How do you keep the music playing? This fall, a lot of American orchestras are finding it tough.
Rochester’s orchestra is on the ropes, struggling under a hefty operating deficit. The Chicago Symphony was temporarily silenced by a strike. There have even been lockouts – at the Minnesota Orchestra, which has canceled all concerts through November; the Indianapolis Symphony, which scrubbed the first part of its season; and the Atlanta Symphony, weighed down with debts of $20 million.
And yet, in the midst of this dissonance, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra plays on.
The group released its annual report last month, and the outlook is as bright as a Mozart minuet. The 2011 fiscal year ended with a balanced budget. The BPO has a cumulative debt of $2.5 million, but that is modest by industry standards. JoAnn Falletta, the BPO’s popular music director, is one year into a five-year contract. The musicians have a contract that will see them through to the year 2016.
Ticket sales, which account for a third of the budget, are at an all-time high. Subscriptions are too. The endowment fund, reported at $25 million last year, has risen to $26 million.
But BPO officials caution that they can’t become complacent.
“It’s never going to be easy,” said Executive Director Dan Hart. “We’re climbing out of the hole. There’s no rest.”
The numbers, though, point to a stable trend.
Over a year ago, when the Syracuse Symphony collapsed, The Buffalo News ran a story exploring the BPO’s relative health. This year continues the group’s solvency.
And this year even adds glamour. The BPO is going to New York in the spring to perform in Carnegie Hall’s “Spring of Music” festival. The orchestra is tackling Symphony No. 3 by Reinhold Gliere, a massive work that calls for more musicians than the orchestra has and is seldom performed because of its challenges.
Such an ambitious project is a far cry from Rochester, where repertoire is being cut back to minimize rehearsal time and the number of musicians required. The BPO’s good fortune, seen in such a light, seems incredible.

Cooperation is key

Why does one orchestra fare better than another?
The factors at play are complex, suggests British author and blogger Norman Lebrecht. Lebrecht, the author of such books as “Who Killed Classical Music” and “The Maestro Myth: Great Conductors In Pursuit of Power,” has been tracking the fates of American orchestras on his blog, Slipped Disc.
“There is no simple or single denominator for the causes of strife in other orchestras – the worst we have seen in a generation,” he said in an email to The News. “Often, it is due to an accumulation of faults and grievances. Mediocre management is often to blame. By the time bad execs are fired, the deficit has piled up and the ones who are made to pay for it are not the causes of the problem. Often, musicians are demoralized by bad leadership – executive and artistic – and retreat into hard-hat positions where their resentment can only be assuaged by unaffordable wages.
“But the single underlying cause ... is the in-built confrontational attitudes in the orchestral sector, attitudes which belong to the 1930s (like much of the programming) rather than the 21st century. Those attitudes must change.”
Examples are close at hand. The Rochester Symphony’s Norwegian music director, Arild Remmereit, will not communicate with the manager except through a mediator.
“These stand-offs exist only in the United States,” Lebrecht says. “Other societies have learned to work them out.”
The BPO has seen its share of stressful times, when management and musicians were at odds.
In 1971, music director Lukas Foss resigned over the idea of a merger with Rochester and Syracuse, proposed because all three orchestras were struggling. “I will not preside over a funeral,” Foss said.
That merger was avoided, but by 1990, weary from years of hardship, a group of BPO musicians angered the board by placing a tongue-in-cheek ad in USA Today that elicited a prominent feature in the New York Times.
“Major Symphony Orchestra, illustrious history, will consider relocation,” the ad read.

Board involvement

Twenty years and myriad personnel changes later, things are different.
Though squabbles and musical disagreements will always occur, cooperation reigns. The situation was illustrated this summer when Cindy Abbott Letro, then board president, participated in Shakespearean Idol, a charity event at the Buffalo Historical Society. Letro, reciting a sonnet, was accompanied by two players in hipster garb. On bass, sporting a beret, was BPO executive director Hart. Violist Janz Castelo, who represents the musicians in labor matters, completed the trio.
Letro notes the significance of musicians, management and board members working together.
“It was their idea,” Letro said. “Both of them asked how they could help.”
The BPO benefits from Falletta’s extroverted nature. The beleaguered Atlanta Symphony’s music director, Robert Spano, has been accused of being silent and absent. Similar criticisms were leveled years ago against BPO Music Director Maximiano Valdes.
In contrast, Falletta, though she lives in Buffalo only part time, is very visible, speaking with the media and helping with fundraising. She has what appears to be a genuine love for Buffalo.
The harmony at the BPO is the result of a conscious effort.
“This particular board has a love affair with the orchestra. We are the stewards of the orchestra,” Letro said. “It’s a great mutually respectful arrangement.”

Innovative programming

With everyone on the same page, the BPO has been able to launch initiatives geared toward courting new listeners. This past summer, the orchestra held three concerts at Kleinhans Music Hall, playing up the air conditioning and the reflecting pool.
Another successful series is the Friday morning Coffee Concerts, which draw disparate groups of kids and senior citizens. “It’s our fastest-growing season,” Letro said.
This fall brings a new series called “Know the Score,” informal shorter concerts that include a talk. Falletta debuts this series on Thursday, presiding over a concert featuring Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.”
A high-profile innovation, “BPO Rocks!,” is the brainchild of Louis Ciminelli, who succeeded Letro in August as board chairman. The series began with the Indigo Girls and continues Friday, when the BPO welcomes Three Dog Night.
Ciminelli appreciates the cooperation he has found. “I’ve been on several cultural boards. This is the finest cultural board I’ve ever sat on,” he said.
The orchestra points out that good news for the BPO means good news for Buffalo.
The BPO funds 100 full-time jobs and 300 part-time jobs, for a combined payroll of $7.7 million. Musicians typically come to Buffalo from out of town and adopt the city, spending their money and raising their children here. The musicians’ average age is 35.
“To see someone who has just come out of Juilliard or Curtis sitting next to someone who has been in the BPO for 40 years, and learning from that person, it’s very exciting,” Falletta said.
Board and management are both quick to point out that the BPO is never out of the woods.
“We still want to eliminate the debt still on the balance sheet,” Hart said. “The main thing is to grow the audience.”
Ciminelli agreed. “We’re learning from experience to continue to morph into something sustainable,” he said. “You can’t just be some iconic monolith.”