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Article updated: 2/11/2013 11:02 PM

New Philharmonic gets three-concert reprieve

By Christopher Placek

A 36-year-old professional orchestra that appeared to be playing its last note at the College of DuPage has been called back for an encore.

College officials have agreed to give the New Philharmonic orchestra a three-concert season in 2013-14 after receiving letters and emails from patrons upset that the 80-member ensemble might have taken its final curtain call at a January concert.

The orchestra had been performing at the college's McAninch Arts Center in Glen Ellyn until this season, when a $35 million renovation project began that forced the orchestra to schedule concerts off-campus. But attendance numbers for the first two concerts held in River Forest were weak and spurred college officials to cancel the last three concerts scheduled for February and March.

It wasn't until after the Jan. 26 performance of Mahler's "Symphony No. 1 in D Major" at Wheaton College's Edman Chapel -- and a better turnout from regular patrons -- that the college announced plans to host an abbreviated concert season that would likely begin in October.

"We've certainly learned from our patrons that they love our orchestra, but they really communicated to us that it needs to be close," said Stephen Cummins, the director of the MAC. "When we started hearing from patrons, (they said) they really, really want to have something next season. We've taken that to heart and committed to an abbreviated season."

Some 650 people -- including four members of the college's board of trustees -- attended the concert at Edman Chapel. About 500 attendees went to the first two concerts in October and December at the Dominican University Performing Arts Center.

As many as 1,200 have attended concerts at the MAC in the past.

College officials are evaluating a number of different on- and off-campus venues to hold the three additional concerts. MAC renovations are not expected to be complete until 2014.

Cummins said the college may hire support staff or contractors to help coordinate the orchestra's 2013-14 season. That could include some of those who were fired this month, such as the orchestra's general manager, personnel director and librarian.

Meanwhile, the future of the orchestra after the abbreviated season is still in doubt.

The college is sending out pledge cards this week to past subscribers and current donors in hopes of receiving "a three-season pledge that will guarantee New Philharmonic a home" at the MAC through 2016, officials said in a news release.

"We're asking them to help support the orchestra, not just as a bridge just to get them to come back, but really as something sustainable," Cummins said.

The annual pledge goal is $150,000, which is the balance of costs after ticket revenues and the college's financial contribution. The number represents about 40 percent of the operating costs of the New Philharmonic, and covers salaries for orchestra members, and venue and operations costs, Cummins said.

As a whole, the MAC lost $519,000 in the 2012 fiscal year.

"It's definitely a bigger goal than we've ever set for the MAC or the New Philharmonic," Cummins said. "But based on the response we've gotten from patrons, it's very attainable."

In a statement, COD President Robert Breuder said the college wants the New Philharmonic to call the MAC home, but to do so in the current economy, "it will have to function in a more cost-effective manner."

"We hope we can count on patrons of the New Philharmonic to show their support to make this a reality," he said.

Kirk Muspratt, the orchestra's conductor, said several patrons came up to him after the performance and said they'd be willing to pledge money. If that doesn't happen, he said, it could mean the end of the orchestra.

"The college has given us and our patrons an opportunity to work hand in hand and find a sound business plan. We must do that. And if we do not, then we have not done our share of what the college needs us to do.

"It's a crucial D-Day kind of moment in the history of the orchestra."

The future of the New Philharmonic and other programming at the MAC is expected to be a topic of discussion Feb. 21 at the next meeting of the college board of trustees.

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