WATERLOO REGION — Bénédicte Lauzière — violinist and concertmaster with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony — had just bought a house in Waterloo and was preparing to move from Montreal with her husband and kids when the email arrived.
“It is with sincere regret that the Board of Directors has made the difficult decision not to commence the season this week,” read the note sent to the Symphony’s 50-plus musicians. “That means musicians will not be called back to work with effect from Sunday as expected. Scheduled concerts, Youth Orchestra activities and other programs for the ’23-’24 season will not be proceeding.”
“We’re absolutely gutted not only by the news itself, but the timing, because we had just finished packing the truck on the Saturday and got the email that night and were in between two places. It was just heartbreaking.”
“No one saw it coming — I think that’s pretty clear,” adds percussionist Ron Brown, who had been looking forward to his 50th year with the symphony.
“We were told this just a few hours before the season actually started. The word I use is ‘blindsided.’ ”
In the days that followed, things would get worse. Much worse.
On Tuesday, the orchestra announced it was $2 million in debt and, unless a cheque magically materialized — really fast — insolvency was on the table.
The board reached out to governments, donors, past supporters.
Musicians started a GoFundMe page that, as of Friday, had raised almost $300,000.
This community, after all, had staved off financial Armageddon once before, in 2006, with a “Save Our Symphony” campaign that raised $2.3 million.
With all hands on deck, anything was possible.
Then, late Thursday afternoon, the final blow: The symphony was bankrupt. Its board of directors had resigned. There would be no phoenix-like rising from the ashes.
With the ping of an email alert, 78 years of history came thudding to a halt.
“This is the saddest email I have written in my professional life,” board chair Rachel Smith-Spencer wrote musicians, desperately hoping for a stay of execution.
“We are all devastated at the closure of our symphony.”
Devastating for the community. Tragic for the musicians. Frustrating for ticket holders who were told no refunds would be offered.
But what happens when an iconic cultural organization that’s played a pivotal role in community life for 78 years — that’s interwoven into its very fabric — suddenly ceases to exist?
What are the ripple effects?
“It’s the loss of a cultural centrepiece,” says Lee Willingham, a Wilfrid Laurier University music prof whose department has partnered with the symphony.
“In a region our size, with 650,000 people, we have a world-class symphony orchestra and a light rail transit system too. It’s the urban cultural centre on a human scale.
“There’s a lot of options for people in this community, but the symphony was the centrepiece, the big thing.”
Considered “the third most important orchestra in Ontario,” after the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the National Arts Centre Orchestra, school kids benefitted from its influence.
White-collar professionals relocated to this rural-tinged splotch of cities because of its world-class reputation.
A sense of high culture gave the region’s gruff working-class roots a lofty, aspirational edge.
“The situation affects us musicians the most right now,” noted violinist Lauzière after the season’s cancellation.
“But the community will very soon feel the effects — the youth orchestra, music students, kids that were going to come to our school shows, patrons who would have eaten at a restaurant or gone for drinks before concerts. All are a vital part of the arts ecosystem here.
“It’s terrifying in the sense that we stand to lose part of our cultural identity.”
But evolution — in both a Darwinian and classical music sense — can be fickle, even brutal at times, and financial models that worked in one generation don’t always transition well to the next.
“Before the pandemic, we had 8,000 subscribers,” says board chair Smith-Spencer, interviewed shortly before the bankruptcy announcement.
“As of today, we have 2,000 subscribers. That’s a huge difference.”
- A slower-than-expected pandemic recovery that saw a dwindling number of older people — the bulk of the symphony’s audience — skittish about returning to crowded concert halls.
- A younger generation — faced with myriad entertainment options — unwilling to replace them, needing to be wooed through “no etiquette” concerts like “Uncomposed” — cancelled due to bankruptcy — that was to showcase pop tunes and embrace food, phones and belching at will.
“How many Beethoven recordings do you have in your collection?” asks Willingham, highlighting the distance between generations.
