In the spring of 2011, during its 50th Anniversary season, the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra (SSO) Board of Directors voted to cease operations and dissolve the orchestra through bankruptcy.
The closure happened just a few weeks before cellist Yo-Yo Ma was to perform, which would have been a highlight of the anniversary year. No ticket refunds were forthcoming from the defunct SSO and many patrons who had donated had not been adequately thanked for their efforts to save the symphony, so the musicians decided to produce a concert for all of the patrons who had supported the orchestra. This performance, along with two benefit performances organized with help from Hamilton College, set into motion a series of performances that led to the formation of Symphoria, and ensured that symphonic music continued uninterrupted in Syracuse and central New York.
Initially, the orchestra formed an unincorporated foundation in order to secure insurance, accept tax-deductible donations, and temporarily present performances. Musicians from the orchestra took on roles in personnel management, fundraising, operations, library, marketing, and stage management. Summer concert presenters were contacted and assured that while the SSO was gone, the musicians were here to stay. Because all of the physical assets of the SSO were tied up in the bankruptcy, arrangements were made for chairs, stands, music, etc., for each performance. With the help of some very generous people and institutions, too numerous to mention here, eight full orchestra concerts and several ensemble performances were produced that summer.
Once the summer performances had been completed, a decision was made to continue to present a series of performances in order to ensure visibility within the community. During the 2011-12 concert season, the orchestra performed four Masterworks and two Pops concerts. Our Masterworks featured violinist Elmar Oliveira and cellist Julie Albers, and conductors Stuart Robertson and Fabio Mechetti, to name just a few. We will always be thankful for their tremendous gift to the orchestra to help make that first year a great success. In total, the orchestra produced over 40 performances, including several Chamber concerts, opera, the Nutcracker and numerous run-out concerts to our supporters across New York from Inlet to Jamestown and many communities in between.
While the orchestra continued to perform, dozens of meetings were taking place behind the scenes to form a permanent organization. A business plan was drafted, revised, and revised again in order to secure support from major funders. In the fall of 2012, a smooth transition took place between the musicians’ foundation, and a new organization that had secured support from major funders in the region. The name of the new orchestra was announced at a sold-out holiday performance in December 2012 and an abbreviated subscription series was announced for the remainder of the 2012-13 concert season.
Since operations as Symphoria began, all of the former SSO musicians who remained in the area have been offered employment as core members of the orchestra. The orchestra is organized as a musician cooperative, with a board of directors made up of a number of community members as well as a smaller number of musicians. Members of the orchestra have the final authority over who may serve on the board.
The bank that held a lien on the assets of the former SSO donated them to Syracuse University and the local arts council (CNY Arts), and they have since been secured with a long-term loan. Shortly after beginning operations as Symphoria, the orchestra hired Sean O’Loughlin as principal pops conductor, and more recently Lawrence Loh was hired as music director. Symphoria has also engaged additional professional staff, including Catherine Underhill as Managing Director. Audience and orchestra support has been overwhelming, and attendance is projected to grow 16% during the 2014-15 season. Orchestra wages are still very modest, but Symphoria does offer fully paid health insurance to orchestra members.
With the very public demise of the SSO, many people ask what is different about Symphoria. It has diversified its concert offerings, including an innovative Spark series that focuses on venue collaborations. The pairings offer a more intimate opportunity to hear symphonic music with thematic programs that complement the venue, along with refreshments. Performances such as “Music of Machines” at the Museum of Science and Technology and pairings with contemporary art at the local art museum have been extremely successful in raising the visibility of the orchestra. Symphoria has also started offering a Sunday afternoon Casual Concert series that includes a reception for all audience members to meet the orchestra musicians, and a Kids Concert series that—with the help of a corporate benefactor—incorporates state-of-the-art multi-media. In addition, Symphoria began a Healing Harmonies program, which partners with local healthcare institutions and provides small-ensemble and solo musicians to perform live music with therapeutic benefits to patients.
Symphonic music is very different in Syracuse today, and though the orchestra has experienced some major turnover with many former colleagues finding jobs in orchestras all over the country, a strong core of musicians remains from the former SSO, along with a number of newly hired members. All of us have worked very hard to ensure that professional symphonic music continues in central New York. We are also very thankful for all of our colleagues in ICSOM and orchestras across the country that sent money to help our cause with well-wishes and moral support. All of us truly appreciate each of you and your kindness.
We will soon announce Symphoria’s third season, and though we still have a long distance to travel before achieving our goals, we look forward to performing great symphonic music and being at the forefront of the central New York landscape. If you have not done so, please have a look at our website, ExperienceSymphoria.org and see what we have planned for the future.