Symphony Was Heading Into Trouble, But Apparently No One Told The Musicians

I have been reading about the closure of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony in Ontario, Canada and some of the stories are pretty heartbreaking. The concertmaster was in a moving van driving from Montreal to start with the symphony when she received word on September 16 that the 2023-2024 season was cancelled. A few days later, the organization declared bankruptcy.

One thing that caught my eye was a quote from one of the percussionists:

“No one saw it coming — I think that’s pretty clear,” adds percussionist Ron Brown, who had been looking forward to his 50th year with the symphony.

“We were told this just a few hours before the season actually started. The word I use is ‘blindsided.’ ”

I read that to mean, no one had been communicating with the musicians because as you read further in the article, it is clear that plenty of people knew the organization was in trouble. The board chair is quoted as saying the symphony had 8,000 subscribers pre-pandemic and now only had 2,000. She is also quoted acknowledging the operational environment for performing arts in North America and orchestras in particular.

It was clear the board knew they were in trouble and that donors felt the organization needed to be restructured, but it doesn’t sound like anyone told the musicians about where things stood:

“We had gone into the line of credit, which was established to support the orchestra, because we were bankrupt,” said Smith-Spencer before the boom came down.

“We had no money in the bank. We were continuing to have conversations with our federal representatives about a grant request, and our five local MPs were not able to get any clarity. We were counting on that money to allow us to essentially start up the season and move forward.”

Desperate, they approached the same donors who had bailed them out in the past, hoping for a last-minute reprieve.

“I will be very blunt,” says Smith-Spencer.

“These are people who care deeply: past board chairs, people who have contributed so much in the past, people who were even part of the ‘Save Our Symphony’ campaign 17 years ago.

“But they had all come to the conclusion that the orchestra, as it is currently structured, is not viable.”

Another article said management just negotiated a 3% salary increase with the musicians in August which makes me wonder if management was engaging in wishful thinking about being able to raise enough money or weren’t accurately projecting costs.

In any case, in the course of negotiations the musicians should have been made aware of the financial status of the symphony. The possibility of the season being cancelled at the very least shouldn’t have blindsided the musicians, but in two different news articles different musicians state they never saw this coming.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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