Breaking: 2 US orchestras cancel their season

Breaking: 2 US orchestras cancel their season


norman lebrecht

February 27, 2020

Two orchestra in Illinois are on the brink.

The Lake Forest Symphony, founded by Chicago Symphony concertmaster, Victor Aitay, has terminated its season due to ‘rising costs and a fundraising shortfall’. The music director is Vladimir Kulenovic, the 2015 Solti award winner nd former Alan Gilbert aide.

The Park Ridge Civic Orchestra, music director Victor Muenzer, the Park Ridge Civic Orchestra is cancelling ‘because it has not received funding from one of its significant donors.’

The ripples could be extensive.



  • Boringfileclerk says:

    Get Woke, Go Broke!

  • drummerman says:

    I doubt that the ripples will be “extensive.”

    • Vaquero357 says:

      Yes, I’m inclined to agree. Though I was a long-time attendee at the Lake Forest Symphony concerts and thought it a very fine ensemble, it would be a stretch to say it is/was somehow indispensable. There are plenty of other orchestras of all types and sizes between Milwaukee and Chicago, bookended by the two world-class ensembles in those two cities!

  • Mike says:

    Have the ripples started yet?

  • Sara says:

    That was us empire. Wars propaganda and hustlers. Art? What’s that ? Only profit to be had

  • Mike Schachter says:

    There seem to be a very large number of orchestras in the US, even given the size of the country, Does anyone know whether the demand exists?

    • Vaquero357 says:

      Yes, the demand exists. From what I’ve observed, orchestras shut down not for lack of audience but rather from poor management. They are nonprofit institutions, but they are still businesses. And like any business, they can be run into the ground.

      Part of the business is, of course, keeping your audience engaged and interested – and buying tickets!

  • The View from America says:

    The Illinois fiscal outlook is weaker than in most other states, and has been for some years. What with huge looming pension obligations and major budget shortfalls — and the resulting (recurring) state and local government tax hikes — benefactors and donors may be feeling in a less generous mood there than elsewhere.

    These are smaller arts organizations that can’t realistically expect to attract donations from further afield, so they’re essentially stuck with the local situation.

    • DirtLawyer says:

      Very true, but Lake Forest and Ridge are among the most affluent communities in Illinois (and the US, for that matter). If they can’t make it, what will happen in far less wealthy cities?

      • Ainslie says:

        Lake Forest and Park Ridge are both affluent communities (Lake Forest, much more so) that are suburbs of Chicago. Both are also chockful of Chicago Symphony subscribers and donors. The competition is stiff, and neither orchestra plays in what could remotely be considered an adequate concert hall.

    • V.Lind says:

      Illinois is crawling with fortune 500 companies and has a massive GDP. Gee — I wonder if being a favourite destination for corporate relocation tells you anything about who’s being taxed properly there. And with that great GDP, what a pity not much of it filters down to the poor.

      If Americans could get over the Revolution and pay taxes fairly they too could afford regional orchestras.

    • Vaquero357 says:

      The bigger problem in Illinois is its high taxes. A wealthy – or at least comfortably off middle-class – person can move somewhere else, pay less in taxes, and live in a place with better-maintained infrastructure.

      So these two orchestras may be feeling a pinch there, due to a dwindling donor base.

  • Old Man in the Midwest says:

    Lake Forest (zip code 60045) is one of the wealthiest areas in the entire US. Lots of corporate heads, C-Suite execs, and well-heeled residents.

    As some have mentioned, the big time money goes downtown to Lyric Opera and the CSO.

    For 62 years, the LFSO was an “Esterhazy” orchestra. A small toy for some of the minor league wannabes in the community that wanted to be a player on a local board and see their name on a letterhead. They were not A List board members. The financials balanced out at the end of the year because costs were low and the Gala was a party that many in the community enjoyed attending.

    In recent years, the orchestra implemented a CBA which caused costs to rise (along with increased pay scales). At a time when recurring deficits became a habit.

    Throw in an inexperienced manager and a young conductor whose career aims were beyond residing and working the community and you have a recipe for disaster.

    In the end, as some comments have mentioned, the ripples will not be wide.

    But for the orchestra members which number about 65 and include a talented pool of local freelance musicians, there will be pain both emotionally and financially.

  • anon says:

    When the world class CSO fails to sell out its concerts, it’s no wonder smaller orchestras can’t make a go. Both Park Ridge and Lake Forest are commuter suburbs with with easy access to Symphony Center.

    Neither Park Ridge or Lake Forest is properly called a “regional orchestra” – neither is a ROPA member. Elgin, on the far outskirts of Chicago ‘burbs, is ROPA.

    For those on the Southside of the city (both PR and LF are north-side), there is Northwest Indiana and Chicago Philharmonic.

