EDITORIAL: Rally to save the symphony

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The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra is in a mess that will be hard to recover from, but it’s not too late for the symphony’s depleted management, the musicians and the community to rally and save one of the city’s top cultural attractions before it’s permanently crippled.

As IBJ ’s Dan Human first reported last month, management and the musicians’ union are arguing over a new contract to replace the one that expired Labor Day. As of press time, the sides hadn’t reached an agreement. Management wants to drastically curtail the symphony’s schedule, the number of musicians, and the pay for those who remain.

The upshot would be one of only 17 full-time symphonies in the nation descending into part-time status and civic pride suffering a huge dent. Many musicians could be expected to leave, and the odds of the institution’s recovery would be slim.

Behind the battle is a puzzling, failed capital campaign. Two of the city’s billionaires, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay and Indiana Pacers owner Herb Simon, lent their names to the $100 million effort, but as of July—two years into the campaign—only $12 million had been raised.

It’s not clear who failed our symphony—the leaders of the campaign; former CEO Simon Crookall, who started the campaign and then abruptly left his job in February; or those who played a role behind the scenes. It was certainly unusual that little had been raised toward the goal when the campaign was announced in June 2010. High-profile campaigns typically raise more than half the goal privately before going public.

Those who were involved in the campaign certainly had something to sell: a quality product and a dynamic young conductor in Krzysztof Urbanski.

But it’s too late for finger-pointing. All that matters now is that someone, perhaps Mayor Greg Ballard, step forward to rally the troops and protect this city treasure. The symphony, founded in 1930, was once a regular on national radio programs. It toured the world in the 1950s and 1960s and played in some of Europe’s most famous concert halls in the late 1990s.

Its presence on the world stage has diminished, but not the quality of its music. The ISO still has a reputation for quality and entertains thousands every year with its classical and pops series, its concerts at Conner Prairie, and its Yuletide Celebration.

A city that always finds a way to support its professional sports teams through government support is tested now to rally enough private support to get the symphony on its feet again.

Management and the musicians should find a way forward for the short term—long enough to fill the symphony’s leadership void and resurrect the capital campaign.

The resources exist to save this city’s full-time orchestra and put it on the right course. The energy and creativity exist to elevate its public profile to the level of its artistry.

The question remains: Will someone step up?•


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