An orchestra reboots

screen-shot-2017-01-22-at-3-09-37-pmAs one who has followed the triumphs and travails of the former Orchestra London for decades, I was really pleased to see its musicians coalesce around a new structure with a new name two days ago. New beginnings are always sweet — but for this ensemble, it must have been doubly so.

London Symphonia has managed a difficult balancing act: It has retained many of its core musicians, added others and reorganized in such a way as to preserve its artistic integrity and attract new support after throwing off the shackles of the organization that closed its doors in late 2014 and dissolved into bankruptcy in mid-2015. According to spokesperson Andrew Chung, London Symphonia already enjoys the support of government arts granting organizations, as well as a dedicated quorum of new and old supporters. That sounds far easier than it is.

I’ve written several columns (you can find samples here and here) over recent years about Orchestra London’s organizational failures and its struggle to battle back from life support to some sort of institutional viability. While the ensemble’s artistry was never in doubt, the former orchestra suffered from poor governance, ineffectual administrative leadership and structural models that were no longer in tune with its marketplace.

The ensemble’s musicians valiantly pursued their craft, post-bankruptcy, through #WePlayOn, which continued to play publicly, often for free, as they tried to find a suitable container for talents and aspirations of its members. London Symphonia is the result.

CTV London covered the new orchestra’s first concert, and London Free Press arts writer James Stewart Reaney provided a fitting column as one of his last acts on staff at the newspaper before his retirement.

London Symphonia’s website is here; its Twitter account is here. I wish them great success. It has been a long, hard, rocky road.

Musicians of the former Orchestra London play a Christmas concert in the baggage claim area at London International Airport on Dec. 22, 2014 — just weeks after Orchestra London closed its doors — in an effort to keep orchestral music in the community alive.
Musicians of the former Orchestra London play a Christmas concert in the baggage claim area at London International Airport on Dec. 22, 2014 — just weeks after Orchestra London closed its doors — in an effort to keep orchestral music in the community alive.

Joseph Lanza on CBC Radio’s Cross Country Checkup

Joseph-LanzaOrchestra London concertmaster Joseph Lanza was one of the callers to CBC Radio’s Cross Country Checkup on Sunday, where the topic for discussion was the future of classical music. It was a timely call; earlier that week, the orchestra had announced it was suspending operations in the wake of a huge operating deficit. The orchestra spent $330,000 more than it brought in during the 2013-14 season, bringing its accumulated deficit to well over $1 million. A London Free Press story from city hall today indicates that the orchestra plans to go cap-in-hand to city council this week with a new request for funds, which includes an amount to pay for a bankruptcy proceeding.

Here, meanwhile, is the call Lanza made to the weekly CBC Radio show, hosted on Sunday afternoons by Rex Murphy:

A way forward for Orchestra London

OLlogoDiscussion of Orchestra London‘s financial woes has been robust on social media over the past few days, following reports that the organization no longer has the resources to pay its employees or proceed with planned concerts.

In response to my column in yesterday’s London Free Press, city resident and community activist Greg Fowler tweeted that, while it was a “great read,” it didn’t directly address the problems facing the orchestra. I tried responding in three bursts of 140 characters each, but here’s a slightly more detailed description of what I was thinking. My thoughts are rooted in my experience on the boards of other charities and educational institutions.

1. It’s become clear that, after more than a decade of failures on the governance and administrative side of the organization, Orchestra London’s current support structure is broken. While the artistic side of the orchestra has remained competent and even masterful, given the conditions under which its musicians have been forced to work, the administrative and managerial side has let the local community down. Even a financial monitor and a blue-ribbon panel of high-profile local businesspeople, co-opted in 2009 during the orchestra’s last major meltdown, seem to have been ineffective at either re-crafting the organization or garnering sufficient financial support from the community to sustain the orchestra’s longstanding business model.

2. The last time the orchestra’s board and consultants were so proactive in speaking publicly about the organization’s troubles, it was to assuage the sense that the organization was about to go over a financial cliff. At the time, Joe Swan, who would shortly become the orchestra’s executive director, spoke optimistically about future surpluses that would be used to chip away at the orchestra’s deficit, which was then just over $1 million. Last week, the orchestra came forward, publicly, again. Why now? I suspect it’s because the board and the ED have seen the latest audited financial figures — and they’re a nightmare. (Board president Joe O’Neill has not responded to my request for an interview.) It’s better to get out in front of a bad-news story, the theory goes (it didn’t work out so well for Jian Ghomeshi), rather than have it chase you.