    Northbrook Symphony continues for North ‘burb residents.

    Not to mention other area groups Chicago Sinfonieta, Chicago Philharmonic, summer’s Grant Park Orchestra, etc.

    Then, there are the local community volunteer groups – Evanston, Elmhurst, so on.

    Frankly, Chicago is over served by orchestras given the amount of interest in the local populace. I do feel for the freelancers out a paycheck and full time admins losing their jobs. Clearly, there’s been a failure to develop a broad support base for some of these organizations.

    And Norman – what ripples? I hate to say it – but I don’t honestly think anyone cares except for the above mentioned freelancers. (of which the greater Chicago area has many fine ones)

    • Old Man in the Midwest says:

      If you draw a Venn Diagram of all the freelance orchestras, the middle overlap is quite large.

      Many musicians play in many of the orchestras you mention. When one folds, it does effect their total income, sometimes in pretty meaningful ways.

      Is there a glut of orchestras in the Chicago area? Perhaps but a handful of large donors on the board can make any of these orchestras work.

      It really depends more on if there is a will and commitment to have the orchestra in the community.

    • Guest says:

      Don’t forget the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra (another ROPA Orchestra), which serves the south suburbs of Chicago.

  • Kolb Slaw says:

    I think someone should publish a guide to how to start an orchestra. It happens often enough, but apparently only when a conductor has money to spare. Philadelphia has no civic orchestra, though its suburbs have many.

  • Vaquero357 says:

    This is very disappointing to hear. From ca. 1987 through the early Aughts, I attended almost all of the Lake Forest Symphony’s concerts. It was an *excellent* regional ensemble that drew on the large pool of very talented freelance musicians who operate in the Chicago-to-Milwaukee corridor. It was not uncommon to see Chicago Symphony musicians in a first chair or even subbing. Soloists tended to be “B” list competition winners, but many of them were fine up-and-coming talents.

    After Victor Aitay left the orchestra (more on that shortly), the conductor was a fellow named Paul Anthony McRae, who really excelled in big 19th and 20th century works. (We didn’t hear much Mozart, Haydn, or Bach tho!) He left rather precipitously in the middle of the 1995-96 season – wanted to go back into real estate development, another career he’d actually pursued previously. Then there were a couple-few seasons with David Itkin, who I thought a superb musician but apparently did not get along entirely well with the board. (He later showed up as MD of the Las Vegas Symphony.) He was followed by Alan Heatherington, a well-known Chicago musician who led several ensembles around the city and is also an excellent violinist. Heatherington maintained musical standards very well.

    I heard many superb concerts over the years, and the standard of the playing was always very high. The LFSO even made a few recordings; the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 3 with Santiago Rodriguez is brilliant.

    One problem the LFSO has always had is finding a reliable performance venue. For much of the ’90s, they performed in an acoustically flattering auditorium at a small medical college a few miles up the road in North Chicago. That, I was told, was an expensive place to rent, so they moved to the theater at Barat College right in Lake Forest. The college, unfortunately, was not doing well financially, and was first sold to a DePaul University, then shut down and demolished. So the LFSO moved their performances to the auditorium at the College of Lake County, which is about 18 miles away – nowhere near Lake Forest!

    I actually have to agree with the commenters above who said/suggested the ensemble existed, at least in part, as a toy for the carriage set. There were definitely many music lovers like me in the audience….and plenty of other folks who were obviously there mostly for the reception afterwards. Lake Forest is a wealthy town, but it is definitely NOT an art/culture town. The LFSO always had to draw on support from other sources on the North Shore, except there’s a lot of competition for that sort of support.

    And the orchestra has had a troubled history. It was founded as a community orchestra in 1957. Eventually, Victory Aitay, longtime co-concertmaster of the CSO became conductor, and gaps in the amateur player roster were filled with paid musicians. The move to full professional came in 1987 and was, apparently, a controversial decision. Aitay was out, and never conducted the orchestra again.

    The many dispossessed amateur players formed a new orchestra called the “North Suburban Symphony,” which plays at a local community center called the Gorton Center. So for the last 30+ years, Lake Forest has actually had TWO orchestras. With its much lower overhead, the North Suburban Symphony has done well providing performance opportunities for local high school and college musicians, as well as adult musicians who love music but make a living at other jobs.

    Maybe it’s time for them to merge again.

    There are, indeed, an awful lot of orchestras, of all levels of quality, in the Chicago suburbs. For a concert-going fanatic like me, it was paradise living there. I traveled all over the area each weekend to hear the many fine ensembles. But I can see how the scene might have reached a saturation point, and some ensembles are going to decline and possibly shut down. I’m just sad to hear the Lake Forest Symphony might be one of them.