“Think about that. Is that on your home playlist, or do you go to the symphony once a year because somebody invited you or said, ‘This is going to be really amazing’?”
Factor in a sluggish economy and the reallocation of government funding and charitable donations, post-COVID, toward social initiatives, and you have what Willingham describes as “the perfect storm.”
“Funders are starting to turn toward taking care of the homeless or the opioid crisis or health-related issues,” he says, noting the symphony can’t compete.
“For the annual fundraising all of us do, that landscape is shifting. You’ve got to work even harder for your earned revenue.”
And then there’s the diversity issue.
“Is classical music too much of a Eurocentric white-dominant institution that needs to be counterbalanced with more culturally diverse music, arts and theatre?” he asks rhetorically.
“That’s the big question. How do we mitigate the tradition of white privilege?
“I’m not a cancel culture person. I love classical music. That’s my jam. But I understand if people don’t see themselves in symphony halls because of their cultural origin and identity.”
Symphonies may try to reinvent themselves with blues and pop concerts and movie theme nights, he says, but at the end of the day, their strength is the classical canon — Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms.
“We stress the idea of inclusivity and hospitality, but classical music is kind of the opposite of that. It sort of says, ‘This is elite and you’ve got to be a certain refined quality of player or singer to participate.’ ”
“They do it great. They’re fantastic at it. But we need to contextualize it and say, ‘That’s just one slice of the musical life of our community.’ ”
None of which is a surprise to the symphony’s now former board members.
“We’re very aware of the climate in North America for performing arts organizations,” says Smith-Spencer, noting that younger people don’t buy the season-long subscriptions that provide funding stability.
“We’ve seen many theatre companies that had to suspend operations after the pandemic. Orchestras are particularly vulnerable because of the demographics of our audiences and the concern of patrons to come back to live performances. You can see that in the subscription model, where it was essentially a 75 per cent decline.”
To be fair, symphonies around the globe have been hemorrhaging red ink for decades.
“It’s a very expensive proposition,” says music prof Willingham. “You’ve got union contract players, venues you’ve got to pay for and all the tech crews are part of the union. People need to be paid living wages.”
It’s a predicament many legacy institutions — book chains, record stores, newspapers — face in the digital age as they struggle to attract audiences that want their culture free, on demand, on a tiny screen carried in their pockets.
“We had gone into the line of credit, which was established to support the orchestra, because we were bankrupt,” said Smith-Spencer before the boom came down.
“We had no money in the bank. We were continuing to have conversations with our federal representatives about a grant request, and our five local MPs were not able to get any clarity. We were counting on that money to allow us to essentially start up the season and move forward.”
Desperate, they approached the same donors who had bailed them out in the past, hoping for a last-minute reprieve.
“I will be very blunt,” says Smith-Spencer.
“These are people who care deeply: past board chairs, people who have contributed so much in the past, people who were even part of the ‘Save Our Symphony’ campaign 17 years ago.
“But they had all come to the conclusion that the orchestra, as it is currently structured, is not viable.”
What happens next is an open question.
“It’s impossible to imagine one of the world’s finest concert halls, the Centre in the Square, without a resident orchestra,” says timpanist Brown.
“We have to rebuild.”
But restructuring is a “longer-term process,” says Smith-Spencer, with no one-size-fits-all solution.
“Maybe it’s a shorter season,” she muses. “Maybe it’s slightly different concerts than we might have put together otherwise. Maybe it’s in partnership (with other orchestras).
“You may be familiar with Orchestra London folding, or the Hamilton or Calgary Philharmonic orchestras going through an insolvency period.
“A group came together, re-examined everything and they came back with something. It wasn’t necessarily what they had when the process began, but they had classical music in their communities.”
She sighs. “This community has such a long history of support for classical music. We have that magnificent hall (Centre in the Square) and so many musicians who live here, have been working here, teach at Laurier, teach students in the community.
“Our current structure just isn’t working, but that doesn’t mean a different structure wouldn’t.
“There’s lots of potential. I don’t feel hopeless.”