I wrote this story a couple of years ago. It’s about orchestras being cheaper to import than to sustain in-house. That is, it was cheaper for residents of Savannah to hire a touring orchestra than to support its own orchestra, which went out of business in 2003. Given the situation in Jacksonville, where administrators and board members seem to be quickly devaluing the roles of orchestral musicians, this story might be instructive. Fortunately, Savannah has seen the emergence of a new chamber orchestra. So not all is doom and gloom for Jax.


Outsourcing classical music in the wake of a symphony’s demise

Sitting on a lawn chair, Michael Daly was among roughly 3,000 people at this year’s “Picnic in the Park.” The 39-year-old French hornist watched as audience members sang melodies to “Guys & Dolls,” “Phantom of the Opera” and “The Sound of Music” in the twilight of Forsyth Park.

When the music stopped, the crowd was on its feet. It was a heartening ovation that recalled a time when the Savannah Symphony Orchestra (SSO), of which Daly was a member, was the object of such affection.

“Classical music is alive and well in Savannah,” said the emcee.

Indeed, it may be. But not for people like Daly.

Even though there’s more classical music scheduled this season than at any other time since the SSO went bankrupt two and half years ago, Daly and his SSO colleagues are not playing most of it. As the city continues to lose its corps of professional musicians, a trend toward importing classical musicians is beginning to emerge.

Just as outsourcing changed the economic landscape of America by sending hundreds of thousands of jobs overseas, outsourcing could have a significant impact on the cultural landscape of Savannah by importing labor – orchestras, chamber groups and scores of freelancers – that could displace local musicians.

Daly was hired to play, but then mysteriously “unhired,” he said, replaced by a French hornist from Florida. In fact, most of the 45-member Picnic in the Park Orchestra were imported from Charleston, Hilton Head, Brunswick and Valdosta.

Outsourcing has always been around in one form or other. Outside musicians and ensembles have always played in Savannah and musicians here have and still do play in orchestras in surrounding cities.

But recently, a new kind of labor pattern has emerged.

In September, the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra announced it would play three concerts at the Lucas Theatre starting on Sept. 25. The move sparked a wave of developments.

Four other orchestras from New York City, Atlanta, Charleston and Hilton Head Island followed in Jacksonville’s steps. This season and next, therefore, will be the first in 50 years that outside organizations have offered more orchestral music than any local organization.

The ramifications of outsourcing have yet to be fully understood, but one thing is for certain. Because this new trend is so cost-effective, it’s unlikely to stop. What’s more, if it continues to grow in popularity it could ultimately undermine the need for the city to have its own resident orchestra.

“It’s open season on Savannah,” said John Warren, former head of the local musician’s union.

“What do you expect?”

If the situation is as bad as that, Warren and other union leaders may have to take some of the blame.

In fall 2003, a group of patrons, led by former SSO board president Dorothy Courington, offered to underwrite a per-service orchestra with a standard pay-scale and a six-concert season. Warren refused the idea, however, citing that “per-service” meant working with no salary or benefits.

“It wasn’t the direction we wanted to go in,” Warren said.

After the meeting, the coalition split.

In one direction was Courington and John Steeves, who began importing classical musicians under the banner of the Savannah Concert Association. Steeves, president of the group, has expressed hope for a reorganized SSO, while Courington has said that since Warren and others opposed to the per-service idea have left town, now may be the time to try again.

“There was no cooperation at that time,” Courington said.

In the other direction was Helen Downing, a respected arts patron. She and others decided to continue pursuing a restored symphony.

In retrospect, it’s no surprise the union refused the per-service offer. Warren was holding out for the return of a full-time symphony. But a per-service group might have been enough to stymie interest in capitalizing on the absence of a local symphony, said Jacksonville Symphony’s executive director, Alan Hopper.

“If there were momentum to bring back the orchestra, we probably would not have come,” Hopper said.

Nevertheless, the Jacksonville Symphony’s presence may benefit local musicians by rekindling interest in the art form, said Julie Kirchhausen, spokesperson for the trade group American Symphony Orchestra League, located in New York City.

Having a resident orchestra and visiting orchestra, she said, need not be mutual exclusive notions.

“Ideally, there would be room for both,” Kirchhausen said.

Lorraine Jones, an SSO flutist, believes outsourcing negatively impacts her life, but concedes that the Jacksonville concerts may increase awareness.

“It makes the point that there is no orchestra here,” Jones said.

Ultimately, though, outsourcing boils down to job loss or job creation. The fact is there is some of both.

While some SSO musicians find work performing with the concert association and the Savannah Music Festival, others ironically find work playing in local concerts by the orchestras from Jacksonville, Charleston and Hilton Head Island.

As for job loss, said Terry Moore, SSO associate concertmaster and current union head, the reality is this: As the number of Savannah musicians dwindle, organizers may opt to bring full orchestras to town that do not need extra musicians.

Case in point is next year’s music festival, Moore said. In the past, it historically reserved jobs for SSO members. These days, however, there are fewer musicians left in town. It’s no wonder, Moore said, that the festival hired quality ensembles such as the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and New York Collegium, both self-contained groups with no need for supplementation.

“It’s a loss for freelancers,” Moore said. “But what do you expect?”

