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posted: 1/26/2013 8:00 AM

Troubled times for suburban orchestras

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  • Soloist Robert Orth, far left, performs with the Elgin Symphony Orchestra and Elgin Choral Union.

      Soloist Robert Orth, far left, performs with the Elgin Symphony Orchestra and Elgin Choral Union.
    Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer


Among the arts organizations suffering the effects of the lingering economic downturn are suburban orchestras whose financial and logistical woes amount to slightly different variations on the same theme.

The venerable Elgin Symphony Orchestra, which has in the past welcomed such virtuosos as Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Sir James Galway, owes its namesake city nearly $200,000 in back rent.

DuPage County's New Philharmonic, which for decades called the College of DuPage's McAninch Arts Center home, lost its venue to renovations that began in September. Dwindling attendance at alternate venues subsequently forced the orchestra to cancel most of this season's scheduled performances.

"Orchestras are not immune to the pressures affecting all industries," said Judith Kurnick, of the League of American Orchestras, which represents 800 ensembles nationwide.

In response, organization have tried to cut expenses and raise revenues, Kurnick said. That means featuring local soloists, broadening repertoire and performing works that don't require the full orchestra.

To that end, the Lake Forest Symphony, in residence at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, offers an all-string program this weekend in order to reserve its resources for May's Gustav Mahler program, which requires a large orchestra.

"We pace ourselves," said Lake Forest Executive Director Susan Lape. "We've been careful about spending. And we've had a loyal group of supporters who have stood with us."

Raising revenue remains a challenge. Orchestras have responded by expanding their audience through the use of social media, performing in underserved neighborhoods, hosting pre- and post-concert events, performing chamber concerts in alternative venues like nightclubs or churches, and offering special incentives like discounts or two-for-one admission, Kurnick said.

Despite the challenges, fewer than 10 of the League's 800 member orchestras have dissolved in recent years, Kurnick said.

"What's interesting is they almost always come back in the same or a slightly different form," she said, citing as examples Syracuse, N.Y., and Honolulu orchestras.

"Communities love their orchestras," Kurnick said, and they find a way to build and keep them.

Low: Less than 10 orchestras nationwide have dissolved

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