After 27 years of bringing the world’s classical musicians to Central Florida, the Festival of Orchestras has ceased operations.
The organization, which has sold more than 250,000 tickets to more than 100 concerts, is the victim of the economic downturn and venue-scheduling difficulties, said executive director Susan Carey, one of the festival’s two employees.
“It was a double whammy,” Carey said. She will spend a few weeks winding down the business, including preparing documents and photos for donation to the Orange County Regional History Center.
Leaders of other classical-music organizations saluted the tenure of the festival but said its mission of presenting out-of-town groups likely worked against it in tough times.
“There’s a great marketplace for classical music in Central Florida, but audiences like to be connected to the organization,” said David Schillhammer, executive director of the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra. “They had a unique challenge in that regard.”
Elizabeth Gwinn, executive director of the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park, had similar thoughts.
“You just don’t have the same audience support for visiting artists,” she said. “The saving grace for organizations like us and the Orlando Philharmonic is we have roots in the local community.”
The Festival of Orchestra’s board of directors voted last week to stop programming, rather than go into debt.
“It’s very sad but it was the right decision,” said board chairman Louis Supowitz. “We said we will not jeopardize the 27-year reputation of the Festival of Orchestras.”
“They went out in the right way,” said Margot Knight, head of United Arts of Central Florida, which helped fund the festival. “They didn’t make promises for a season they can’t provide. Nobody’s left holding the bag.”
The Festival of Orchestras was the smallest of United Arts’ cornerstone cultural groups, the organizations with the most significant budgets. For fiscal year 2010, the festival had estimated income of about $677,000, including a $67,909 grant from United Arts. Ticket sales accounted for about 42 percent of that income.
“They did a great job growing a subscriber base in Seminole County,” Knight said. “They just didn’t grow fast enough.”
Seminole County audiences proved important when the festival moved its concerts to Northland Church in Longwood this season after scheduling conflicts at Orlando’s Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre.
Orchestras generally book tours years in advance but the Bob Carr couldn’t guarantee its availability that far ahead, Carey said. Two seasons ago, the festival presented concerts at various locations, including the Osceola Center for the Performing Arts and the Chapin Theater at the Orange County Convention Center, before establishing a home at Northland.
Despite cooperation from Northland and critical praise for the acoustics there, the change in venues turned off longtime subscribers, Carey said. New subscribers in Seminole County and farther afield, such as from The Villages in Lake County, helped make up for the drop, Carey said, but it wasn’t enough.
In addition, fewer orchestras tour these days — and those that do have limited schedules and are expensive to present. Most cost between $50,000 and $180,000 for a single concert, Carey said.
“Tickets don’t sell enough to cover even half an orchestra’s cost,” she said, adding additional expenses are required for building rental and advertising.
A third factor was public radio station WMFE’s decision to end its classical-music programming, Supowitz said. “We lost our promotion vehicle,” he said. “It was just the perfect storm.”
The Festival of Orchestras was founded in 1984 under the name Orlando Community Concert Association. The group at first presented recitals by notable classical-music artists, but soon after began scheduling orchestras.
Among them: The New York Philharmonic, the London-based Royal Philharmonic and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. This year’s season saw the BBC Concert Orchestra and concluded with a near sell-out performance by the Boston Pops.
“We filled a void that existed for bringing in world-class symphony music,” Supowitz said. “We brought that culture here.”
Neither Gwinn nor Schillhammer thought their groups would be interested in presenting touring orchestras. The Bach Festival has a longstanding partnership with Rollins College, Gwinn said, and though it presents touring soloists and chamber groups, there isn’t a hall big enough at the college to support an orchestra performance. The Philharmonic’s mission is to support local musicians, Schillhammer said.
But Carey was optimistic that classical-music tours aren’t gone for good.
“I have faith that at some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, these major touring orchestras will come back to Orlando,” she said.