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July 23, 2007

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.

Posted by hfogel at July 23, 2007 2:17 PM

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It's interesting that both the BP and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, just an hour's drive down I90, have passed through hard times and both are now doing better, despite declining economies in both cities (Buffalo's much more tragic than Rochester's). It wasn't that long ago we were talking about some kind of merger of the three central/western NY orchestras, or radical down-sizings, and nervous questions about whether these communities still wanted orchestras. Here in Rochester, the RPO has also stabilized its finances and is rebuilding its artistic status. Henry, you've visited Syracuse recently. How're they doing? Anyway, this is heartening to we who search for ways to build new futures in the Rust Belt. Orchestras can be harbingers for the overall health of their communities.

Actually, I am scheduled to visit the Syracuse Symphony in December. My last trip to Syracuse was for a different purpose - but from what I hear, things are going well there as well. All three of those Central and Western New York orchestras (Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo) have been through ups and downs -- managing to demonstrate flexibility to deal with changing economic conditions, and changing state funding policies for the arts.

Henry Fogel

Posted by: Carl at July 24, 2007 1:45 PM

Interesting to think of hearing Mahler 5 at 10:30 a.m. That's not exactly what most people consider breakfast music! Still, a concert at that time of day and in that type of (less formal) venue does make a lot of sense, giving both older audience members (who often prefer daytime concerts) and students a convenient time to hear a concert. Also, presenting a 'real' concert for high school students rather than more traditional youth-oriented fare is a very good idea.

Posted by: Jason Heath at July 24, 2007 1:59 PM

I'm surprised that Ms. Falletta has yet to be invited to guest conduct the NYPhil, when those with lesser credentials have.

Posted by: Richard Ebbets at July 25, 2007 2:08 AM

Dear Henry,

I am very glad to read your positive report on the BPO. My music listening in Buffalo began in that hall in the 1940s and 50s, and my mother was very involved in the work that the Women's Committee did to support and market the orchestra.

Two wonderful BPO singular advantages: Its superb Saarinen-designed music hall (yes, perhaps now the main hall is too large...) and its ability to have attracted some of this country's leading conductors.

Yes, for too many decades Buffalo's economy has not been kind to the BPO, which makes your report all the more welcome.

Posted by: Eugenie Cowan at July 30, 2007 4:46 PM

I've loved attending concerts of the BPO, RPO, and SSO during my time living in all three cities. These orchestras are great assets to Upstate NY and all inhabit beautiful halls. The RPO's hall is a fine example of 19th century public architecture, the BPO's Saarinen of mid-20th, and Syracuse's of 70s public architecture that hasn't yet made up its mind about Le Corbusier's planned cities.

Posted by: Jon S at December 21, 2007 12:07 PM