3. The orchestra’s fiscal year ended on June 30, 2014. No audit has yet been released, though I can’t imagine that it hasn’t been completed. Big. Red. Flag. The most recent annual report available ends June 30, 2013.

4. So how to go forward? As I mentioned in my column, I personally recoil against the prospect of just letting Orchestra London die and file for bankruptcy, leaving its creditors holding the bag. It sends a signal of abandonment and a lack of civic will. I believe Londoners can and should do better than that. I’m no lawyer — and there are numerous legal hurdles here — but where there’s a will, there’s usually a way. And here’s what I’d like to see accomplished:

• London city council commit just enough money to pay the orchestra’s musicians and stagehands through the end of December. They are collateral damage here in a disaster that is administrative and fiduciary, not artistic.

• London city council might insist, as a condition of its assistance, that the current executive director resign immediately and that the current board of directors should resign upon completion of a strategic renewal process that would include:

a musical arts summit, to be convened sometime in the month of January 2015, specifically programmed to deal with Orchestra London’s future.

using the summit to explore new synergies between London’s performing musical groups, ensembles and events, including those that are amateur, academic and professional.

embarking on a one-time, three-month fundraising campaign, broadly based and widely communicated, to deal with the the orchestra’s existing debt and to act as the great reset in its viability as a significant part of the local arts community in the future.

electing a new board of directors, once the future strategic direction becomes clear. Once elected, the new orchestra board should rewrite its constitutional documents to give the orchestra’s musicians a greater presence and better oversight into the board’s deliberations and decisions. (One orchestra member told me recently that the players’ representatives on the board are too often excluded by in-camera sessions that keep the musicians in the dark about what is really going on at the board level. This is an important governance issue.)

engaging with citizens who would respond to a very different type of programming than that which has traditionally characterized the orchestra. A night of soundtrack songs from Disney’s princess movies? Why not. A concert of music from the Twilight films? Yes. Mashups between the orchestra and headliners from Sunfest and the Home County Folk Festival, either on the Victoria Park bandshell stage or Centennial Hall, adjacent to the park? Absolutely.

formulating partnerships between the orchestra and the community, both on the artistic and corporate sides, that haven’t yet been tried — or  envisaged.

Even with its current level of indebtedness, the life or death of Orchestra London is as much a matter of political will as it is of money. I don’t for a minute believe that Londoners don’t possess, within themselves, the creativity and leadership needed to get through these next few months. Orchestra London should be allowed to live — though in a vastly changed form.

Lastly, I greatly admire the orchestra’s players, who, through all of this turmoil, simply want to life spirits and contribute positively to the community with their talents and commitment. Yesterday, amid the financial gloom, concertmaster Joseph Lanza and oboist Jennifer Short dropped by the London Public Library branch in their own neighbourhood to play some seasonal music.  Here’s a sample:

Update (Dec. 15): London Free Press reporter Patrick Maloney is reporting tonight that the orchestra’s deficit for the 2013-14 season was about $330,000, putting the accumulated deficit at more than $1 million.

Farewell to the last of the famous Lombardos

Rosemarie Lombardo Rogers

I couldn’t help but be saddened a bit this week by news of the passing of Rosemarie Lombardo Rogers in a small town in northern Ohio. The Lombardos were arguably the most famous family to hail from London, Ont. — a city that once boasted about that connection, but has long since allowed it to fade into memory, like the vanishing tones of a vinyl LP.

Rosemarie Rogers’ death at 85 bookends the musical family that dominated American popular music for much of the middle 20th century.

Rosemarie Lombardo with brothers Guy, Victor, Lebert and Carmen.

I immediately recalled my extended visit with Mrs. Rogers on a June afternoon in 2001. I had made an appointment to interview her for a column on the Lombardo musical story and her place in it. I arrived in Whitehouse, Ohio, in mid-morning and found her home near the end of a shaded street on the town’s outskirts. We talked for a couple of hours. She made us lunch, put some jazz on the Bose disc player in the kitchen, and we continued into the mid afternoon.

The most curious part of the visit was the fact that I seemed to be able to tell her stories she’d never heard. I’d read Guy Lombardo’s autobiography, Auld Acquaintance, a year or so earlier and brought a couple of used copies of it with me. She thrilled at some of the anecdotes I read to her from the book, reliving them and, in some cases, finishing the story.

By the time I left, we were friends. I asked her to autograph the page on which her picture appeared, and she obliged, adding a few words (see the photo above). As for the second copy of the book, I left it with her; she didn’t have one. The column appeared in The London Free Press a week or so later.

Her obituary, as published in the Toledo Blade, is here. Her 20-year-old voice is preserved by recordings like this one.