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Laurie Niles

Silence is deadly

October 15, 2008 at 5:53 PM

Well, a bit more news from the Pasadena Symphony, and it's not good.

As of now, the musicians have been informed by our personnel director that half of the 2008-2009 season's concerts have been canceled, that's four out of eight. The remaining concerts are in October (this Saturday: Come see us if you are in the area, show your support and see a great concert!), and in January, March and April. This drastic change to the season hinges on the approval of the board at a Thursday meeting, as I understand it.

Last night, board president Diane Rankin explained the situation to the musicians. In a nutshell, she said that $6 million of our endowment is untouchable. A year ago the endowment was around $8 million, but because of declines in financial markets, it is now actually below $6 million. What is left over is not enough to cover the expenses of all our concerts as well as our staff, she said. The organization was going to try tapping a line of credit to pay these expenses, but it is now unable to do so. This explanation roughly meshes with what was explained in the LA Times, though the LAT said yesterday the endowment was $ 6.3 million. The budget shortfall is apparently $400,000.

I raised my hand and asked if any of the 27 staff positions (including two executive directors) had been cut. The answer was that they were considering it, but no. (A clarification: I was told since I first wrote this that not all of the 27 people listed in the September program under "Orchestras of Pasadena staff" are paid. Here are the staff listed on the orchestra website; I count 20.)

She told us to continue to speak highly of the organization and to have a beautiful happy concert together.

Well, yes.

But I care too much about these organization NOT to be extremely concerned, extremely let down, and extremely hoppin' mad. I think we're in a lot more trouble when we cut half the season and no one asks questions, no one cares, no one tries to rally to keep this institution alive. And yes, it's that serious. I've seen too many orchestras die, orchestras that seemed like institutions that would be there forever.

I understand that times are tough. In fact, here's another item about that. I don't feel that professional musicians should be asked to play for free: that's the road to a community orchestra, and that's not what this institution is about. It's about excellence, pride in the community, about striving for something better than us and inspiring our children to do so as well.

But we need to keep playing concerts. This is a disastrous decision, not just for the musicians, but for our audience and community that we've built over years. Those audience members we send away will be difficult to get back. The season subscribers at the heart of our support will be left holding the bag. The musicians who have faithfully scheduled their entire lives around the symphony season for years will feel compelled to find other work that is more reliable.

There will simply be more silence. Less music.

How can we keep our cultural institutions alive during hard times? At least will someone agree that we SHOULD?

From Michael Makhal
Posted on October 15, 2008 at 7:09 PM
Hi Laurie,
I always used to think that, We are in India doesn't get much opportunity to play concerts, but reading your note, I think its an universal concern right now. How come a orchestra don't have concerts in U.S.???? Its strange for us to believe, because its your culture and its the duty of American citizens to keep this culture alive how in India people are very serious about Indian Classical Music. I am sure, its just because of the market-fall-down, things will be great in coming days. Wish you good luck Laurie and God Bless.
From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on October 15, 2008 at 7:11 PM
Laurie, it's so sad... I wish you good luck and hope all is going to be fixed up soon. We face an horrible economic period and I think that musicians as well as others like those who want to save the planet etc are always the first ones to suffer from this. But, when the people will want to distract themselves and there will be no orchestra any more, they will realize what huge artistic organization they had made dissapeared and maybe they will do something to help you and put the orchestra back together with the same amount of concerts!

All the best,
Anne-Marie

From Tom Holzman
Posted on October 15, 2008 at 8:38 PM
Very sad. Good luck!
From David Allen
Posted on October 15, 2008 at 8:30 PM
Laurie, I think you are exactly right on this. Humans are creatures of routine and once the momentum of routine is broken it takes a lot more to get it going again. This applies to theater patrons as well.

It also sounds like the staff has become more important than its talent, or rather thinks it is. This is classsic bureaucracy at work. I thinks there must be at least some staff positions that could be cut!

I recommend a small delegation of musicians try to actually attend the board meeting to explain your position on this. Or is that entirely out of the question? I would say, "See what the union can do", but this is much more than just a labor vs management issue.
I don't know what else to say but life brings changes and maybe some of them will be good.
Keep us posted and good luck!

From Paul G.
Posted on October 15, 2008 at 9:21 PM
I know exactly where your coming from.

