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.

Orchestra London’s maestro sounds off

The evening began predictably enough. Orchestra London past president Ailene Wittstein took the podium at 8:05 p.m. to greet old and new season subscribers, thank corporate sponsors and welcome back the ensemble’s core musicians. She promoted the orchestra’s website and issued a special shout out to Deb Matthews, “our new health minister,” seated on Centennial Hall’s lower level.

The national anthem and Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 came next. Then intermission. Then, at 9:08 p.m., conductor Timothy Vernon ascended the podium again. Turning ’round to face the audience, he began a 10-minute extemporaneous plea to concertgoers to focus on the transformative power of music, not the cynicism and negativity of recent headlines, news stories and columns.

Orchestra London musical director Timothy Vernon
Orchestra London musical director Timothy Vernon

“It’s been a tough couple of months,” Vernon said, adding that he keeps up with press clippings from a distance. Judging from those, he said, one might think that the orchestra’s financial woes were “the main cultural story of the city of London.”

“Am I for keeping things secret? No . . . . But did I see anybody writing about our wonderful orchestra? No,” he chided, referring to recent reports about the organization’s descent into a million-dollar accumulated deficit. “For 50 years, Orchestra London has played beautiful music beautifully. That is the story,” he continued, dismissing the critics who pay undue attention to the bottom line without equal or greater attention to artistic achievement and the potential of music to lift the human spirit.

“Music provides solace, comfort and inspiration. It’s a great educational resource. The endless ramifications of a great performing musical body are things that we have yet to take into account in our public discourse in this city and I want you to help make that part of the discourse.

“Four million dollars to sustain something as magnificent as a symphony orchestra seems paltry — paltry,” he underlined. “Heck, I’ve got friends who are absolutely not wealthy and they won’t even buy a lottery ticket until it hits 10 [million dollars]. Let’s get some perspective. . . .

“Problems are problems. Nobody’s denying them. But it’s much more complicated than, ‘It’s somebody’s fault.’ It’s way too complex for it to be somebody’s fault. There are no villains,” Vernon said.

After a soliloquy about the ability of music to transport humanity and assist its search for meaning, Vernon repeated that line: “There are no villains. But there are some heroes. And I want to let you know that I’m standing in front of some of them. Because for some time this institution has been beleaguered, it’s been attacked, it’s been criticized, it’s been undermined. And through every moment of it, these artists, who I’m so proud to say are my colleagues, have come to work — and it is work — session after session, with a good attitude, with a good preparation, with a desire to express the great things they have discovered individually and to put it together as a body, which is so exciting and makes this vibrancy happen. I said it earlier in the year, but to me, that is the definition of integrity.”

At that point, Vernon asked the audience to applaud, which they did. But he wasn’t through.

“Thank you in advance for all the things you’re going to do to change this thing that’s out there — this culture-eating attitude that really doesn’t help. We can turn it around. We can make it interesting; we can make it vibrant. We can get the doubters, we can get the scoffers. Bring them in. Sit them down. Show them how wonderful it is,” he concluded.

And with that, Vernon, the orchestra and guest artist David Jalbert launched into Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 — a daunting work played with a precision and passion that exceeded, considerably, the earlier Schumann.

Update (Nov. 6): London Free Press reporter James Reaney reported this week that Vernon will give up his role as the orchestra’s musical director at the end of the current season. He’ll maintain a loose association with the orchestra, however, through the title of “conductor laureate.” Additional details will be available at the orchestra’s annual general meeting, set for Monday, Nov. 9, at 10 a.m. at the Station Park Hotel. A very odd time, by the way, for an AGM. Attendance will be sparse. Or might that be the point?

Orchestra London offers a little transparency

Regular readers of my Saturday column in the London Free Press know that I’ve been following developments at Orchestra London closely over the past 10 months. In fact, today’s column is the fourth variation on that theme since last December. The others are here.

Canadian pianist David Jalbert is Orchestra London's guest artist for its season-opening concert Oct. 17.
Canadian pianist David Jalbert is Orchestra London's guest artist for its season-opening concert Oct. 17.

The orchestra, arguably one of most important pillars of the city’s arts scene, merits close scrutiny for several reasons. The most compelling, of course, is that it’s in severe financial straits. Despite receiving a $482,000 operating grant from the city last fiscal year, it came begging, cap in hand, to city council in December for the backing for a $500,000 line of credit. The only other option, it said, was to fold. Council, after lengthy debate, gave its approval. At June 30 of this year, Orchestra London found itself with an accumulated deficit (the accountancy term for what lay people would simply think of as debt) of $1,004,887.

One condition of city council’s approval of the line of credit was that the organization find itself a platoon of respected businesspeople who would act as a financial oversight team to try to right the ship left listing by former orchestra executive director Rob Gloor. (Gloor now executive director of the National Broadcast Orchestra Company, a “new media orchestra” based in Vancouver.)

Given the fact the taxpayers of London, Ont., now have a direct financial stake in the enterprise, it behooves the board and its executive to ensure openness and transparency — a novel and somewhat uncomfortable prospect for a board that has traditionally enjoyed a more cloistered reporting environment. January’s annual general meeting, for example, almost reached adjournment under the leadership of chairperson Brent Kelman before members demanded to know more about the fiscal crisis and the plan for moving forward. Several members strongly criticized the flow of information even to them, let alone to the larger community.

Here’s hoping the organization, under the day-to-day leadership of managing director Joe Swan, can achieve a dramatic reversal of fortune. The orchestra’s musicians are already as open and accessible as classical musicians can be — they’re out there nearly weekly, performing in concert halls, cathedrals, churches, schools, libraries, shopping malls and other venues, all for their love of the art. It’s up to their board now to follow that lead.