The Charleston Symphony Orchestra is in peril — yet again 

Why the music really stopped

With the deepest global recession in 80 years still afflicting us, sub-rosa mutterings about the Charleston Symphony Orchestra’s ongoing fiscal problems have continued to surface as of late. But most of the players and staff were still taken by surprise when the news recently hit that the CSO’s executive board had voted to suspend the orchestra’s operations immediately, in effect killing the remainder of the current season.

The players’ current contract stipulates salary payments through May 2 (the musicians aren’t paid during the off-season summer months), but — according to the CSO’s Interim Executive Director-cum-harpist Kathleen Wilson — they’ll now get their final seasonal paychecks on April 9, leaving them short one-and-a-half pay periods for the season. “Barring a miraculous infusion of cash, the board’s action seems irrevocable,” Wilson says. “I sensed the finality of their decision.” Alarming though this development may be, all concerned have hastened to reassure a worried public that the final curtain has not yet fallen. The board — working with the CSO’s musicians and staff — will now seek to devise a recovery/restructuring plan that will enable the organization to survive into next season, which happens to mark its 75th anniversary.   

It’s hard to believe that, as recently as three seasons ago, everyone from outgoing Music Director and Conductor David Stahl on down seemed quite bullish about the orchestra’s future. Balance sheets were in the black for the first time in a turbulent decade — during which the players’ salaries and benefits were slashed three times in the name of the CSO’s bare survival. But now, with the specter of hard times looming over all, the board’s latest budget proposals would mean that the CSO’s average annual salaries (now around $18,000) could drop to as low as $16,000. While most classical musicians never expect to get rich in their profession, such a reduction would mean that players who are already invested in the community will find it impossible to survive. Indeed, some of the CSO’s best musicians have recently moved on and have not been replaced. The symphony’s core numbers have already dropped from 45 to 36.

When asked about what forms the “restructuring” could take, Wilson advised that measures could include further cuts in personnel, salaries, season length (by instituting more of the “furlough weeks” agreed upon last season), and overall number of concerts. Another possibility (that nobody really wants) is to reorganize the CSO into a “pay-per-service” orchestra that would, in effect, convert it to a non-salaried collection of freelance musicians. That step stands to reduce the organization’s flexibility and degrade the orchestra’s multifaceted mission, like eliminating its current local educational outreach activities. “But nobody knows whether this would save money or cost us even more,” Wilson says. “We wouldn’t be able to count on the same musicians being available for each concert, and hiring extras is expensive.”            

The ugly fact remains that the CSO — like many performing arts organizations that depend upon public support — operates according to a fragile business model that is simply not sustainable in times of widespread economic turmoil. During what board President Ted Legasey has called the current recession’s “perfect storm,” both major and mid-level donation levels have decreased by around 60 percent, reflecting the slump in potential donors’ personal earnings and investments. The board maintains that the decline in support is also the result of potential donors’ hesitation to keep supporting an organization that adheres to such an unrealistic plan. And since the money has run out, they see no alternative to canceling the season’s remaining concerts. As the board sees it, the only other option would be to file for bankruptcy, throwing the CSO’s future into the courts, a measure that would almost certainly result in the orchestra’s demise. 

But the players — while fully aware of the causes of the current crisis — are in unanimous agreement that there are viable alternatives to what the board has proposed. These were made clear in an exhaustive conversation with Ryan Leveille, the CSO’s principal percussionist and the players’ designated press spokesman. Leveille initially advised that they are not at all happy with the board’s apparent tactics in laying all of this sad news before the public. The March 28 post-concert announcement — reflecting the board’s decision from its meeting the previous Thursday — came in the form of a press release that hit like a bolt out of the blue.

The players’ only notification was via an e-mail from Legasey to player representatives that was sent at about the same time; most of them weren’t aware of it until late that evening, or even the next morning, by which time the news had already broken in The Post and Courier. There was a good reason the P&C’s calls to musicians had not been returned: they were taken completely by surprise and were not in a position to respond immediately. As Leveille puts it, “We see this tactic as a means of getting the board’s viewpoint into the news first, thereby putting the players on the defensive.” After all, the decision had been made several days earlier; there was plenty of time to inform the musicians. “We simply feel backed into a corner,” Leveille adds. 

Neither do the players agree that all financial resources have been exhausted. They believe that possible additional revenue — from several different sources — could well be tapped. Wilson advises that around $100,000 has already been generated from advance ticket sales for next season, with a good deal more expected in the weeks to come (last season’s advance ticket sales came to around $300,000). Incidentally, ticket sales have remained strong, recession or not. While there’s certainly some risk involved in spending next season’s money, it’s been done before. “Besides,” Leveille says, “killing the rest of the current season is likely to make many of our regular subscribers think twice before investing in next season.”

Other possible revenue sources include the individual or corporate sponsors who underwrite each individual concert. But that’s money that the CSO will never see now that the season has been axed. Then there are the considerable fundraising activities of the CSO League, the orchestra’s single biggest contributor. Their ongoing projects (designer showhouse tour, luxury car drawing) remain in full swing, with tidy sums expected. Tapping an available line of credit would also help, as would the CSO’s independent staging of benefit concerts (as was done last season).  Prominent new corporate donors could be wooed and won, outfits like Charleston’s new cruise line terminal and Boeing.          

Finally, Leveille questions the wisdom of scaling things back so drastically at a crucial point in the CSO’s history. “Our 75th anniversary season should be an occasion for celebration, not agonizing over survival,” Leveille says. Also, David Stahl will gradually relinquish his position as music director over the next two seasons, and part of the plan for next season was to begin inviting guest conductors for auditions to replace him. As Leveille puts it, “What capable and self-respecting conductor would consider becoming part of an orchestra whose future looks so bleak?”

With all of the above said, the fact remains that the CSO is a troubled organization whose future is uncertain. Board, management, and players all want the same thing: a healthy and productive orchestra, and all concerned are laboring mightily to realize that goal. The parties remain divided about how to affect a cure. Even if the recession’s “perfect storm” were to go away tomorrow, the CSO would still need to undergo permanent change to ensure a bright future. But there’s one thing that everybody involved agrees on: Charleston wants, needs, and deserves a quality orchestra; our community would be greatly diminished without one. As Wilson says, “Please don’t forget us. Keep buying tickets and making whatever contributions you can. Spread the word. We want to come back ... We want to keep playing ... We want to remain the community’s artistic heart and soul.”

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