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The symphony that refuses to die Add to ...

Prince George's struggling symphony orchestra shouldn't even exist. It has a mammoth $250,000 deficit. It will lose another $95,000 when the B.C. government slices its arts budget. And last year, half the seats in the concert hall were empty during performances.

But the struggling orchestra in the hard-scrabble northern B.C. town refused to die. If the people wouldn't come to the symphony, the symphony decided it would go to the people. It dispatched string quartets to malls, markets, and even the bare-bones Prince George Airport to serenade shoppers and travellers with Beethoven and Mozart in a bid to woo music lovers back to the symphony seats.

Then it trimmed its budget, pared its performance schedule and launched a massive fundraising drive to save the 39-year-old orchestra from bankruptcy.

The unorthodox fundraising efforts seem to have paid off for this town of 70,000, more renowned for its pulp mills than high culture. Last Saturday's Christmas favourite, Handel's Messiah, was sold out.

"Are we going to make it?" asked Elizabeth Aman-Hume, the orchestra's manager. "The next few months will be crucial. We need to bring in a lot of money."

Ms. Aman-Hume and the orchestra have their work cut out for them. In order to stay afloat they must raise tens of thousands of dollars before the end of the fiscal year in May. No small feat in an isolated, northern city where the main industry - the forestry sector - has collapsed, driving the unemployment rate to 12 per cent.

Despite dire economic straits, Ms. Aman-Hume, who took over the symphony's management last winter, was determined to ensure that classical music had a home in northern B.C. Besides providing performances in Prince George, the symphony's mandate is to draw audiences from all over the northern part of the province from Prince Rupert to the Yukon border.

It also has an educational mandate to inspire young musicians and mentor the most promising.

People still need "arts and beauty in their lives," especially in an economic downturn, Ms. Aman-Hume said.

Prince George isn't the only endangered smaller symphony. Katherine Carleton, head of the Toronto-based Orchestras Canada, said regional symphonies across the country experienced heightened "vulnerability" in the recession.

And symphonies in communities where the local industry is in trouble are particularly vulnerable, Ms. Carleton said, citing auto industry communities in southwestern Ontario where unemployment is also high.

"Orchestras raise 70 to 80 per cent of their budgets on average from ticket sales, donations and sponsors. And where there are particularly challenging times in local economies, it becomes more difficult to find that money," she said.

In Prince George, Ms. Aman-Hume arrived last January during the symphony's darkest days. It had been without a manager for nearly five months when Ms. Aman-Hume's predecessor fell ill. The year before, the symphony orchestra had launched an ambitious season with more performances than ever. Then the recession hit.

Last year, it posted a deficit of $135,700 bringing the orchestra's accumulated deficit to more than $250,000. By August, Ms. Aman-Hume said she wasn't sure the symphony would be able to open its 2009-2010 performance year.

"People told me you're not going to make it past September," she said. "By all intents and purposes, we should have gone out of business. But we chose to fight. Fight rather than fold."

The symphony orchestra launched an aggressive fundraising drive, which netted $50,000. The arrival of string quartets at Prince George malls and the farmers' market help raise the symphony's profile about town. Tickets began to sell at a brisker pace. The number of subscribers doubled.

If the orchestra can keep drawing crowds and the administration sticks to its budget, it hopes to shave $150,000 from its deficit by the end of the next fiscal year in May, 2010.

Ms. Aman-Hume said the symphony isn't out of the woods yet.

"We have one of the greatest challenges in the orchestral community in Canada and we've got it half licked," she said. "We're going to do our best. If all of what we're planning to do comes to fruition and if people keep coming to our concerts … we'll be able to do this."

 

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