Last week brought news that the Bellevue Philharmonic will be shutting its doors after 43 years. In a statement released on Friday, Philharmonic Board President Janis Wold said that despite it being an "amazingly lean" organization that had recently undergone "a great number of improvements to [its] operation and structure," the orchestra couldn't withstand "decreases in available funding, debts incurred in prior years, and an increasingly competitive environment for households' discretionary entertainment."
Unfortunately, Wold didn't think to share this bad news with the musicians before announcing it publicly."I heard about it on Facebook," says violinist Karin Islip, who has been with the Philharmonic for over eight years and who, along with her colleagues, had played for minimum wage for the past two years in an effort to keep it afloat. "It isn't the most pleasant way to hear about something like this."
Michael Miropolsky, the Philharmonic's music director, got a letter from the board on May 31 informing him his recently signed three-year contract would be terminated a few days before news of the orchestra's demise went public. Still, he says, "It was a little strange. The board knew, but even me as well as the manager were kind of in the dark [until receiving the termination notice]."
The poor communication between the suits and the talent is sadly befitting of the Bellevue Philharmonic. In 2008, the board, in an effort to bring the Philharmonic to greater heights both financially and musically, brought in an executive director, Jennifer McCausland, who proved wildly unpopular with the musicians.
McCausland got rid of the conductor at the time, and assumed responsibility for deciding which musicians would be allowed to remain with the Philharmonic--decisions typically made by an orchestra's conductor or music director. Next, she declared that all string players would have to re-audition for their jobs, a demand she backed away from only after no outside musicians would agree to try out in solidarity with those at the Philharmonic. And she ended a popular program that sent Philharmonic musicians into fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms to teach and perform for students, replacing it with a paid program for toddlers and their parents.
The musicians responded by unionizing--a move fought by McCausland and the board--and the embattled executive director was eventually forced out of her job. But the Philharmonic, still transitioning from a community orchestra to a professional one, never found firm financial footing. Wold and other board members blame this on the bad economy. But union representative and former Philharmonic harpist Motter Snell says it's not so simple. The Tacoma and the Auburn Symphony Orchestras, both comparable in size and ambition to the Bellevue Philharmonic, are both doing fine, she says.
Rather, Snell says, the board lacked the ability or enthusiasm for fund-raising, and failed to get out word about the orchestra.
"I did not see a marketing plan in place to grow the audience," Snell says. "And they let the educational program falter. That is a very important piece for developing the next generation of classical musicians."
(Wold did not immediately return a call for comment. We'll let you know if and when she does.)
Whatever the reasons for its demise, the Philharmonic will play one final concert, on July 4, in Bellevue City Park. They'll go out with a bang, playing "The Star-Spangled Banner" and other patriotic standbys as the fireworks go off.
And who knows? Maybe it won't be the last show after all.
"I'm not a person who gives up so easily," says Miropolsky, the music director. "We will try to do something, to reincarnate the orchestra with a different angle and vision. And a different board, of course."