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Orchestras on the brink?

Financial woes in some cities force a rethink of the relevance of these cultural flagships

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These are the times that try musicians' souls - and divide the well-managed orchestras, in touch with their mission and their communities, from the others.

"Sept. 11 has changed everything."

It's as true in the world of classical music as anywhere else. Several symphony orchestras in North America face dire financial difficulty - not caused by the terrorist attacks, but brought into sharp relief by the recession that they made all but inevitable.

"In a time of crisis, people tend to gravitate to family, faith, and serious music," says Mark Volpe, managing director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. "We were sold out in October."

But, he adds, "the go-go years of the 1990s masked some structural problems in certain orchestras."

Budget woes are forcing a reexamination of these cultural flagships and their relevance: What is the place of a 19th-century institution playing largely classical European masterworks in multicultural 21st-century North America?

And what does it mean to a city to lose its symphony? Toronto has come perilously close to finding out. So has St. Louis.

Even the venerable - and well endowed - Chicago Symphony is looking at an operating deficit this year for the first time in 15 years. And the San Jose Symphony has closed its doors for the season.

At Halloween, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra was looking immediate bankruptcy in the eye. But former Ontario provincial premier Bob Rae convened negotiations to restructure the orchestra into long-term viability. Talks continued well past their original deadline. At press time, sources were reporting that a deal had been reached, with federal and provincial government funding, ensuring at least the completion of the current season. Next goal: hiring a new executive director.

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