Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/5/2003 (6771 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Optimism about the orchestra's future is hard to muster, although plans are moving resolutely forward for a season of concerts next year.
Since the WSO board resigned en masse last winter, the organization has been held together with bubble gum and binder twine. The interim management committee, appointed by the province, is expected to submit a business plan by mid-June.
But Premier Gary Doer and his colleagues, having thrown themselves into an election with an agenda dominated by health-care and education costs, cannot be worrying much about this relatively benign issue.
Throughout North America, orchestras are racking up debts and, in some cases, packing up their piccolos. Locally, the WSO subscription renewal campaign has already been hobbled by the late announcement of the main classics series. The subscription base dropped from last year's 9,400 to 8,600 this year. Private and corporate fund-raising have essentially halted because of staff loss and donors skittishness. The accumulated deficit is expected to reach $3.3 million, more than half of the orchestra's annual budget.
The musicians and staff accepted a 20 per cent pay cut for the last two months of this season. By the letter of their most recent three-year contract, which they signed following the disastrous lockout of December 2001 and which expires in August 2004, the musicians are entitled to another three-per-cent above the restored amount.
Boreyko is in the second year of his three-year contract. Next season he will devote 12 weeks to his responsibilities as WSO music director. It is unlikely he would be willing to take a pay cut, since he can work constantly elsewhere.
The musicians, who adore him without reservation, must also look in the mirror. Negotiating a new contract in May 2000, just as Boreyko was being hired, their union flatly refused an offer of six per cent over three years, a revenue sharing plan and no loss of musician numbers or weeks of work.
At the time, the organization had built momentum on many fronts. Season ticket sales were up, funders were secure and the budget stood a chance of being balanced. The union pushed for more. In retrospect, it was a disastrous ploy, which led not only to the loss of their income but a collapse of institutional confidence.
From here there are two paths forward. The first would have the province and city agree that a full-sized orchestra is fundamental to the image of Winnipeg as a cultural and creative capital, important even to the 95 per cent of citizens who do not patronize it. After wiping away the deficit, the cost would be an extra $1 million per year indefinitely.
It is hard to see this happening. Does it make sense to reward fiscal incompetence and holding guns to funders' heads? The WSO subsidy is already generous per capita relative to other orchestras. According to 1997-'98 Statistics Canada figures, the WSO received $2.48 per capita when federal, provincial and municipal grants were tallied. Edmonton's orchestra received $1.60 per capita, Montreal's $1.40 and Toronto's 67 cents.
A more realistic approach, sadly, involves downsizing the orchestra: fewer concerts (the WSO presented 70 this year on top of its dates with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Manitoba Opera) and fewer core musicians, perhaps 50 compared to the current 65. Some have suggested shifting the entire operation to the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, which already employs 20 WSO string players on a freelance basis.
Opinion is split on whether a reduced WSO would result in a lowering of its quality. Attracting new talent would be harder if less work was being offered, and some of the section principals might leave for greener pastures (although, given the state of North American orchestras, those pastures are hardly begging for new sheep).
But some say the decline would be minimal. In Saskatoon, despite having a core of only 10 players, the orchestra is able to field sufficient competent players to perform virtually any repertoire, including the Mahlers and Brahmses. It just takes them longer to rehearse it.
The perils of the WSO must be seen within the context of the larger performing arts community. All groups are having trouble raising corporate money. Manitoba Opera, after near extinction in the late '90s, has stabilized at a level two-thirds of its previous output. Its public subsidy has not been accordingly reduced.
The Royal Winnipeg Ballet earns most of its revenue outside the city. About 3,800 people subscribed to the RWB's 25 home performances this year. In the late '80s, season subscriptions stood at 10,000.
The most graceful transition to the new reality has been made by Manitoba Theatre Centre, where subscriptions to the mainstage playbill have hit 17,100, a record for MTC and the highest in Canada. It is a brilliant achievement, accomplished through an imperceptible shift toward commercial crowd-pleasers -- all without offending the guardians of high culture or the public funders.
Theatre companies -- in fact, all arts groups -- have more flexibility than do orchestras, but this is the strategy a reconstituted WSO must emulate. Consultants' recommendations all boil down to the following: convince the core audience to pay a larger percentage of the true cost; improve outreach to non-traditional audiences; entice rural audiences; play more crowd-pleasers; and enhance the peripheral experience the way sports franchises already do.
Winnipeg has a long history as an arts capital, of which the orchestra has been an integral part. But its dominance has declined. The question isn't how to save the WSO. It's how to save live orchestral music. Winnipeggers need to pursue arts policies concordant with our slow-growing, increasingly non-European and non-affluent population.