Maybe we're doing OK after all

A view from across the Atlantic:

In my article on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra last week, I said that in recent years more than a dozen US orchestras had ‘gone to the wall’. I am glad to say this was wrong. 13 orchestras did in fact file for bankruptcy protection between 1986 and 2008, but 11 later emerged as going concerns. Only two actually went under. I’d forgotten that in the United States bankruptcy can be more like Limbo than Hell; there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

How those 11 pulled themselves back from the brink is a marvellous example of the American ‘can-do’ mentality. The Virginia Symphony mounted a public campaign, calling for donors on local radio, and playing free concerts all over the city of Norfolk. In April the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra launched a campaign to raise 2 million dollars, after the players raised $1 million themselves through pay and pension freezes.

The most dramatic pull-back from the abyss came from the Charleston Symphony, where the board announced in November of last year that they had to raise 250,000 dollars by the end of December. They pulled it off, partly by phoning every donor that had ever given to the orchestra. Now the Philadelphia orchestra has come clean with its need for 15 million dollar loan to tide it over its current crisis, which this year led to a 3.4 million loss. They haven’t formulated an eye-catching recovery plan yet, but they’re sure to before long.

…It’s in Europe, where orchestras can get up to 60% of their running costs funded by the state, that you encounter the complacency that comes from decades of feather-bedding. They’d better wise up. The recession may be easing in the private sector, but in terms of public spending there are surely tough times to come.

While it’s true that the grass always looks greener from 3,000 miles or so away, I find it encouraging that the American model looks pretty good from the European perspective. I’ve always thought that its strengths are under-appreciated by those who work in it.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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