Carol Lowne has watched the Minnesota Orchestra, one of the best in the nation and the world, struggle under the stress of budget shortfalls and contract difficulties.
The story is the same for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, which had multimillion-dollar budget shortfalls. The Philadelphia Orchestra even had to file for bankruptcy.
But Lowne also sees a success story closer to home. As president of the Penfield Symphony Orchestra, she helps oversee an organization that has been able to keep its budget in balance while building a reputation as one of the best community orchestras in the region.
The Penfield Symphony Orchestra puts on four concerts each season, from October through May, attracting mostly sold-out crowds. The organization runs on an annual budget of somewhat more than $50,000, and though it can be a challenge to meet from year to year, Lowne says the dedicated patrons and supporters have kept the orchestra in good standing.
"The spirit of volunteerism we have in the orchestra and among our volunteers and patrons is amazing," she says. "Every one of us is invested, and we're putting our money where our mouth is."
That includes the nearly 90 musicians who make up the orchestra. These members all perform without pay, giving the orchestra an interesting mix of backgrounds.
"The musicians range in age from their mid- to late 20s to ones in their 80s," says Michael Bloch, board member and vice president of marketing and development for the orchestra. "Many of them are former music teachers, and others are just people who love music and (have) been playing their whole lives."
Though there are a number of strong college musicians at the Eastman School of Music, Bloch says the time demands of rehearsal and performances prevent them from joining. So the average age of the orchestra members skews a bit older, he says.
The orchestra's board also pitches in to help the organization along, Bloch adds. Close to half of the board members are former musicians, all of them working hard to build fundraising contacts and increase the number of orchestra patrons.
A group of corporate sponsors-which includes Canandaigua National Bank & Trust Co., Leo's Bakery and the Dick Ide car dealerships-also helps keep the budget in balance, Bloch says.
"I can't speak for how all community orchestras do, but we're on very solid ground," he says.
There are some budgetary challenges, Lowne admits. Most government grants for community orchestras are geared to performances in the community, bringing the orchestras into hospitals or nursing homes, for example. With some 90 members, the Penfield Symphony Orchestra is much larger than the average community ensemble and thus unable to apply for most of these grants.
"You can't exactly roll a 90-person orchestra up into a hospital to play for patients," Lowne says.
Nonetheless, the orchestra has a strong community focus. Every year it sponsors a contest for high school musicians and gives the winner an opportunity to perform with the orchestra.
Bloch says there have also been discussions about expanding into smaller projects in the community.
"We have talked about doing something like a Saturday afternoon performance at a community center, one focused on kids," he says. "This would give the kids a chance to learn about instruments and about classical music."
The orchestra typically plays to packed houses at the Penfield High School auditorium, and Lowne says it is working hard to expand its audience even further.
"We do a lot of advertising, putting out T-shirts and signs, really trying to get some word of mouth," she says.
The orchestra is so willing to expand its audience that it works in a couple of generous programs for patrons. Anyone who has never heard the Penfield Symphony Orchestra perform can contact the orchestra for a free pass to one of the concerts, and any patron not satisfied with a performance is entitled to a full refund.
"We fling the doors open and say, 'We want you to come and have a good time,'" Lowne says. "We have a feeling if we can get them in the door and see how good we are, they'll come back again."
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