In April the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra moved with shocking swiftness from mounting a save-our-symphony-style fundraising campaign to the suspension of operations—and ultimately to a Chapter 7 bankruptcy—all in the midst of the orchestra’s ostensibly celebratory 50th anniversary season. The bankruptcy filing was the culmination of months of panic-motivated decisions on the part of the SSO’s board of directors and was the final act of years of bad management practices.
Serious issues surrounding the organization’s stability began to surface in 2009. At that time the SSO’s musicians proposed a two-year wage freeze as part of our renewal contract in order to help the SSO through a difficult economic period. The new three-year agreement was to return the orchestra to a 40-week season. The musicians believe that these concessions would secure the SSO management some breathing room to get their finances in order, saddled as they were with some $5 million in accumulated debt and a critically underfunded pension.
Last summer management approached the musicians requesting further cuts, stating that things had deteriorated to the point that the orchestra would not be able to make it through its 50th anniversary season. In response to management’s pleas that if the musicians would show good faith, then donors would open up their wallets, the musicians agreed in tense negotiations to a shortened summer season and $140,000 in givebacks. A few short weeks later, management demanded further cuts totaling six weeks of salary, or $580,000, to ensure that the orchestra would complete its season.
In the meantime the SSO launched a very visible campaign called “Keep the Music Playing,” over a variety of media outlets involving requests for extraordinary funding from the public. Shortly thereafter, management again proposed further concessions totaling $1.3 million, which would effectively take SSO musicians down to the poverty level. The musicians refused these concessions, prompting the board to suspend operations on March 28. The remainder of the season was canceled. On April 5, the SSO board declared its intention to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy—effectively ending a half-century of music in Upstate New York.
Immediately following an extremely traumatic and difficult period, and faced with huge uncertainty for the future, the SSO was fortunate to have the support of ICSOM and, especially, Bruce Ridge, who visited Syracuse April 10–12. Bruce made himself available for meetings with public officials and orchestra members over the three-day period, putting himself completely at the orchestra committee’s disposal for the duration of his visit. First on his agenda was the attendance at performances for Syracuse Opera and a chamber orchestra concert at a local church, for which the SSO musicians had been hired as contract players. In between, Bruce met over dinner with the Local 78 governing board.
Day two began with meeting several members of the Syracuse Symphony Association, the volunteer wing of the orchestra. A lengthy strategizing meeting with the orchestra committee followed, held at the Local 78 offices. The day concluded with a pot-luck supper given by SSO musicians, at which Bruce expressed his hope and firm belief that we could, and would, be able to work together to help ourselves emerge from a horrific situation. The final day of Bruce’s visit was the busiest, involving numerous meetings—with Rocco Mangano (SSO board chair), CEO Paul Brooks, Syracuse University School of Music officials, and Mayor Stephanie Miner—and interviews with local media representatives. Bruce also wrote a lengthy editorial for Syracuse’s Post-Standard newspaper detailing why the city of Syracuse and its surrounding communities deserved to have a professional orchestra.
Throughout the weekend Bruce worked tirelessly as an advocate for professional music and professional musicians in Syracuse. His visit left SSO musicians with a renewed sense of purpose and self-worth.
[Editor’s Note: On April 17 Bruce Ridge, on behalf of the ICSOM Governing Board, issued a Call to Action in support of Syracuse Symphony Orchestra musicians. Donations may be sent to Syracuse Symphony Musicians Relief Fund; c/o 3009 Burnet Ave.; Syracuse, NY 13206.]