, according to “Your worst nightmare,” was how Vicky D’Agostino, director of communications for the Orchestra, described the situation. D’Agostino would not comment on the reported figures.

While the musicians have generally complied with managerial cuts in recent years, the ongoing reductions in salaries, benefits and pension plans have rankled. The tight times have even had a direct impact on what the Orchestra will play, leading the musicians to switch out performances of Mahler, which require a bigger orchestra, for the smaller ensembles of Mozart.

As to how it got to this point, D’Agostino pointed only to the Orchestra’s official statement on its Web site. The deeper reasons behind the collapse? “Declining ticket sales, declining corporate support, declining government support,” D’Agostino said.

The compliance of the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra in the face of years of management cutbacks is in contrast to discord that has taken shape within other U.S. orchestras in recent years, most notably the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. DSO has been on strike for much of the past six months, and only now appears to be reaching an agreement with its management.

While the future remains uncertain for the Syracuse Symphony, which could return in a smaller and much altered form, in the meantime, musicians and audience members alike have turned to social media to air their grievances, express their thanks and show their support for the SSO that was. The Orchestra’s Facebook page is overrun with commentary on the closure.

“THANK YOU to all who attended our 'final' performance this evening,” wrote SSO horn player Stephen Laifer. “Your overwhelming support and generosity is appreciated by every one of us onstage, more than you can possibly know. With your continued advocacy, these will certainly not be the last notes you'll hear from your orchestra.”

“I am deeply saddened by all that has transpired over the last year,” wrote soprano Laura Enslin. “My thoughts are with all of those whose lives and ability to live is simply challenged to the core. Having performed with you over an extended period of time I gained respect for you as musicians and people.

But it was a fan who wrote in perhaps the most vivid language. “I feel like part of me has been amputated,” wrote Stephen Carpenter. “What's left is focused on the pain.”

On Twitter, a video of a long, hearty standing ovation for the Orchestra shot by local Syracuse newswoman Maureen Green of WTVH-TV made the rounds among tweeting fans and supporters.

This article has been updated as of 4/6/11