A Death in the Family

One sad fact about the orchestra business is that sooner or later, practically every orchestra is going to face a life-or-death struggle. Take a look around Canada – Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Kitchener, Toronto, Montreal – they’ve all dealt with significant financial crises in the past decade.

The stories are usually remarkably similar. Expenses are greater than revenues, deficit increases, bankruptcy looms, media debates role of classical music in today’s society, community rallies, musicians agree to wage cuts and concessions, and most of the time the organization rises from its deathbed.

Perhaps that’s why I found the sudden passing of the CBC Radio Orchestra so shocking. Although there were some warning signs recently that its long-term outlook was poor, it was still stunning to see someone simply pull the plug on such a long-standing cultural institution.

Now, I know a little bit about working for a national organization that struggles with funding issues and the difficult choices it can present for its leadership. Still, given the range of options available, it’s unfortunate the CBC chose the extinction of radio orchestras in North America. The orchestra’s annual budget was under a million dollars – isn’t that roughly the cost of producing a couple episodes of MVP – The Secret Lives of Hockey Wives? Which one has the greater cultural value?

Yesterday’s announcement must have been disheartening to this country’s classical music fans. When combined with recent news that the CBC will be reducing the amount of classical programming on Radio Two, and the disappearance of arts programs like Opening Night, it’s only fair to wonder what the future will hold.

A CBC spokesman claimed the money that would have been spent on the orchestra will now go towards commissioning works from other orchestras in Canada. I wish I could believe that was true, but given the CBC’s new priorities, it just sounds like spin to me.

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