A significant drop in fundraising dollars, exacerbated by the recession's "strong headwind" has forced the Charleston Symphony Orchestra to suspend its operations, effective immediately, board president Ted Legasey said Sunday.

It is the first time in the orchestra's 75-year history that a performance season has been disrupted because of acute financial difficulties, and next season's fate is far from certain.

The remaining Masterworks concert, scheduled for April 17, has been canceled. Ticket holders will be asked to donate the cost of tickets to the organization or be reimbursed, Legasey said.

Symphony management will downsize its staff and develop a restructuring plan with the hope that bankruptcy can be avoided and the organization can regain its footing in time for next season, he said.

"The recession has taken a fragile economic enterprise and put it in a vise," Legasey said.

The drastic move was caused by a decline in major gift giving of 60 percent compared to last year, he said.

The symphony likely would have canceled its season earlier but for two recent bequests worth about $490,000, which has enabled the organization to pay musicians through April 4, Legasey said.

Mid-level donors also have given less this year, according to Tara Scott, director of marketing.

The board, which approved a temporary suspension of operations at its meeting Thursday, now must strive, with help from staff and musicians, to devise a recovery plan and get the plan financed by investors and donors, Legasey said. Management will seek to extend health benefits to musicians and staff, at a cost of about $17,000 a month, through June if possible.

Musicians heard of the plan, according to Legasey, after their Sunday concert at The Citadel's Summerall Chapel, where music director David Stahl conducted Gustav Mahler's "Songs on the Death of Children" and Samuel Barber's mournful "Adagio for Strings."

Stahl voiced his concerns at the board meeting, and has tried hard during recent months to avoid a shutdown, "but when there's no money, there's no money," he said. "Many lives are being affected."

He said next season's programming was fully determined and was to include performances of Verdi's "Requiem" and Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis."

"This is clearly the most upsetting thing I've ever been through," Stahl said. "It's beyond tragic, it's beyond sad."

He said the past couple of years have been disastrous for arts organizations, and the symphony's current difficulties are "very deflating for Charleston" which "is defined in large part by the depth of its arts community."

Attempts were made to reach several musicians Sunday night, but calls were not returned.

George Stevens, president of the Coastal Community Foundation, said he saw a silver lining.

"This will be very painful for the musicians and for music lovers throughout the Lowcountry, but ironically, a temporary shutdown may breathe new life into the arts in Charleston," Stevens said. "Rebuilding the Symphony piece by piece will break the cycles of huge swings in revenues from minor surpluses to deep deficits. If done correctly, confidence will be restored and all arts organizations will benefit."

Kathleen Wilson, interim executive director and harpist, said she will dedicate herself to restoring the orchestra to good financial health and make the suspension as brief as possible. Many musicians are invested in Charleston and cannot easily find other full-time work, she said.

"This is not lights out," she said.

The restructuring tactic is meant to avoid bankruptcy, Legasey said. "So the organization stays alive. We're just pressing the pause button."

Bankruptcy would be problematic, he said. It would send the restructuring process into the courts and it would put the symphony's two endowments, worth more than $1 million, at risk. The endowment funds are earmarked for the symphony but owned and controlled by the Coastal Community Foundation, which has the prerogative to reassign the money, Legasey said.

About $100,000 already has been collected from subscribers to the 2010-11 season, putting the symphony on course to meet its $300,000 ticket sales goal by the start of next season.

"This is not a ticket problem, this is a fundraising problem," Legasey said.

The board on Thursday voted to place in escrow all money collected from season ticket buyers "because the likelihood is we will have to give it back," he said. More than half of the symphony's budget -- $2.3 million for the 2009-10 season, reduced from about $2.8 million the year before -- depends on fundraising, not ticket sales.

Legasey and Scott said it was critical that the symphony design a business model that the community can support "on a sustainable basis." The organization has not operated within its budget for nine of the past 10 years, Legasey noted.

"The goal of the restructuring is to stabilize the orchestra and come up with a better model," he said. The board plans to bring in an independent mediator from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service of the U.S. Department of Labor.

"We're going to have to make a business case to key people that investing in this is worthwhile," Legasey said.

The Charleston Symphony Orchestra has been struggling financially since the middle of last season, when it announced its own cost-cutting measures that included reducing the number of full-time players.

It is in the midst of a search for a new executive director and has narrowed down the field to four, Legasey said. The budget has included funds for a development director, but qualified candidates have been in short supply, he said.

In October, Stahl announced he was stepping down as music director to focus on other opportunities. Stahl was to remain involved in concert programming and other aspects of the symphony's operation during a three-year transition period.

The search for a new music director was to begin in earnest next season, bringing conductors to Charleston for guest appearances and auditions.

"We have a lot of exciting ingredients for next season," Legasey said. "The missing ingredient is cash."