And now for something completely different…

The bad news arrived on such a regular basis this summer that it was a shock to see two bits of very good news arrive last week with a day or so.

The first item was news of a startlingly successful fundraising campaign by the board of the New Jersey Symphony. The NJSO is an orchestra that’s faced several recent sharp reductions in its compensation, so it was definitely good to read that:

… at a sold-out gala tonight, President and CEO AndrĂ© Gremillet announced the orchestra had raised $25 million toward a $32 million fundraising campaign that quietly began 20 months ago.

Top donations include $3 million from Prudential, $2.5 million from Ruth and Mike Lipper (Ruth Lipper is co-chair of the NJSO board) and $2.5 million from Josh and Judy Weston, long-time supporters of the orchestra. The campaign, dubbed “An Incomparable Sound, A Cultural Treasure,” was launched on the back of the Lippers’ and Westons’ contributions and attracted five additional seven-figure gifts and 14 six-figure gifts…

This is the first time the orchestra has received such large gifts together; the top donations are among the highest ever received. The funds will be split among operating costs: $25 million will go to salaries, guest artist fees, education programs, commissions and other concert-related expenses, while the other $7 will be applied to building the organization’s endowment.

$25 million to operations on a budget the size of the NJSO’s is a big deal, although of course the time frame matters too. But even over a multi-year span that would be a significant amount of money, especially if much of it is new money and not simply annual gifts being given upfront in a lump sum.

The news from Columbus was almost as startling:

Cost-cutting, corporate support and taxpayer dollars all helped the cash-strapped Columbus Symphony end its 2009-10 season with a surplus of about $200,000, officials will announce today.

As recently as March, symphony leaders were projecting a possible deficit as high as $1.5million for the year ended Aug. 31.

“This is a remarkable turnaround in a short amount of time,” said Martin Inglis, chairman of the board of trustees.

Stepping up with large donations were Battelle Memorial Institute ($900,000), Nationwide ($350,000), American Electric Power ($300,000), Limited Brands ($150,000), Huntington National Bank ($100,000) and other businesses.

Most of that corporate money had already been pledged, but some was offered on an emergency basis.

Franklin County and the city of Columbus each kicked in $250,000 for the symphony, with the county agreeing to give that amount for two more years.

“We are proud to play a part in the stabilization of the Columbus Symphony,” said Commissioner John O’Grady.

Musicians also contributed to the turnaround, giving up paid vacation last year worth $120,000 and accepting a 23percent pay cut in the current year, saving the orchestra $1 million.

Columbus, of course, has had a very, very rough ride the past few years. While this news does not necessarily mark the end of their troubles, it is an encouraging sign that new board and staff leadership is making a real difference there.

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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