First Minnesota, then Milwaukee, and now … Memphis:
Following in the tumultuous footsteps of its Nashville counterpart, the Memphis Symphony Orchestra announced that it is facing a financial crisis that will require “aggressive steps” to complete the current season.
“The Memphis Symphony Orchestra celebrates decades of accomplishments thanks to a committed group of patrons, musicians and donors who love this legacy organization. We believe, without a doubt, that there is a role for classical music in Memphis. Nonetheless, our financial situation must be addressed,” says Memphis Symphony Orchestra Board Chair Gayle S. Rose, herself once a clarinetist in the orchestra. “Memphis deserves access to live, high-quality classical music, which the orchestra has proudly delivered for more than five decades. We are committed to finishing this season and to exploring a sustainable model.”
Because of financial issues the symphony says that its current season will be the final one in its current configuration.
“We look at other communities who have faced the same or similar challenges we are now facing – financial uncertainty, lower ticket sales, changing trends in how people consume music,” says Memphis Symphony Orchestra President and CEO Roland Valliere. “But orchestras in some of these communities have regrouped, rebuilt and re-launched classical music in ways that are both sustainable and meet the unique needs of their communities. We believe that Memphis can do this, as well.”
It’s not clear what “its current season will be the final one in its current configuration” will mean in practice. It does not appear, as some have suggested, that the orchestra is going to shut down. No doubt the key is the phrase “sustainable model.” It’s not a phrase loved by musicians, as they often hear it during the run-up to concessionary bargaining. And yet no single constituency has a greater interest in orchestral institutions being sustainable than do the musicians, who have invested large chunks of their lives to learning skills that can be used in very few workplaces other than orchestras.
The problem, of course, is when boards conclude that reducing the cost of employing an orchestra is the road to the promised land of sustainability. It’s hard to know why they think that, as no orchestral institution has prospered solely by reducing the cost of employing its orchestra. There are orchestras doing pretty today now that have reduced musician costs in the past as part of an overall rethinking of how their institution should function, but it’s not clear that paying musicians less is even a necessary condition of such restructuring in every case, much less a sufficient one.
A quote by the orchestra’s board chairperson, Gayle Rose, from the orchestra’s press release provides a few more hints:
“To the community our message must be clear,” said Rose. “The structure of the Symphony as we know it today must be changed because the model is no longer viable. We are not alone in this as many other symphonies have or are facing this new reality, and we have brought in a CEO who is experienced in this area. And, that we are committed to classical music in Memphis, but it needs to be operating within a model that is financially and artistically structured for our new environment.”
Let’s hope that the board is serious about truly rethinking things other than just musician costs. Roland Valliere is a very bright guy and someone with a history of innovative thinking, which is a good sign. And the Memphis Sympho0ny has put into effect some real innovations in the past, as my colleague Ann Drinan has reported for Polyphonic. Other orchestras have managed significant change without provoking an internal repeat of World War I (although obviously others haven’t). It would be good for everyone if the Memphis Symphony were to develop a sustainable model that still paid musicians a living wage, and to do it without public strife.