Almost drowned out by the hullaballoo over Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s 250th birthday in recent months was the fact that the Charleston Symphony Orchestra also has a big red letter date this year. In 2006 the CSO turned 70, which is a perfectly respectable age for a symphony orchestra — although by unfortunate coincidence that’s also the age of a fair proportion of its remaining season subscribers, and, like the CSO, they’re not getting any younger. In fact, they’re dropping like swatted flies. To one way of looking at it, this isn’t an altogether bad thing: it’s an open secret in not-for-profit fundraising circles that planned giving is an excellent way to build an endowment; last year the demise of one longtime patron was the only thing that kept the CSO from ending the season $200,000 in the hole. (If you think the symphony plays regular concerts at Bishop Gadsden because the Jell-O’s so darn good, guess again.)

But when there’s little to no activity at the other end of the chart, attrition-by-expiration can create major problems. This was brought home in stark terms last week at the symphony’s bimonthly board meeting, where orchestra staff and executive board members had the unenviable task of putting a happy face on a $200,000-plus revenue shortfall for the current fiscal year and the latest unpleasant, if not wholly surprising, news in a long, steady drop in membership rates. That decline tracks on a graph over time like a downward-right-shaped knife in the gut: roughly 100 people per year for the last 10 years — nearly 1,000 fewer season members now than in 1996.

In the intimate Stars Bar at the American Theater, all of this, plus a good deal more, was on the table. It was a curious meeting: part therapy session, part tent revival, part pep talk. The discussion got its start rooted solidly in the hard and fast facts of budgetary accounting, but by the time the meeting was over had ranged across some lofty territory, even waxing quizzically existential at times.

Executive director Sandy Ferencz began by leading the assembled board members through the good and bad of the budget to date. The bad: major contributions are well below projections, single ticket sales are down, and expected grant revenue is tanking, all making for a hole the size and shape of $214,000. The good: overall ticket revenue is tracking closely with projections and last year’s numbers, and estimates are that single ticket sales will end the fiscal year (on June 30) up slightly. They’ve also added 10 new board members, several of whom have stepped up with major contributions.

Ferencz also noted that they’re preparing to kick off a new fundraising campaign called Give Us a Minute of Music, putting the touch on a 2,500-strong database population for $354 each, based on their calculation that a single minute of live music from the symphony costs $354.03, at current fixed operating costs, not including pats on the back, attaboys, and chucks on the chin.

The elephant in the room, of course, was the fact that the 46 musicians of the CSO have been working for a lot less money than they made three years ago, when they agreed to an 18-percent salary cut to avoid a looming catastrophe — sort of the way a wolf will sacrifice its own leg to escape a trap in which it’s dying. At the time, the musicians were promised their leg back. But it was clear last week that they stood little chance of seeing it anytime soon, considering the existing gap between projected revenue and fixed expenses. The musicians had a minor spat with administrators earlier this year, when there was some talk that fundraising for the 2006-07 season wouldn’t commence until the players signed a new contract — one which, it was suggested, would keep salaries at current levels. The musicians and administration sidestepped any major unpleasantness by agreeing to negotiate on new terms for a contract. (The musicians have proposed restoring their salaries fully, plus standard cost of living increases, but to date the orchestra hasn’t officially countered.)

At last week’s meeting, City Office of Cultural Affairs director Ellen Dressler Moryl noted that the current budget shortfall, therefore, is slightly misleading, as it doesn’t include the debt to the musicians. “We’re even more behind than it looks, because the musicians’ salaries are still reduced,” she noted. “We need to fix that.”

New board member John Kuhn agreed. “We’re going to have an even bigger black eye in the community if we can’t raise those salaries at least to where they were three years ago.”

“We are very conscious that we need to raise the musicians’ salaries,” Halkyard replied, wrapping up a brief flurry of hand-wringing over the salary situation. “If we do not change, we are going down the tubes,” he added bluntly. “We know that. Change is essential.”

Ferencz noted that the orchestra has faced a shortfall of roughly $200,000 at this time every year for the past three years, and every year it’s managed to stave off financial disaster with a last-minute “blessing.” Several board members — some of them clearly among those new to the group — expressed surprise at the dire specifics of the financial situation. When board president Ted Halkyard noted that the Charleston business community was at best a minor contributor to the orchestra’s bottom line, for example, there was an immediate outcry.

“We’ve got a community that’s thriving financially,” Kuhn said. “I know my law firm is thriving. Contributions from the community at large, and definitely the business community, should be easier to come by. Businesses need to be asked. We have to have a plan for corporate donors.”

Halkyard replied that they were in the process of forming a corporate support task force to focus on that very issue. But the ultimate solution, he said, “is more butts in seats. Not only does that benefit ticket sales but that’s where we get our donors from.”

Several members observed that part of the fundraising and subscription problem might lie in the symphony’s community profile. “Sixty thousand dollars for marketing and promotions?” Kuhn asked at one point, incredulous. “That line has got to increase if we’re gonna put people in the seats; $60,000 is just a fraction of what we ought to be spending on promotion. That’s virtually nothing. I can’t see how we have a prayer with that kind of money going to promotions. I’m surprised we’ve done as well as we have.”

New resident conductor Scott Terrell took a different tack: “We need to present ourselves in a way that suggests we are the artistic leader in Charleston. We need to focus on being the artistic leader and acting like the artistic leader. And it’s more than an ad in The Post and Courier. It’s a devotion to that idea in everything we do.”

“We need enthusiasm and fire and commitment,” agreed another newbie, Kathryn Simmons. “I don’t know how many of you listen to R&B music, but that’s how a lot of those artists made it — by selling their music out of the trunk of their cars, and talking themselves up to every person they met. We need to go out ourselves and let everyone know that we have something great. We need to infect every person we meet with our love for the symphony.”

“A lot of people,” someone down front groused, “don’t even know we have a professional orchestra.”

At about that moment, things took a turn for the slightly surreal. One new board member, a young, smartly dressed gentleman named Tony Powell who’d been silently punching at a calculator for most of the meeting, raised his hand and put a question to the room: what if the CSO decided not to have a professional orchestra? What if, he asked, in a room that had suddenly gone very still, the CSO were to eliminate almost a million dollars of fixed expenses by doing away with professional musicians and becoming a non-professional civic orchestra?

“Then,” he continued, “if the community says, ‘This is nice and all, but we want more,’ then we can get it back — a symphony with professional players. But right now the community is taking it for granted. I’m just speaking to it strictly from a numbers-and-cents perspective.”

The reaction was swift and barely restrained. Indignation rose like a tide in the room. “Professionalism is our brand, that’s what we produce,” barked board veepee Leo Fishman. “We have a product and a very high regard for that product. What you’re suggesting is more like a leisure activity for musicians.”

Halkyard piled on: “I truly believe that the quickest way to do us in would be to compromise the quality of our music and our artists.”

Several voices quickly rose to the defense of the players: “These people are equivalent to doctors in their mastery of their instruments and their ability to play!”

But it was obvious that Powell’s suggestion had been, if not wholly rhetorical, then mostly so. What, in fact, is the actual value of a professional symphony orchestra? Is it a question of dollars and cents, after all? Or is there another measure, something altogether different and less quantifiable? The answer to Tony Powell’s question goes directly to the heart of exactly why every person in that room last week was there at all, whether they knew it or not. Answering it loudly and regularly, at every available opportunity, may just be the best way to breathe new life and relevance into the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. For that matter, it may be the only way.

Though there’s always the option of selling tickets out of the trunks of their cars.

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