US orchestra shuts down after 75 years

The board of the Middletown Symphony Orchestra, in Butler County, Ohio has announced that next season will be its last.

The music director for the past 35 years has been Carmon DeLeone and the orchestra has 60 professional musicians on its books.

Steve Ifcic, board chairman, said: ‘Although a decision of this nature never comes easily, the fact is that there are many choices and much competition for an individual’s time and financial resources today, and we certainly took that into consideration.’

The remaining endowment will be spent on supporting a youth orchestra.


Sarah Maley plays the violin with the Middletown Symphony Orchestra during the Labor Day Pops Concert Monday, September 1, 2008 at Woodside Arboretum in Middletown, Ohio.  Staff photo by Nick Graham

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  • So many parallels for classical music with what confronts governments in the face of the fast approaching climate catastrophe. Looming disaster but an established hierarchical structure utterly incapable of the radical re-think that will be required to save this great artform.

    • Except there are more orchestras playing more concerts to more people than ever in history. 10 minutes on google found (THIS LIST IS JUST IN OHIO!!)
      Akron Symphony Orchestra
      Alliance Symphony Orchestra
      Ashland Symphony Orchestra
      Canton Symphony Orchestra
      Central Ohio Symphony
      Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra
      Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
      Cincinnati Pops Orchestra
      Cleveland Orchestra
      Columbus Symphony Orchestra
      Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra
      Hamilton-Fairfield Symphony Orchestra
      Lakeside Symphony Orchestra
      Lima Symphony Orchestra
      Mansfield Symphony Orchestra
      Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra
      New Albany Symphony Orchestra
      Newark-Granville Symphony Orchestra
      Ohio Valley Symphony
      Perrysburg Symphony Orchestra
      Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra of Columbus
      Southeastern Ohio Symphony Orchestra
      Springfield Symphony Orchestra
      Stow Symphony Orchestra
      Toledo Symphony Orchestra
      Tuscarawas Philharmonic
      Warren Philharmonic Orchestra
      Westerville Symphony
      Youngstown Symphony Orchestra
      If every little town has an orchestra, is it really the death of orchestras when a few of them fail now and then? People have been proclaiming this ‘death of classical music’ for centuries…

      • The symphony orchestra as a civic and cultural institution has been around for, perhaps, one century and a half?

          • Sorry, I think I started all this, and the point I was trying to make has been missed. The New Yorker article, whilst itself being perfectly well reasoned, and the comments I’ve been reading here all ignore the elephant in the room, which is a shame because that is what I was referring to. That being the public antipathy towards new music. Or the disconnect between audience expectations and the type of new work being presented. Unless things change, and the custodians of the art form have shown themselves to be so far unwilling to even consider such a change, then even if you can in future still pop down to the local concert for your occasional fix of Beethoven, classical music will no longer be a living part of our culture.

          • Actually, there’s a change in the winds of “art” music composition and how “classical” instrument musicians present themselves. The establishment is doing its best to try to ignore it, but the sales and musicians’ income for those who are starting up the fans (pun intended) don’t lie.

      • Precisely. It would be fascinating to know (but I suspect nobody can say because the data are not available) how many total professional symphony (or opera, or chamber music) concerts were performed before what sort of agregate audience in, say, 1920, 1940, 1960, etc. I am by no means certain, but it would not surprise me in the least if there are more now than ever. Which could mean what we are witnessing is a natural – even healthy – consolidation of “supply” to better fit with “demand”? Just a thought….

      • I agree with you, and I am from Columbus, OH. Columbus Symphony had a very successful season, and the next one promises to be very interesting too.
        Cleveland Orchestra is doing wonderfully with conductor Franz Welser-Moest. Of course it is not easy and maybe not realistic for an orchestra to succeed and to attract public in every small town. But interest in classical music is alive in many groups of people.

