Field Report: The Buffalo Philharmonic
Those who have been around orchestras for any number of years are familiar with the financial troubles that have beset the Buffalo Philharmonic for the past fifteen or twenty years. Due to a decline in the corporate community of Buffalo itself, and other economic factors, the Buffalo Philharmonic has struggled mightily over a long period of time. Because in our field bad news seems to travel with more speed and greater impact than good news, many may not be aware that the Buffalo Philharmonic has really turned itself around...
I spent a day with that orchestra in mid-March, and was thrilled with what I both saw and heard. This is particularly so because in the early 1990s, I was part of a team (Dick Cisek, then President of the Minnesota Orchestra, and Fred Zenone, then President of ICSOM) that went up and tried to provide some assistance and guidance to the orchestra. Since that time, many of us have watched as the orchestra struggled with deficits, made some painful (but necessary) decisions, and slowly came to grips with the economic realities of its community.
Those tough decisions included cutting fourteen positions from the permanent orchestra - a tough but necessary choice in their situation - controlling administrative expenses tightly, and working hard on the revenue side. The result? While the Buffalo Philharmonic still carries about $2 million of accumulated debt on a $10 million budget, they have operated in the black for the past two fiscal years and expect to again this year. They are in a major fund-raising campaign designed to both eliminate the debt and build their endowment, and they are increasing ticket-sale revenue as well, in part because they give terrific concerts, and in part because they are not afraid to try new approaches.
The concert I saw was a perfect example - a 10:30AM "Coffee Concert." This was a full-length subscription program (Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3 and Mahler's Symphony No. 5). Long before 10:30, hundreds of audience members had arrived for complimentary donuts and coffee - and there were musicians of the orchestra mingling with them (along with Music Director JoAnn Falletta). They sat in a smaller auditorium in Kleinhans Hall, with round tables set up, and enjoyed the conversation and refreshments. Kleinhans seats 2800, an unfortunately large capacity for an orchestra in a city of this size - but the hall was decently filled for this concert. Included in that were some 200 high school students - who sat attentively through the 70-minute Mahler 5th, and whistled and shouted approval at the end. (One young man kept shouting "encore." I loved it!).
The orchestra sounds superb - and the concert demonstrated once again the high artistic level of orchestras throughout America. And for those of us who have lived vicariously through the troubles of the Buffalo Philharmonic, I cannot begin to describe the joy and satisfaction it provided to see how thoroughly they have turned things around. I guarantee you that if there were another Buffalo Philharmonic crisis, it would be national news. If only we could get turnarounds of a positive nature to receive similar coverage.
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