Symphoria Hits a High Note for Community


To ensure the future of their orchestra, musicians of the startup operation Symphoria agree to be paid last.

“The musicians are vested in the organization, so they’re committed both financially and philosophically,” said Catherine Underhill, Symphoria’s managing director.

In 2011, the 50-year-old Syracuse Symphony Orchestra filed for bankruptcy, incapable of supporting its $7 million budget. In 2012, former Syracuse Symphony Orchestra members and other professional performers from the region created Symphoria to bring orchestral music back to Central New York.

Symphoria is a cooperative owned by its musicians. “They’re involved in governance, and programming, and administration and oversight,” Underhill said.

To help the orchestra survive, the Onondaga County Legislature has awarded $280,000 to Symphoria for 2014. Symphoria has an operating budget of $1.4 million, Underhill said. The government dollars come from the county’s hotel room occupancy tax, which is paid by visitors to the area.

The newborn orchestra must show that its finances are in good shape to receive county money, said Stephen Butler, executive director at CNY Arts, the regional arts council that manages the funding system.  “They have to communicate where they are in the process—that they’re taking healthy steps and growing steps,” Butler said.

The orchestra was also awarded $300,000 in its first year of existence.

County legislators decided that the symphony’s old allocation—roughly $420,000—was excessive for the newborn orchestra. But they recognized the need for funds that a startup requires, Butler said. Of that $420,000, the county carved out $120,000 and created an Economic Development funding program for arts and cultural organizations through the regional arts council.

Symphoria’s county funding is still high, according to the League of American Orchestras, based in New York City. “They’re being very supportive,” said Rachelle Schlosser, director of media relations at the orchestra league.

A report by the league shows that government funding across the country accounted for only 3 percent of orchestras’ budgets in 2011. And the total average tax-supported money awarded to orchestras nationwide was $80,000 for 2012, Schlosser said. But other orchestras across the county have also received amounts around $300,000, she said.

Nonprofit arts and cultural organizations are an important economic engine for Onondaga County, say arts groups. A 2012 study by Le Moyne College and Americans for the Arts found that the nonprofit arts and cultural industry in the Greater Syracuse Area generates more than $20 million in local and state government revenue and supports about 5,000 full-time equivalent jobs.

“I think it’s an important economic development opportunity,” said Catherine Underhill, Symphoria’s managing director, about her organization. “On a more fundamental level, the shared experience of live orchestral music brings people together,” Underhill said. “It creates community.”
(Pablo Mayo Cerqueiro is a graduate student in magazine, newspaper and online journalism.)



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