A US orchestra faces being wound down

A US orchestra faces being wound down


norman lebrecht

February 03, 2014

The board of the Memphis Symphony has decided to close out at the end of the current season unless they raise a lot of money, very soon.

They can’t find the $20-25 million it would cost to continue. Music director is Mei-Ann Chen.

The orch gives 23 subscription concerts and 146 education and community events each year.

No longer. Report here.





    Our orchestras are disappearing and all the arts are in great economic distress. However, we are still able to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on political campaigns.. Quo vadis, United States of America ?

  • DrewX says:

    It should be noted that this orchestra has been in exceptionally dire straits for a long time, running large deficits year after year and raiding their endowment down to zero. I would hesitate to point to Memphis as an example of the American Orchestra “in crisis” but instead think of it as a lesson in what really bad management can do.

  • Stereo says:

    Very sad considering all the money in US. Would probably be the equivalent to 1 day in Afghanistan!

  • Lewis Brinin says:

    This is real tragedy and I am so sorry for all the fine musicians in memphis who are going to lose their jobs!

  • Holy cow is this for real ????? I can’t believe this !!

  • Scott Moore says:

    Your paragraph about our situation here in Memphis is an oversimplification of the issues, and unnecessarily alarmist. There has, as of yet, been no discussion whatsoever about “winding down” operations at the end of the current season. The endowment is indeed gone, and there have been staff layoffs and programming changes for upcoming concerts. A dedicated group of community leaders has been working to raise money for several months now, and their work has kept things going to this point. It was announced yesterday evening that a member of our volunteer chorus has stepped forward with a $100,000 gift to ensure that we are funded through the end of the current season, scheduled to run through the end of May.

    As for the future, who knows? It is certainly a scary time for all of us in the orchestra, and we know that next season will probably look much different. It’s incredibly unfortunate, since the musicians of the MSO pride ourselves in being very forward-thinking and innovative in the ways in which we see our roles in the community. Even though some of these new projects attracted grants and donor support, some problems were allowed to fester for far too long.

  • Todd Skitch says:

    This is misleading. Your words clearly state that the Memphis Symphony is closing shop come May, 2014. If you read the full article via the link above (Report HERE) clearly you get the sense that every effort will be made for the orchestra to continue in some capacity even if a severe restructuring is necessary at the end of this current season. Can we clarify?

  • Chris James says:

    Not so! As the chair of the MSO’s orchestra committee, I can promise you that we are not going under so easily. Since the article you linked was posted, there has been a huge outpouring of community support. A very generous gift from a supporter has gone a long way toward closing this year’s gap, and the orchestra, management and Memphis community are working tirelessly already to raise the money to make next season happen while we investigate ways we can fix the budgetary problems on a long-term basis. Please don’t write us off so quickly!

  • Roland Valliere says:

    This is Roland Valliere, the Memphis Symphony’s President and CEO. Some years ago, when I created the Concert Companion, Lebrecht wrote a scathing indictment of the project. The funny thing was that he never actually used the device and didn’t know what he was talking about. What was true then is true now. The Memphis Symphony has not announced “lights out.”

    • Curb the bile and respond to the facts reported in your local press: ‘Memphis Symphony Orchestra board members have approved a resolution to “wind-down” the organization’s operations at the end of the season.’

      • Dan Phillips says:

        Keep reading: ” Board chairwoman Gayle Rose said during a meeting Thursday that officials aren’t sure what winding down will mean.

        “We don’t know that yet,” Rose said. “We’re not just going to throw up our hands and say this is over.”

      • Anonymous says:

        I’m not sure you read the article, Norman. The board has not yet shuttered the organization. The article states they need $20-25 million dollars “without major changes”, implying that number could be lower if the organization restructures. It makes no mention of progress toward that goal. No matter, you report the number is a hard $20-25 million and they can’t get it.

        The board states they have not identified what “winding down operations” entails, and it is not for us to speculate whether that means liquidation, a reduced season, layoffs, or anything else.

        My dear friends in the MSO are certainly in a tough situation, and no one has their heads in the sand regarding their dire financial realities. But given what they’ve been through, including the recent passing of one of their colleagues, we owe it to them to not be so careless and cavalier with our assumptions.

      • Orchestra Fan says:

        I think Norm has a point, what exactly dos that phrase mean. It’s completely disingenuous to use it that way then turn around and say it has no meaning. Something’s going on here and why does Mr. Valliere feel the need to make Norm’s post all about him instead of the orchestra? I’m pretty sure Concert Companion was a complete disaster, Columbus Symphony did horribly under his tenure and now he’s moved on to Memphis to shut down that group. He’s turned into a close-down artist, plain and simple.

        And I did use a Concert Companion when they were out; it was every bit as horrible as Norm describes. Mr. Valiere should own up to his failures and be man enough to admit it was a bad idea executed poorly. He wasted a great deal of money on the project and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if he was able to laugh his way to the bank throughout the entire ordeal.

  • MarieTherese says:

    Glad to hear that they may yet survive but the fact that the endowment is gone shows that something should have been looked at long before now.

  • Jim Lynn says:

    @Todd Skitch. How does one “re-structure” a symphony orchestra ?

    • Anon says:

      You can reduce wages. You can scale back the permanent orchestral forces and perform smaller symphonic works more regularly, calling in additional players for larger works as required. You can be less ambitious in your season programming, and consider inviting less expensive (but still top-drawer) soloists to perform with you. You might choose to re-assess overly generous sabbatical leave or other arrangements – plenty of things get agreed in the good times but need more thought in the bad.

      You might reduce plush travel arrangements, insist that soloists and conductors on short-haul flights travel economy or business, but not first. Put up your soloists, conductors, and extra players or trial lists in a good hotel, not the plushest one in the city.

      You might choose to restructure the back office and devote more resources to fund-raising. Or, if you have all the funds you think you are likely to get, but not a sufficient audience base, to marketing and promoting concerts. You might look at commercial opportunities for the orchestra – it might work out better to add a few more commercial, paid recordings to the schedule and drop a couple of less popular loss-making concerts this season?

      That sort of thing.

  • Gene Bedient says:

    Best wishes to all of the members of the MSO orchestra and association. I’m sure you will pull it out of the fire and continue to provide great music to the Memphis community and educational organizatons.

    Gene Bedient, writing from Paris

  • Scott Moore says:

    This article just came out today in the Memphis Flyer, our weekly “alternative” paper. It sums up the situation better than anything else I have seen.


  • Deeply unfortunate. Sadly predictable. Time for an entrepreneurial model with the musicians themselves at the core of orchestral governance, rather than at the sidelines, locked in an impossible tug-o-war with volunteer board members who, when all is said and done, have no financial or professional equity at risk.