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Charleston Symphony Orchestra’s fate – Icarus or Phoenix
Lee Walton

Few with deep roots in the Holy City were expecting the blunt force of last Monday’s banner headline story, “CSO suspends its operations”, announcing the immediate suspension of operations due to its dire financial condition. From its founding in 1936, the CSO has struggled but survived over seven decades of economic cycles, wars, storms, and catastrophes like so many other local public and private enterprises and even the City itself. But over the past few decades, even through the best of times, the CSO’s existence has been nothing short of hand-to-mouth, ever dependent upon the largesse of last minute donations and one-time gimmick fundraisers to make payroll and pay basic operating expenses.

Recently, the CSO’s financial condition and community patronage have continued to deteriorate at increasing rates. The CSO’s star-crossed financial woes over the past decade have been mired in a consistent underlying problem – too much reliance upon an unpredictable, unreliable and often-unrealistic revenue stream to fund ever-increasing budgeted expenses. The near terminal condition the CSO Board now faces is the direst of any business in the death-throws of its existence – if fixed costs cannot be met, the only option is to declare bankruptcy to stop the financial hemorrhage.

In another time, long ago, the quality of music, sources of musicians, and audience of the then CSO was far different than today. It was a quintessential community orchestra in every sense of the word. Over fifty years ago, it was not uncommon to find many high school band members and well-known music teachers among its members. Most certainly, the music and presentations were far from the quality offered by today’s CSO musicians. But it had one important component now lacking in today’s patrons – the proud parents, relatives and friend of the hard-working part-time musicians that played their hearts out for the enjoyment and appreciation of music for themselves and their audience. There was a community pride in something that Charleston could call its own.

Relatively speaking, when compared to today’s regional population and community wealth, the CSO of decades ago had far fewer resources to draw from, but, with the pride of stakeholders and strong middle-class community support, it continued to thrive decade after decade as a home-town, community orchestra. No, it wasn’t “world-class” and didn’t pretend to be, but those at its helm had the prerequisite financial survival skills and courage to use them. When necessary, they “cut the pie to fit the pan”, wisely used what resources they had and didn’t publicly “cry about it”.

Today’s CSO is too top-heavy, too political, too elite, and too expensive to survive in the financial reality of Charleston’s “new normal’. Charleston is not, and hopefully never will be, an Atlanta, Philadelphia, Boston or any other big “world-class” city. The reality is that Charleston’s current city administration cannot afford its reach; neither can the CSO. Over the past few decades, countless CSO board members “from off” have listened too intently to the unwavering siren song emanating from City Hall and have done so at the CSO’s financial peril.

Like Icarus, driven by vanity, “world-class” visions and pride, the current CSO has flown too close to the sun. Only time will tell if it crashes and burns in a pile of smoldering feathers or rises again as a much better managed, albeit leaner and wiser Phoenix.

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