Economy puts US orchestras in the pits


June 18, 2010 Updated May 8, 2009 at 3:12 AM EDT

Cash-strapped orchestras across the United States are under threat, as the economic crisis forces drastic austerity measures to avoid closure.

The global economic downturn that has savaged financial institutions and wrecked marquee manufacturing brands is also being felt in brass sections and on conductor's podiums across the country.

The depth of the crisis last month forced the Boston Symphony Orchestra -- one of the five most important in the United States -- to cancel a European tour, but smaller philharmonics face the real prospect of a painful diminuendo into extinction.

"Despite successes, (the) Portland Symphony Orchestra is fighting for survival," said Alice Kornhauser, a spokeswoman for the ensemble from Maine, on the eastern seaboard of the United States.

Unlike their global counterparts who often receive generous grants from government, US orchestras depend on now diminishing private donations for their survival.

To meet the tough times Portland has been forced to cut jobs, slash salaries by 10 percent and cancel performances. "The main programming cut is our summer concerts," Kornhauser told AFP.

In March, Pittsburgh's symphony orchestra announced it would sack nine staff to save 400,000 dollars a year, out of a total budget of 30 million dollars.

"This is our reaction to the economy, but it is not a traditional layoff" said Lawrence Tamburri, president of the Pittsburgh ensemble. "We are restructuring internally to get healthy."

Orchestras in Atlanta, New Mexico, Philadelphia -- which has cut staff by 20 percent -- and Charleston have also introduced cost-saving measures.

In normal times, many orchestras try to keep savings in the bank worth three times operating costs, but that task is proving more tricky than a Rimsky-Korsakov symphony.

The Cleveland Orchestra, also one of the country's top five, expects to post a deficit of 7.5 million dollars this year, according to director Gary Hanson.

The director and his conductor Franz Welser-Most have agreed to salary cuts worth 20 and 15 percent respectively in a bid to stop the bleeding.

The orchestra has canceled national tours and reduced concerts, but is also considering job cuts, including in the orchestra itself.

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