  • This winnowing of orchestras is just getting started – and I’m not surprised or upset. Classical music fans for some reason think that their art form is special and immune from change. But orchestras have become ossified, dull, predictable, and irrelevant to the vast majority of people. What other art form relies for the most part on repertoire that is 100 – 250 years old? The local movie theater shows new movies, and occasionally an old classic – Turner is promoting this. On Broadway, it’s not an endless parade of Rogers and Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, or George Gershwin. Even country western concerts don’t retread the classic songs of Marty Robbins – they do new stuff. But not the classical music crowd. Nope, if an orchestra does modern, hard to listen to music we stay away in droves. Most audience can’t even take Ives – and that’s old! Vaughan Williams or Sibelius? Forget it. Searle, Sessions or Schuman? Not going to happen. We can debate the quality of new music vs. the old classics to no end, but then that debate can be about any art form. What’s different is that people who support theater and movies and pop music accept and seek out the new.

    Also, Ohio has many classical outlets. Two of them, Cleveland and Cincinnati, are world-class. I do really feel bad though for the orchestra members of these foundering groups. You spend all that time mastering your expensive instrument and then suddenly there’s not too many outlets to play. But of course when we’re all toast from climate change, it won’t matter anyway. If you believe that malarkey.

    • Seriously? Do you also think the Louvre is “ossified and dull?”

      Glorious music is glorious music. Who gives a whooey how long ago it was written?

      • I don’t think I mentioned art museums, but no, the Louvre isn’t dull, or ossified — because they have a significant amount of modern, contemporary art there. I remember the outrage when the pyramid project began, but the promoters were smart enough to realize that an art museum cannot be a repository of only the old, but must encourage and promote the new. Too many orchestras don’t do it. And I get it – audiences by and large don’t like it. I blame the orchestras and conductors and managers of the last 100 years. They stopped programming it so audiences never developed the ability to listen to different. This is not the case in the art world: London’s Tate is nice, interesting, staid. But the Tate Modern is a lively, engrossing, exciting place. Maybe most of the moderns can’t compete with the masters on the other side of the Thames, but some can and will survive. Same in music. There’s a lot of music being written that will never become standard repertoire and will be forgotten soon. But there are some works that will survive, for better or worse.

  • Thanks, fascinating also to hear from a local perspective. It actually sounds like you have a lot of culture there! My comments were more general. I live in Germany, with it’s massive local and regional public support, and there is good and bad in equally large amounts stemming from that. The decision makers however, just seem to be the same wherever you go, rusted on to 20th century ideas and highly conventional thought that goes forever unchallenged. It’s just that here it’s a lot easier for them to get away with it.

    Oh and malarkey is a fine word, but not the best way to describe an environmental crisis recognised by overwhelming scientific consensus.

    • I don’t want to get into a climate change debate, but I do want to clarify. Yes, climate is changing…just like it has for last 4,000,000,000 years. In historical times there are many instances of rapid change – and long before the advent of automobiles, coal burning, or air conditioning. Does human activity contribute? Likely, but I am not interested in consensus; I’m interested in facts, and that is where the alarmists fail. None of the dire predictions in Al Gore’s movie have panned out. Still, it’s been awfully hot in India, hasn’t it? But back to music…

      • “But never let a good tragedy go to waste in promoting your collectivist agenda” Now who said that again? Was is Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Hitler, Goebbels, Castro, Chavez? I can’t remember.

  • I’m not really surprised that the Middletown SO is going belly up. Anyone who knows anything about Maestro DeLeone can venture a guess whether he drove the orchestra into the ground, or whether the Middletown SO is the victim of the current funding crisis in the arts.

    First, one factor needs to be mentioned which isn’t DeLeone’s fault. No small or mid-sized orchestra should bankroll the same music director for 35 years, especially if s/he conducts all the concerts the orchestra performs. Massive boredom is sure to ensue after 10-15 years, which will make audiences flee for more exciting concerts elsewhere. If the music director isn’t bright enough to realize this and exit gracefully, then the orchestra’s board should have enough collective intelligence not to renew the music director’s contract.

