Milwaukee Symphony Faces 'Possible Extinction' Due to Budget Crisis

Friday, December 06, 2013 - 05:44 PM

Last year, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra was riding a wave of good reviews and civic pride after it appeared at Carnegie Hall (and on WQXR) as part of the Spring for Music festival. On Friday, the orchestra painted a much gloomier picture: it plans to reduce the size of the ensemble and slash its performance schedule in an effort to address a multimillion-dollar budget deficit in its last fiscal year.

The MSO, billed as the largest cultural organization in Wisconsin, has reported a $2 million budget shortfall in fiscal year 2013, which it blames largely on declining donations. In a press release, the orchestra admitted it is "in danger of running out of money and faces possible extinction if additional pledges cannot be secured to fund the MSO's much more modest, prudent budget and business plan for the future."

The Business Journal of Milwaukee reports that the orchestra had already been downsized from 88 to about 79 members under previous cost-cutting efforts, and it will now be shrunk again by another 11 percent for next season. The MSO has also eliminated seven administration employees, and now has a staff of 30.

The orchestra characterizes the moves as the most extensive restructuring ever conducted by the MSO. The budget will shrink to $15.8 million from $17.9 million a year ago.

The Milwaukee Symphony was founded in 1959 and has had an ambitious profile. It has given more than 100 premieres, including works by Sibelius, Korngold, Glass, Adams and Roy Harris. Its radio broadcasts have been syndicated to some 180 stations nationwide. In 2005 it became the first American orchestra to offer its concert recordings for download through iTunes and other online stores.

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Comments [5]

Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va

John you are correct that more should be done to teach people music and to educate our youth on the value of understanding and even playing classical music.
However with increasing welfare and food stamp rolls robbing communities of discretionary spending on music education I fear this will not happen.
Even an inexpensive student violin worth teaching on costs several hundred dollars, and entry level wind instruments the same. Then there is the cost of paying teachers, as we cannot expect professional musicians already struggling financially to simply teach for no pay at all.
I recall as a Junior High School student in Manhattan in the 1950's we had music teachers in our school, and a band room where we could select instruments we wanted to study.
Public schools had orchestra or band class and planned performances for parents and family members.
You are correct, today most young people plug plastic headphones into their ears and are filled with filthy trash flooding the radio and internet.
While I am vehemently against public support for the arts, perhaps it may be the right time to revisit our priorities and decide if increasing food stamp benefits to people who can but do not choose to work, or providing free cell phones to the physically able idle, who take government handouts, should be eliminated in favor of bringing back music and art education to public schools.
I am one who believes it is not the role of the schools to raise young people but it may be proper for schools to expose young people to alternatives to the trash they label as music today.
I do not think the inability of orchestras and opera companies to survive is only due to an aging population.
When I attend the Metropolitan Opera for my five or six annual trips to New York City, I enjoy taking the elevator up to The family Circle during intermission, as the bar there is less crowded than in the orchestra area.
When doing so I see many young people attending Met performances in the $35 and $50 seats. Perhaps orchestras and opera companies should seek responsible corporations and donors who would underwrite reduced seating for performances.
When I attend the Virginia Opera at the Center for the Arts, At George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. I have learned that GMU students with proper student ID's are entitled to a free ticket for their performances and for many other concerts they produce at the Center for the Arts, a 2500 seat auditorium.
I believe policies like those at GMU may help secure the future of classical and operatic music as many of these students will continue to attend performances as they get older, having been exposed during College. General Managers and Development staff have to learn to be creative and how to groom an audience for future decades. Thank you. God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Dec. 08 2013 07:04 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

It's a darn shame. To paraphrase the Simpleton in "Boris Godounoff" who sings "Woe to Mother Russia", I say "Woe to classical music and opera lovers in the United States. I agree that there's still interest, though with more electronic distractions in the history of the world, but where is the money?

Dec. 08 2013 11:14 AM
Concetta nardone from Nassau

Yes David, I am glad I will not be here for the wonderful world of the future.

Dec. 07 2013 01:32 PM
john dunbar from kitchener, ontario, canada

The one bright spot in the recurring crises of symphony orchestras in North America is that more people love classical music than many may realize. Although the airwaves are flooded with vulgar trash, lots of people are listening to classical music. As proof of its `grass roots' popularity consider the fact that symphony orchestras have emerged as the medium of choice in grass roots community involvement movements in South America. Perhaps that suggest that more is needed in North American to involve people in the production of music. Professional players in symphony orchestras could take the lead in teaching and leading wider variety of citizens in the production of such great music. There are too many cellphones and I-pods in N.A. and not enough weekend and evening `music fests' where everyone gets involved.

Dec. 07 2013 11:37 AM
David from Flushing

Very sad, but we shall see more of this as classical music audiences approach the end of their lifespans around 2030, only 16 years hence. One might wonder at what point a symphony orchestra becomes too small for its works. There are always early 19th C. pieces, but the Baroque Boom has largely run its course and could not support too many groups. As the song goes in "Gigi," "I'm glad I'm not young anymore."

Dec. 06 2013 07:26 PM

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