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Getting Your Phil

Hear that? The gaping beaks of Juilliard-schooled, hungry hatchlings peeping pitifully for funding that never comes? All over South Florida this week, classically trained, unionized, professional musicians are glued to their computers while updating their résumés, searching for jobs online, and waiting for the guillotine to fall on their collective necks.

Stressful? You bet.

Even at this office, discussion of whether the symphony is relevant to our readers remains contentious. Bandwidth's sympathies lie with the musicians more than the community, which is content to pay lip (and license plate) service to the arts. Floridians are glad the arts are around, kind of like they are glad national forests exist -- not that they'd ever pay money to visit. The musicians devote a vast percentage of their lives to study and practice, and endure a stringent selection and hiring process, only to be rewarded with the unending uncertainty that is the Florida Philharmonic. This crew of 80-some folk must feel like Kyle McLachlan did when he was being pursued by the sadistic, nitrous-sniffing Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet, who was always cackling, "You got about two fuckin' seconds to live, buddy!"

None of the musicians was pleased with the settlement of the 2000 strike (see "Stage Fright," December 12, 2000) that left them clutching an empty promise of a 30 percent pay raise over five years. Less than three years into that contract, those musicians were forced to cut their own throats (agreeing to a 17 percent cut in wages, elimination of disability coverage, and a rise in insurance premiums) to keep the orchestra from the grave -- again.

One former employee, who resigned last year amid the chaos and confusion, says, "It's a shame [the public] can't support a world-class orchestra." Still critical of the conditions that made the philharmonic so vulnerable, the ex-employee (who didn't want to be named for fear of burning former colleagues still clinging to their jobs) continued: "No one in programming is in touch with reality. The programming is completely stale. They have no vision, and there hasn't been solid management for years. I was even using a 20-year-old computer."

The notion that South Floridians are somehow more resistant to culture than the rest of the country holds some water, naturally. Just check the inverse-corollary-stock-car rule: Any place NASCAR is big, you best believe Chopin is mopin'. How can you pull folks away from their Dale Earnhardt shrine long enough to sit still and listen to Beethoven? Fort Lauderdale's Museum of Art remains on the ropes, even after last month's big-deal exhibit of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. As government funds for the arts melt away faster than an ice cube under a heat lamp, where do institutions catering to culture turn for support? Rich people, that's where.

The fact is, classical music barely generates a profit anywhere. It's not a self-sustaining business, like, you know, the Marlins or American Airlines. Every year, the Phil regularly runs in the red in a big, bad way -- usually to the tune of at least a million bucks. So far this year, the organization is down at least three times that. Funny that in a place with so much conspicuous consumption (face it, there are an awful lot of Rolls-Royce dealerships in the Phil's target market), Mr. and Mrs. Moneybags have not yet seen fit to kick down the cash advance needed to keep the orchestra on life support.

Does it make sense for wealthy patrons to donate money to an organization that isn't selling tickets anymore, won't promise an upcoming season, says it can't make payroll, and may not even exist next week? The Phil's three options are bleak: It can file for Chapter 7 and dissolve the orchestra, leaving all those folks unemployed and the area with the New World Symphony as its only classical performance package. On the cultural face of it, the death of the philharmonic would seem a horrific blow, but if the public doesn't care, how bad is it really, save for those musicians who will join the soup queue?

The orchestra could file for Chapter 11, shuffle around staff and resources, cut loose dead-weight personnel, and embark on a half-ass, cut-rate season.

Finally, Dan Lewis, chairman of the Phil's board of directors -- who made his millions as a bigwig for a car insurance company -- could use some of those bills as a bandage to stanch the bleeding temporarily. He's already promised $16 million of his own funds if $49 million more miraculously materializes. He was hoping to raise about $65 million in less than a month -- a wholly unrealistic feat.

Of course, none of the above "solutions" takes into account (or even acknowledges) that the Phil's fundamental flaw is that it's completely reliant on a demographic that's dying much, much faster than new fans can be added. And all the last-minute mail-ins in the world can't fix that.

Next week: the final curtain call

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton

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