Symphonic crisis in Columbus

February 7, 2008
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Our big-ish city neighbor to the east, Columbus, Ohio, is facing problems with its orchestra.

Wrestling with $1.5 million deficit this season, management has proposed downsizing from 52 to 31 full-time players. A truncated season (cutting out 12 of the usual 46 weeks of performances—and pay) is also on the table.

The musicians have responded in the expected irate fashion, stating that is a governance problem, not a financial one. (See their statement here.)

By comparison, our own Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra balanced its $26.7 million budget for the fourth straight year in 2006-2007 without any cuts in programming or musical power. (See the ISO annual report here.)

So what is Columbus doing wrong? Or what are we doing right?

Or is there a point where a city just can’t support this sort of arts organization?

Your thoughts?
  • It is obvious why the orchestra in Columbus is having problems. It is apathy.
    Unless they are on the field at Ohio Stadium doing the script Ohio,
    then the good people of Columbus are just not interested.
  • Columbus continues to try to be like their older, more cultured siblings Cleveland and Cincinnati, but just keeps on falling short...
  • Hey Cincy,
    Thanks for the note.
    Just for our edification, give us three or four great cultural reasons to visit Cincinnati.
    I get to Chicago as often as I can for the arts and want to get back into the habit of going to the Humana Festival in Louisville every year, but I haven't taken advantage of Cincy. Give me reasons.
  • Music Hall in Cincinnati is definitely worth a visit for the cincy symphony and pops, built in 1878 and is highly regarded around the world.
    May Festival is a 2 week performance choral and symphony celebration.
    Every year they hold the World Piano Competition, with subsequent performances.
    The Aronoff Center is the main theatre downtown and has traveling Broadway-type shows found in most cities.
    No trip to Cincinnati is complete without taking notice of the German heritage. Each year Oktoberfest is the largest gathering of its kind outside of the original in Germany. Music, food, spirits, and of course the chicken dance are all part of it.

    Hope that helps...
  • Cities like Indy and Columbus cannot be top notch in everything. They have to pick and choose. Indy has made the ISO its flagship performing arts organization by a mile. Also, Indianapolis, as the largest city in Indiana, is the logical place for the state's flagship cultural organizations. Columbus is a nearly identical city and the state capital to boot, but there are two other larger and more established cultural centers in the state, both of which have orchestras of international renown that would have to rank above the ISO in anyone's estimation, particularly the Cleveland Orchestra.

    Incidentally, you can see the various budgets of orchestras from a couple of years ago here:

    The ISO's $26 million budget ranks it #15 in the country. The ISO is a solid regional orchestra, but is clearly short of the top tier. Interestingly, I've believed that it does not actually get the bang for its buck that other orchestras with broadly similar budgets do. One can certainly debate the merits of these things, but the ISO has not been known for recordings, nor does it regularly tour the world, nor is is its music director someone of comparative renown. It's focus is on a quality product purely for local consumption.

    By contrast, the Cincinnati Symphony, only a bit larger, is much better known. Music director Paavo Jarvi is a frequent guest conductor at the world's top orchestra, and as the Cincinnati Pops they've put out a number of very popular recordings. The Minnesota Symphony is also known for recordings, with their Eroica Symphony getting on the year's best list at the London Financial Times among other things. Even the Louisville Orchestra, a part time orchestra with a much smaller budget, still maintains a strong reputation because of recordings they made in the past of commissioned original compositions.

    Raymond Leppard took the ISO to a new level, but it has not moved from there. This might be desirable for a city like Indianapolis. The expenditure necessary to tour Europe might be dubious. Nevertheless, the Minnesota examples shows that it is possible to boost your international reputation without investing much more than the ISO does today.

    Incidentally, I am not a classical music critic by any means, but find ISO concerts extremely enjoyable and their overall quality very good.
  • Urbanophile,
    Thank you sharing your perspective.
    I think how one approaches a hometown symphony is influenced in part by where one came from.
    I came here from Philadelphia, which might make you think that my expecations would be much higher (The Philadelphia Orchestra being what it is). But, in fact, I appreciate the accessibility of the ISO much more. In a more intimate hall, I feel a greater connection to the music and I can appreciate the players more (Of course, it's tough to beat seeing Isaac Stern guest with the Philadelphians in Fairmount Park).
    On your point about Cleveland and Cincy: Sometimes I have to remind myself how rare it is for a state capital to also be the state's cultural hub (and be centrall located in the state). How many other capitals match us in those criteria?
  • Lou, I think there's a legitimate choice to be made that is not a slam dunk either way. Do you focus on a quality product for a local audience, or do you try to get into the international reputation game with a potentially dubious payback for local audiences?

    If you want to think about the number of state capitals that are also the state's largest city and cultural capital, go to wikipedia and look up Primate City. Scroll to the bottom and look for primate cities in subnational areas, then the United State entry. It lists at least the wikipedia author's view of primate cities in the US. A good chunk of these (e.g., Seattle) are not the state capital, however.

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