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Central New York orchestra soars to new heights despite concern in cuts to funding

Tom Magnarelli
Musicians from Symphoria at rehearsal.

Symphoria, the professional orchestra of central New York, has announced new details on its upcoming fifth season. The orchestra is becoming more popular, but there are concerns over possible cuts to federal funding of the arts.

The orchestra tuned their instruments and prepared for a rehearsal of their show, "Superheroes & Villains of the Silver Screen," on Thursday. Conductor Sean O’Loughlin, a native of Syracuse, entered the stage and shook the hand of the first chair, the leader of the first violin section, as customary.

“This brings out the total kid in me and I think the kid in everyone,” O'Loughlin said.

O’Loughlin said symphonies don’t just play Beethoven, Bach and Mozart. Symphoria has made it a priority to connect young people to the orchestra; those 18 years old and under can go to regular season performances for free. That is just one of the things Symphoria is able to do with the help of federal funding.   

“You can’t go to a movie theater these days and not hear an orchestra it seems so why not bring it to the stage, bring the orchestra to them?” O'Loughlin asked.

The instruments went quiet and rehearsal began with a familiar song, the "Superman" theme by John Williams.

Managing Director Catherine Underhill said Symphoria is a newer organization, one of only two cooperatives in the country, meaning the musicians are involved in the decision-making process. She said they have a rich legacy from the previous orchestra, which filed for bankruptcy in 2011.  

“The opportunity to rethink, reimagine how an orchestra can most effectively serve its community was really a gift for Symphoria,” Underhill said.

Underhill said ticket sales grew by double-digits in the past two years and they are reaching close to 100,000 people each year across a wide swath of central New York. But ticket sales only account for about one-third of their total budget. Symphoria relies on funding from the New York State Council on the Arts, which gets its funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, an agency up for elimination in President Donald Trump’s proposed budget.

“We could charge a lot more, and we could bring that percentage up, but then we would only be able to make ourselves available to those who have significant resources,” Underhill said.

Underhill said she does not think it will come to that.

"I am confident that we have enough smart people in government who recognize the broad public value of having arts and cultural organizations that present programming, bring people together around the shared experience of the arts, is critically important to the health in our communities,” Underhill said.

Symphoria will hold free performances at parks throughout the region in July. Their new season will include classic symphonies, violin concertos celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Erie Canal, as well as music from Disney and Broadway.

“Superheroes & Villains of the Silver Screen,” performs this weekend in Syracuse at the Crouse-Hinds Theater.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.