Musicians try to keep Syracuse Symphony alive

The Syracuse Symphony Orchestra / file photo

The unemployed musicians of the bankrupt Syracuse Symphony Orchestra have rallied on stages from Fayetteville to Rome this summer to keep the music alive.

While they played "Pomp and Circumstance" at free concerts, a group of power players has worked behind the scenes to bring a full-time orchestra back to life.

It has been such a secret that musicians who are packing up to leave Syracuse say they don't know about it.

Syracuse University is leading the quiet effort to bring a symphony back to Syracuse, according to Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney.

SU officials are not ready to talk about the details. But almost immediately after the SSO filed bankruptcy, Syracuse University Chancellor Nancy Cantor committed staff and resources to revive symphonic music in Syracuse, Mahoney said.

Cantor directed Ann Clarke, dean of the college of Visual and Performing Arts, and Jeffry Comanici, assistant dean for advancement for the VPA school, to puzzle through a solution.

Comanici was executive director of the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra in 2006, the last year it made a profit.

"I'm very optimistic because of the people that are involved," Mahoney said.

The county-owned Mulroy Civic Center was the symphony's home, county government has historically donated taxpayer money to the cause and Mahoney has made it a priority to bring orchestral music back to the region. She said there is plenty of community support for an orchestra.

She said the group is carefully studying the last few years of the SSO's finances to learn how much money the community can raise. Any new financial plan would have to rely on a different fundraising model than simply asking big businesses for money. And, she said, it is safe to say that a new symphony would have to operate with a smaller budget.

Syracuse University, home to the Setnor School of Music, could be creative in its approach, she said.

The Syracuse Symphony Foundation, the separate fundraising arm of the old symphony with an endowment of about $7.5 million, could help support a new orchestra. The foundation can't touch the principal, but it generated enough earnings to provide about $350,000 a year to the previous orchestra.

Onondaga County government has also given about $400,000 in previous years, and Mahoney said she would be willing to ask the legislature for that level of support again if the group presents a solid financial plan.

"We don't have all of the resources available to us that we had in the past, but I believe the resources are here to have a world-class symphony and that's what everyone is aiming for," she said.

The Syracuse Symphony Orchestra was in the middle of its 50th anniversary season when it announced that it did not have enough money to make payroll. The organization had been living week-to-week, relying on a handful of wealthy donors and repeatedly asking the musicians to take pay cuts.

The symphony had 61 core musicians, 14 contract musicians and 18 full- and part-time staffers.

In April, the symphony laid off the musicians and suspended its season, leaving thousands of people with worthless concert tickets.

Within weeks, the board voted to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The organization had $327,000 in assets and about $4 million in liabilities.

The unemployed musicians have done their best to demonstrate a big presence on stage this summer. But that can't go on forever, said Jon Garland, a horn player and leader in the musicians' union.

Several of the orchestra's newest members are leaving Syracuse for bigger cities, where there are more opportunities to give lessons and to substitute for players in other orchestras.

The musicians who performed free concerts this summer called their new organization Symphony Syracuse. They are paid union wages, but the hourly pay is less than they were making as full-time musicians and the work comes one concert at a time.

They tried to keep the summer concerts they have traditionally played in Rome, Watertown and Fayetteville and at the state fairgrounds on the Fourth of July. Garland said the concerts had record attendance. The group played its last concert July 30 in Rome.

"We've had a lot of discussions about how long we can exist. We think it's probably months, not years, and probably not 12 months," he said. "Symphony Syracuse is not an option for a successor orchestra."

Garland said he has been involved in talks with people who are interested in resurrecting the orchestra, but he would not elaborate.