The entire PVA department at my school was planning tours in California... Well, last week, the entire art department backed out, as well as all 3 bands. That leaves orchestra and choir.

So this whole thing starts up at the professional level and goes down to us HS students...

I hope things really do get better for you and this entire thing doesn't escelate more out of control.

From Bram Heemskerk
Posted on October 15, 2008 at 10:21 PM
27 staff personel??? What do they do all day. Googling, reading violinist.com?? And nobody of the staff plays in the orchestra? In an amateurorchestra everybody has a job and all the organisation is done by the orchestraplayers.
In a factory this would be impossible. 27 people doing nothing all day and eating out of their noses. Perhaps those 27 can study and instrument and begin an amateurorchestra and find a usefull job, so your professional orchestra can play more concerts? Perhaps more members of your professional orchestra could do parts of the organisation, because 27 people not playing an instrument in the orchestra is absurd. Throw them out.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on October 15, 2008 at 10:42 PM
What is the staff being paid to do while the orchestra is not playing? What are the purpose of their jobs, other than running symphony performances? These are questions that need answers.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on October 15, 2008 at 10:45 PM
PS It is not your obligation to speak highly of anything if in fact you don't think highly of it.
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on October 16, 2008 at 1:11 AM
A few orchestras that announced that they were going to drastically reduce their number of performances this season have got a stay of execution from wealthy benefactors, and your symphony may be able to do that. Of course, this is only temporary. I sympathize with you, Laurie, and hope that a turnaround comes soon.
From Tess Z
Posted on October 16, 2008 at 4:54 AM
It's disconcerting to me to see this happening in a large metropolitan area where you have the audience to support ticket sales. And I have to ask, 27 paid staff members? That seems excessive and inefficient use of funds.
From janet griffiths
Posted on October 16, 2008 at 5:39 AM
Maybe the orchestra members should form a co-operative get rid of the 27 staff members and take a share in the profits?
From Bonny Buckley
Posted on October 16, 2008 at 5:37 AM
I imagine I'd be feeling about what you are too. What a shock. I think extreme diplomacy is needed to convince your board - perhaps some heavies are needed to help you with a short but pertinent presentation - that cutting concerts is not in the group's best interest unless it's looking for a serious crack in its foundation. I would think people intelligent and cultured enough to work for a symphony would not be the kind of nervous 'investors' pulling out of a market so fast. Where there is enough will there is a way to keep the season on track, I say, and absolutely not by stiffing professional players. Is it time, as others are alluding to, that this orchestra re-organize with better budget managing, or is that even a possibility? What about making 1 or more of the concerts chamber orchestra, reducing the number of regular players, not that you should have to?
From Bonny Buckley
Posted on October 16, 2008 at 5:54 AM
How 'bout those 27 staff work for the same wages and hours that the musicians do? It ought to trim some fat. ; )
From Ray Randall
Posted on October 16, 2008 at 6:21 PM
Those 27 people still working tick me off. I think the media needs to look into that one very closely. Contact the local papers and TV stations to get that ball rolling.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on October 16, 2008 at 6:20 PM
Thanks for your thoughts and ideas, everyone. Really, the staff does a lot of good stuff; the symphony also runs a big educational outreach program and a youth orchestra. A quality staff is incredibly important to a quality organization. Is it larger than it needs to be in this case? It is a legitimate question; when we stop being able to give concerts, such questions must be raised. Maybe they will hammer out a solution!
From Jairo Muniz
Posted on October 18, 2008 at 11:59 PM
Greetings from [BRNXJZZ]to LAURIE, once again.. same old yada, yada, i and many others have been battling over the years. i'm into my 6th decade, and at least 5 of them i (we) have been "ethisists/warriors" of this scenario. my youngest brother, a NEW WORLD Symphony Fellow, Laureate of the SPHINX.org and currently a struggling violinist/violist in NYC, "refuses to aknowledge their invites anymore.. i know/saw the books on outlay for admin., "special events" etc., and for the seasoned and not so seasoned past members.. almost NO compensation, whatsoever... i will stop there, and yes i called them out; too much "attitude/bling".. some more "fat cats" etc., poisoning the Arts.
Just had to tell it like it is.. i have been a "troubleshooter/troublemaker"; depending on the issue, for NPOs/NGOs many years.. NEVER GIVE UP..![jairo muniz]

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