So, when did outsourcing begin?

Outsourcing began in April 2003, when the SSO filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Afterwards, John Warren sent letters to the American Federation of Musicians in Charleston and Jacksonville urging them not to perform in Savannah while there was still a possibility of re-forming the SSO.

As leader of the local union, Warren feared concerts performed by groups other than the SSO would undermine efforts to revive the symphony. He also feared Savannahians wouldn’t care where music comes from, just as long as they could hear it.

At the same time, Thornton Clark, a former SSO board president, arranged for busloads of Savannahians, mostly residents of The Landings, to be driven to concerts in Jacksonville, Charleston and on Hilton Head Island.

The reason was “to provide some symphonic music … while we have no symphony of our own,” Clark said in a November 2004 e-mail.

In the same e-mail, Clark said he had dinner with the president of the Jacksonville Symphony. Clark said in an interview that subsequent discussions with the symphony’s executive director, Alan Hopper, centered on Savannah venues in which the group might perform.

“As a regional orchestra, the Jacksonville Symphony is able to serve outlying communities,” Hopper said in a September press release announcing a trio of concerts at the Lucas. “Increasing numbers of Savannah residents have been traveling to Jacksonville, so we are very pleased to be welcomed into the community.”

Meanwhile, the Savannah Concert Association began to import musicians to perform at the Lucas Theatre. The most notable of these was Charles Wadsworth, founder of New York City’s Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and a director at Charleston’s Spoleto Festival USA. Wadsworth’s appearances filled “the gap in the cultural life of Savannah,” said John Steeves, president of the concert association.

While all this was going on, SSO players continued to leave town. Little by little they found jobs and lives elsewhere. Among them were Warren and his bassoonist wife, Laura Najarian. In July, they moved to Atlanta, where she got a job with that’s city orchestra.

Their departure left 19 of the SSO’s original 38 members in town.

Union officials in Jacksonville obliged Warren’s request as long as they could. But the more that Savannahians attended concerts there, the more management saw a business opportunity here. With no new local symphony on the horizon, Warren said, the union had “no moral problem” with management’s plans to play here.

“It’s a good opportunity for us to play for a new audience,” Hopper said in an interview.

A culture of ownership

On Sept. 25, the Jacksonville Symphony concert was a sell-out, which suggested two things. One, orchestral music has lost none of its appeal. And two, Warren’s fears may have come true: People really don’t care who provides music, just as long as they can hear it.

But the larger issue of outsourcing boils down to one thing. It’s far cheaper than paying for orchestral music at home.

Just as paying workers in Malaysia to make T-shirts is cheaper than paying workers in America, it’s cheaper to import a dozen or so concerts than it is to fund, administrate, govern and market a hometown symphony.

How cheap? Try nothing more than the price of admission.

The Jacksonville Symphony pays all overhead costs. It even pays the Lucas a rental fee. In return, the Jacksonville Symphony gets tickets sales, expands its market and grows a potential audience.

How much does a resident orchestra cost? It can cost more than $3 million. That’s what taxpayers and private donors paid to run the SSO during its last season.

But what about quality? Don’t you get what you pay for?

Perhaps, but Moore said that the SSO and the Jacksonville Symphony are virtually the same. If you set them side-by-side, he said, it would be hard to tell the difference.

“It’s the result of not being able to afford our own symphony,” Thornton Clark said of outsourcing, adding that he hoped the SSO could be revived.

Given this new reality, what case can be made for a resident orchestra? How can advocates compete with cheap classical music?

The answer is to focus less on economics and more on people, Kirchhausen said.

Orchestras are civic institutions made up of people who provide cultural knowledge, teach private lessons and maintain an artistic presence in the community.

“While you can get good concerts from a visiting orchestra, most communities want more from their orchestras than just performances,” Kirchhausen said.

Ken Carter agrees.

“How much impact does the Jacksonville Symphony have after the concert is over?” Carter asked. “It has no impact.”

The difference between a visiting and resident orchestra, Carter said, is like the difference between renting and buying a house. When you rent, you get convenience and short-term cost-effectiveness, Carter said. But when you buy, you get an asset that increases in value and provides greater future returns.

“We have to ask ourselves do we want to rent or do we want to own classical music,” said Ken Carter, executive director of the Lucas Theatre.

Aiming for ownership, Carter led a coalition of supporters this summer to file for nonprofit status with the Internal Revenue Service under the name of “The Savannah Orchestra and Opera Company.” So far, no consensus has emerged from the group about how to restore a resident orchestra.

The group has, however, succeeded in buying the SSO’s music-sheet library, outbidding the Hilton Head Orchestra when the collection came up for auction in July.

Helen Downing was part of that bid. She said it lays the groundwork for rebuilding.

“I just think that a local resident orchestra adds to the lifestyle of the city,” said Downing, who is involved in the new nonprofit. “These are educated people who teach our children and play in our churches. We miss musicians living in this city.”

Even so, outsourcing is likely to continue. The Charleston Symphony has already booked a Christmas concert at the Johnny Mercer Theatre this year and the Hilton Head Orchestra will play twice during the concert association’s 2006-2007 season.

Savannah Morning News

November 6, 2005