The future of a symphony orchestra in Syracuse is hanging by a tax-payer string.
Two groups are now seeking government funding to create a new symphony orchestra after an earlier orchestra went bankrupt and a philharmonic orchestra failed. Meanwhile, some musical supporters are keeping a temporary symphony going.
“In the days and weeks ahead we will continue to work to provide our region with symphonic music of uncompromising performance standards delivered with a passion for excellence,” said three of the leading supporters for a new symphony in a statement as they announced their effort in January. Those three are Ann Clarke, dean of Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts; Robert Daino, president and CEO of WCNY; and Andrew Russo, a pianist and unsuccessful Republican challenger to Democratic state Sen. David Valesky of Oneida in 2010.
The 50-year-old Syracuse Symphony Orchestra declared bankruptcy last spring. It was $5.5 million in debt. Two groups have emerged to try to bring back a permanent professional symphony orchestra to Syracuse: the philharmonic and a group called the Summit. A third group, made up of Syracuse Symphony Orchestra’s former musicians, organized to offer concerts until a permanent orchestra is created. The temporary group is called Symphony Syracuse.
So far, the efforts to restart a permanent symphony have been complicated and unsuccessful. The first effort was the Syracuse Philharmonic. It launched in the summer and was supported by Syracuse University. But it failed to get county funding and dissolved in internal disputes.
Three of the philharmonic’s six board members left in December. They were Russo, Daino and Clarke. They cited “philosophical and strategy differences” with the other members as their reason for leaving.
Of their efforts to get new county funding, Russo declined to comment .“I’d be happy to talk about the effort to launch a new orchestra when the right time comes, which will certainly be very shortly. But I’m afraid that it’s not the right time just yet,” he said in an email.
In October, the Onondaga County Legislature decided to cut the money meant for the now-defunct Syracuse Philharmonic from a larger bill to fund the Cultural Resources Council. Since 2009, funding for county arts groups has been administered by the Cultural Resources Council.
The philharmonic was to receive $404,465 — the second half of funding that had been earmarked for Syracuse Symphony Orchestra before it went bankrupt. The legislature decided not to fund the philharmonic was because competing organizations were trying to start up a symphony orchestra, said John Dougherty, R-Liverpool in the County Legislature’s District 2..
“What I think happened in the case of the Syracuse Philharmonic was we were still a little nervous it was going to crack,” Dougherty said. “We didn’t want to give them money after not having given it to the Syracuse Symphony and then have them go the same way.”
Since the philharmonic dissolved a couple weeks ago, no other organization has come to the legislature for funding, said Kathleen Rapp, R-Liverpool in the County Legislature’s District 5. But even if one did, she said, funding is still not a sure thing. The organization’s plan would have to be sustainable and engaging, she said.
“They have to figure out a way to put together a symphony that is within what they can afford to pay, which will be a smaller, leaner symphony,” Rapp said. A new symphony would also have to perform in a variety of community settings instead of just its traditional home of the John H. Mulroy Civic Center, she said.
The amount of funding an organization receives would also not be the same as the philharmonic had sought, Rapp said. The amount would be based on an organization’s specific needs, she said.
Rapp expresses optimism that a permanent symphony orchestra will eventually emerge despite recent struggles. “I’m hopeful that out of all of this we can wind up with a symphony that’s strong and more viable and more relevant,” she said. “And hopefully it will be a good story at the end.”
(Rebecca Kheel is a senior with dual majors in newspaper journalism and history.)