CSO feels pinch
In its 72-year history, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra has had its moments of near demise.
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But rarely have things looked this bleak.
CSO board president Ted Legasey shocked some audience members Saturday during intermission of the Masterworks concert when he announced they could be attending the final CSO concert of 2008 unless the group raises $250,000 immediately to pay for the month of December.
Because of the dire situation, up to a dozen musicians and five board members got together Monday at a hastily assembled phone bank at the CSO's offices at 145 King St.
Each caller was given a script: board members were to call lapsed donors and ask for $1,000; musicians were to call subscribers who are not donors and ask for $100.
"But accept any amount at all," Emily Rybinski, CSO's director of public relations, told them.
Among the musicians present, with his violin case close at hand, was Yuriy Bekker, the CSO concertmaster. "I'm not really that surprised because of the economy, and I wanted to do my part," he said.
The first 30 minutes yielded mixed results. Board member Randy Gilmore had two lucky calls: One person said even though he was in poor financial shape, Legasey's speech Saturday prompted him to donate. Another person who had donated $1,000 last year but hadn't given any this year agreed to contribute $1,000 by Dec. 1.
Board member Mariano La Via wasn't as lucky. "Three phone calls and three answering machines," he said in his Italian accent, "but I'm keeping on trying."
CSO officials say another phone plea might be held tonight.
Earlier Monday, Legasey said, "We are perilously close to not being able to make payroll for December. On Friday, I informed the musicians of this so they can make appropriate plans."
The board president said the infusion of $250,000 would get the CSO through Jan. 3. After that, the orchestra is scheduled to get some money from the city of Charleston and the town of Kiawah Island, but that is not expected to be enough to make January's payroll.
"We are behind $1 million for our budget this fiscal year because people are just not buying tickets," Legasey said. "We need $1 million to get us through May, when our season ends."
Monday morning, musicians met with members of the union to which they belong, Coastal Carolina Association of Professional Musicians Local 502, of the American Federation of Musicians, and discussed the provisions of the current contract between the musicians and orchestra association. The hope was that CSO management and the union could work together to find a way to keep the orchestra afloat.
Of the two-hour gathering, Legasey said, "This was an information-gathering meeting so that the musicians could understand where we, as management, stand on this and then can relay the information to the other musicians.
"The musicians may decide to form a committee and negotiate with us. I don't know," Legasey said.
"The board of directors is committed to the preservation of the symphony and the well-being of its players and their families; however, we must make some painful operating reductions if we are to get through this season. The jeopardy the orchestra faces is real," he said.
Harpist Kathleen Wilson, who has performed with the CSO for 22 years and makes $22,000, said she is worried about losing her job.
"This is very serious, and although my husband works with an industry and I teach a few harp classes, we have two children to support," she said. She also is a Charleston City Council member. She said the city plans to give the CSO $116,000 in January, a 20 percent reduction from last year.
The revenue for CSO single-ticket sales is down 32 percent, Executive Director Janet Newcomb said.
"We were doing very well in subscription sales up until the economic downturn hit us," she said.
Newcomb said the board had projected a deficit of $68,000 for the $2.9 million 2007-08 budget, but the official audit increased the deficit to $229,661.
Even though the CSO has two endowments administered by the Coastal Community Foundation, Newcomb said the limit on disbursement from each one could not exceed 4 percent.
Newcomb said a bright financial spot is that the Backstage Pass series, held in Memminger Auditorium, has met its single-ticket sales goals for the first two performances this season. Also, the CSO recently received a sponsorship from the Ginn Development Co. and other first-time grants from a number of corporations.
"Our big hope is that the town of Kiawah will give the CSO a level line-item grant of $50,000 in January," Newcomb said.
However, Legasey said, "More than half of our revenues must come from contributions and sponsorships from the community. In this current economy, it is very hard to see how the needed level of support will be there."