Bank donates assets from bankrupt Syracuse Symphony Orchestra

Sep 29, 2011

The Syracuse Symphony Orchestra (SSO) had planned to celebrate its 50th season this year. But by June it was facing millions of dollars in debt, and was forced to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy

The SSO relinquished its assets, with its biggest lender, M & T Bank, collecting two pianos and a collection of sheet music worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But today there was a single ray of hope for the troubled - or perhaps more realistically, defunct - orchestra.

M & T Bank president Allen Naples announced at a press conference Thursday that the bank would be donating the SSO's sheet music library, and instruments from the youth orchestra program, to Syracuse University's Setnor School of Music. A collection of vinyl records will be donated to the Onondaga Historical Society, which will also receive the SSO's archives of papers, and a handful of paintings. Computers and other instruments will go to the county's Cultural Resources Council.

Waiting in the wings

Left out of all this are the SSO's unemployed musicians.

John Garland chairs an ensemble formed by the laid-off instrumentalists (it's confusingly called Symphony Syracuse). He's part of a growing number of musicians around the country that is facing a new economic reality: being forced to reinvent the sound of a symphony, on a shoestring budget.

One potential mechanism for reinvention could come in the form of the new "Syracuse Philharmonic," organized by Syracuse University, to continue classical music performance in the city.

But Garland is cautious about the idea.

"Symphony Syracuse is a lifeboat organization - and we've always been hoping that someone would build an island for it to arrive on," he says. "We're not sure at this moment whether the plan for the Syracuse Philharmonic represents that kind of an island for us."

Garland's uncertainty about the Syracuse University project stems from a concern that the Philharmonic won't have a place for former members of the SSO - and if it does, that place will be less secure.  The Philharmonic will be phased in slowly, over five years, and will hire performers on a session basis, offering no salaries, benefits or pensions.

County executive Joanne Mahoney is more upbeat.

"This was a long story, that had a sad ending  - we thought," she says. But now, Mahoney says, the ending is looking happier, with the SSO's assets staying in the region. "This is a very valuable donation to the community."

Another happy ending: Onondaga county's budget for 2012 preserves funding for the SSO. According to Mahoney, those funds will now go to the Philharmonic.

Read the Syracuse Philharmonic's 5-year plan.