In Our View: Saving a Symphony

Vancouver’s orchestra faces tough challenge during nation’s lingering economic crisis

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Despite the dreams of countless aspiring musicians, only the best attain the level of a symphony performer. Public performance of classical music is best left to the experts. Bob Hope once described Phyllis Diller’s transgressions at the keyboard: “When she started to play, Steinway himself came down personally and rubbed his name off the piano.”

Fortunately in our community, we’ve had great musicians performing classical music — and other genres for audiences of all ages — for more than three decades. The Vancouver Symphony is one of the best orchestras in America’s midsize cities.

Three factors have been responsible for this success: the 70 musicians, a world-renowned conductor and support from the community (financial gifts and attendance). Still, it should come as no surprise that the Vancouver Symphony faces a tough challenge as the nation struggles beyond the Great Recession. Attendance remains solid; more than 6,000 attended last year’s concerts. But ticket sales make up only 20 percent of the group’s budgeted revenue, and the economic crisis has eroded contributions from corporate sponsorships, donations, grants and fundraisers. The symphony’s seasonal budget decreased from $568,372 four seasons ago to $511,053 in 2009-2010.

That leads the Vancouver Symphony to a critical crossroads. If $100,000 cannot be raised by the end of June, the symphony will be forced “to go on hiatus for a period of time or close its doors permanently,” according to a Wednesday statement from board Chairman Scott Milam.

The arts (how does one define “arts” or what is included in it?) have always faced funding challenges in many cities. History has taught us it’s good for us, but many don’t take advantage of it. Unlike movies and parks and even some plays, things like the symphony have a defined audience. So in the end it’s less about supporting or not supporting “the arts” and more about does a community this size want to — is willing to — support a symphony? Our hope is the answer is yes. If you agree, here are two suggestions:

Visit http://www.vancouversymphony.org and click on “Donate online” to support the current fundraising drive.

Attend one of the two benefit concerts this weekend — 7 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Sunday — at Trinity Lutheran Church, 309 W. 39th St. Admission is free for the chamber-type performances and donations will be accepted.

If you’re unsure about the Vancouver Symphony’s value to the community, be advised that the musicians’ gifts to us extend far beyond the concert hall, where they are often joined by international guest artists. In local schools, the symphony presents the glory and magnificence of music to more than 1,500 students each year. The Young Artists competition continues to inspire musicians whose skills reside somewhere between Diller and Bach. Maestro Salvador Brotons for 19 years has brought dignity and drama to the local podium, visiting here each season from his home in Barcelona, Spain.

The symphony board deserves credit for its aggressive campaign to quickly raise $100,000 and for its ongoing efforts to deal with the budget crisis. Extensive cuts have been made in staff, and two April concerts were canceled during the 2009-2010 season. The current season continues as scheduled, but the 2011-2012 season is at risk. Laurel Whitehurst, a member of the Clark County Arts Commission and chairwoman of Arts of Clark County, said in Wednesday’s Columbian that music is needed even more during tough economic times: “Being able to lift ourselves out of the gloomy spirits and think of beautiful things helps.”

And the Vancouver Symphony is one of the beautiful things in Clark County.