    I have heard about Maestro DeLeone from various sources, musicians and others. Apparently, Middletown SO often suffered from Maestro DeLeone’s handing in next season’s programs so late that they couldn’t start a subscription drive for the coming season before the current season was over. Not building on the excitement of concerts and getting the audience to sign up for next season is a major faux pas in orchestra marketing. But then, it seems that DeLeone came from the school of conductors whose ego-driven thinking convinced them that the audiences came to hear the conductor and not the musicians, soloists or a particular repertoire choice. And if the maestro is a genius, well; who needs marketing? The audiences will come to hear their most favorite conductor in the world regardless.

    Other sources express the opinion that Maestro DeLeone liked to recycle programs he had been conducting for years. Why that may have been the case is anyone’s guess. One theory goes that this approach greatly reduces a conductor’s work load, considering that s/he doesn’t have to study new repertoire. Another theory is related to the thinking of great musical genius: Who cares If the conductor performs the same works every 3-4 years? The conductor only programs extraordinary works of genius, and – naturally – since they are conducted by a genius musician, the audiences are literally begging for replays of golden oldies.

    Some board members and managers voiced opinions of worry about the Maestro’s programming choices when the orchestras he conducted were going through financially difficult times. If Beethoven’s 9th was suggested for a coming season, Mr. DeLeone’s reply was reportedly “let’s just do the last movement – that’s what the audiences come for anyway and the other movements aren’t worth much musically. Besides, I don’t like conducting a whole hour straight.” Orff’s Carmina Burana, among other tested and true audience draws, purportedly belonged in the same category of quality classical music as Beethoven’s 9th. Thus the orchestra likely ended scrambling like mad to sell programs with Maestro DeLeone’s favorites, which more often than not weren’t the general audiences’ favorites. The impact on earned revenue can only be speculated about.

    I have heard the opinion that Mr. DeLeone was apparently not very interested in helping out with fundraising activities, which, apart from a few gala events now and then, he supposedly considered a conductor’s involvement in approaching donors a waste of time. It was ostensibly up to an orchestra’s board and staff to get the funding for a conductor’s brilliant appearances, which were apparently more than enough of a contribution to his orchestras’ fundraising efforts along with the ticket revenues from his popularity as a conductor (unfortunately, it seems the orchestra’s audiences were in a steady decline along with income from ticket sales).

    I’m sure others have more stories to recount than mine, which are anecdotes, and therefore quite possibly inaccurate. I don’t know enough about the circumstances in Middletown to make concrete statements; only to express my opinion based on classical musicians’ grapevine that may – or may not – reflect reality.

    A final conclusion to my opinions: I doubt many will be sorry to see Maestro DeLeone depart from Middletown. Hopefully he is retiring permanently as a conductor, which would, in my opinion, be a great gift to the musical arts in the U.S.

  • An audience that puts up with listening to DeLeone repeating the same 35 pieces (more or less, but not a LOT more) he has in his conducting repertoire for 35 years should collectively be given the Presidential Medal of Freedom for “cultural or other significant public or private endeavors”.

    Compare that to an orchestra getting tired of Kuchar after 15 years, a conductor who has a pretty broad and adventurous repertoire and is actually interesting to watch while conducting.

    This seems to confirm that you can get used to pain if it consistent and lasts long enough. Once DeLeone disappears, the time will have come to use Chinese water torture for a classical audience’s listening pleasure in Middletown. They’re likely to enjoy that more than their defunct orchestra’s concerts – IF they can tell the difference.

  • FYI, this is an amateur orchestra with revenue of only $150K a year. It is in no way a professional orchestra.

    • Oh, I didn’t know that, but an amateur orchestra is the only type of orchestra DeLeone should ever have conducted or conducts (maybe except for electricity).

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