Struggling orchestra shortens season, takes show on the road

The most obvious thing about the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra’s 2012-13 season — which was released this week — is how short it is.

The number of concerts is being decreased from 10 to six — three classical and three pops. The current season (which ends Saturday) has six classical and four pops.

Anyone paying attention knows that orchestras across the country are making cutbacks because of plummeting attendance and other economic problems.

The Cleveland Orchestra is looking at a large deficit. In Atlanta, musicians are being asked to take a 40 percent pay cut.

The Youngstown Symphony Orchestra isn’t immune. Although it has long been one of the city’s cultural jewels, support is dwindling, and it has been in a downward spiral for several years.

To stay afloat, the YSO has been dipping into its endowment to balance the budget.

But that untenable financial practice is coming to an end.

A six-concert schedule next season is all the YSO can afford, and that’s all there is to it.

Patricia Syak is the executive director of the Youngstown Symphony Society, which operates the orchestra and the Deyor Performing Arts Center.

Putting a positive spin on the situation, Syak says the season is being “right-sized” to better reflect market conditions. The goal, she says, is to live within the money they raise.

She pointed out to me that neither YSO players nor stagehands will be asked for pay cuts.

In addition to the economic downturn, changing entertainment tastes are to blame for declines in attendance and contributions. Adding to the problem in Youngstown is a declining population and an aging core of symphony-goers.

One interesting sidenote is the city’s clear preference for pops. Attendance at pops concerts hovered between 50 percent and 60 percent of the sales capacity at Powers Auditorium, while classical nights were only at about 35 percent.

It should be noted that, unlike in larger cities, the YSO and conductor Randall Craig Fleischer handle both types of shows. There isn’t a separate pops ensemble or conductor.

So, yes, the YSO is versatile.

It’s also talented. Many attendees at last Saturday’s “Opera’s Greatest Hits” concert said it was the best one of the season, according to Syak. The YSO has never sounded better, she said.

So how can they get new people to give it a try?

One effort toward that end will be the Stained Glass Concert Series. Beginning in September, the YSO’s string orchestra, led by Fleischer, will visit churches in Mahoning and Trumbull counties for 90-minute family concerts on Sunday afternoons. The programs will stick to the best-loved works of masters such as Bach, Mozart and Tchaikovsky.

For many people, going to a concert at Powers means getting out of their comfort zone. To overcome that inertia, the Stained Glass series will introduce the YSO to people on their home turf.

Five concerts are planned — Sept. 16, Oct. 21, Nov. 18, Dec. 2 and April 14 — with times and locations to be determined.

Syak said dress will be informal. Because the series is fully underwritten, admission will be free.

Mahoning Valley residents will get one last chance to catch the orchestra this season.

On Saturday, the YSO will present “Broadway Divas,” featuring guest vocalists Christiane Noll, Jan Horvath and Debbie Gravitte.

The three Broadway veterans will sing music from “Gypsy,” “Sweet Charity,” “A Chorus Line,” “Mame,” “My Fair Lady,” “Mamma Mia,” “Jekyll and Hyde,” “Wicked” and “Evita.”

The concert starts at 8 p.m. at Powers Auditorium. For tickets, call 330-744-0264, or go to

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