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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The State of Our American Symphonies

How is Milwaukee faring?

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What should be the criteria for ranking a great symphony orchestra? Recordings? Budget? Technical accomplishment? Famous music director? There are more than two-dozen top-tier symphony orchestras in America with budgets of over $15 million and musician contracts that call for a minimum of 35 workweeks a year. It is generally acknowledged that the orchestras with the best contracts and highest levels of performance—“The Big Five,” as they are called—are the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland and Philadelphia Orchestras, and the Chicago and Boston Symphony Orchestras. But how are they faring? And, of the other 20, how does the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra compare?

Created in 1959, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (MSO) has a budget of $16.5 million and employs 88 musicians for 39 weeks a year. The players earn an annual base salary of $55,000.

“This is the youngest of the first-tier orchestras, so naturally we have one of the smallest endowments,” says Chris Abele, chairman of the MSO board of directors. “Last year we took a financial hit like everyone else, but we’re holding our own.”

The MSO receives its largest contribution from the United Performing Arts Fund—to the tune of $2.4 million, down from a high of $3.5 million.

The MSO has broadcast on national radio for nearly 30 years, and is a pioneer in offering Internet downloads of live performances. MSO concerts are also carried statewide on commercial and public television. Famous past conductors include Lukas Foss and Doc Severinsen; Marvin Hamlisch currently leads the Pops. Edo de Waart, a conductor of international stature, has just completed his inaugural season with the MSO. Known for building good orchestras into great ones, de Waart has led the Rotterdam and Hong Kong Philharmonics.

Where Others Stand

n The Kansas City Symphony was born following the financial demise of the Kansas City Philharmonic in 1982. The 80 full-time musicians work a 42-week season, including work with the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and the Kansas City Ballet. The Symphony offers a base salary of $44,000, and the orchestra’s endowment stands at $40 million. The orchestra has released recordings in each of the last two years, taped two nationally broadcast PBS television specials and performed on National Public Radio.

  • The Indianapolis Symphony, founded in 1930, offers a 52-week season, with its 87 musicians earning a base salary of $72,000 a year. The orchestra’s budget is nearly $29 million. Past conductors include Raymond Leppard and Pops conductor Erich Kunzel. It closed last season with a $2.8 million shortfall, but the owners of two of the city’s professional sports teams are joining to help the symphony raise $100 million in an effort to build its endowment. In the 1970s the orchestra sometimes performed in Milwaukee as the MSO played in Indianapolis, a sort of “sister city” orchestra arrangement.

  • Based in Minneapolis, the Minnesota Orchestra played its first concert in 1903. The symphony has an annual budget of nearly $30 million, employing 98 musicians who make a healthy base salary of $111,000. The organization recently imposed a 7% budget cut, with musicians agreeing to a pay freeze, to cover a larger than expected deficit. The orchestra tours with regularity, both domestically and abroad. Minnesota Public Radio regularly broadcasts live performances, and public television broadcasts are routine. Several famous conductors have led the orchestra, including Eugene Ormandy, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Sir Neville Marriner and Edo de Waart. The Twin Cities also supports the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble with an international reputation.

Other Midwestern orchestras include the Chicago Symphony, one of the country’s highest-paying ensembles, starting at $127,000, the St. Louis Symphony and its $77,000 salaries, and the Columbus Symphony, which currently offers 36 weeks of work for $41,000 (though next season’s cutbacks will force a 25% reduction in work and salary).

Some orchestras have recently experienced serious financial difficulties, like the Philadelphia Orchestra, which nearly declared bankruptcy earlier this year. Others, like the Charleston and Honolulu Symphonies, have gone out of business. The New York Philharmonic is facing a record $4.6 million shortfall this season, and players in Seattle have made major salary concessions. Federal funding is down as well, with a $6 million reduction planned for the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities in 2011.

Back in Milwaukee, it is not all gloom and doom. In fact, there is some serious optimism. The orchestra is performing at a consistently high level, and both players and conductor seem to be enjoying their new partnership.

“We are ahead of our projected budget this year, and our ticket sales are steadily increasing,” Abele says. “We are going to Carnegie Hall next season, and we have a higher quality of musicians auditioning for the MSO since Edo has been appointed music director. The players are pumped and excited, and the audiences are thrilled.”

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