RALEIGH — The struggling N.C. Symphony has begun its new season with an unusual fundraising drive to secure private donations to be eligible for additional state money.
In the closing days of the legislative session this year, lawmakers approved a special $1.5million appropriation to help the financially strapped orchestra. In order to tap into the money, the symphony must raise $8million in private gifts.
To take advantage of the legislative lifeline, the symphony has begun an extensive campaign of innovative fundraising events and unusual personal appeals from the podium by music director Grant Llewellyn.
At a fundraising auction recently at Caffe Luna, one music patron bid $10,000 for a private recital -- at home -- donated by famed violinist Joshua Bell, who will be appearing with the symphony in January.
"One of the heartening aspects of this is the entire community is rallying to help its orchestra through its challenges," said David Chambless Worters, the symphony's president and CEO. "This [state appropriation] was a critical piece of the puzzle."
The N.C Symphony, like many orchestras across the country, has experienced a steep drop in donations during the recession. It lost $2.1million last year and owes $3.8 million to lenders. Its budget has been cut from $14.1 million to $11.9million.
Since spring, the symphony has taken a series of austerity steps, including a 17percent cut in compensation for musicians. It has canceled the appearance of major artists and conductors, reduced the number of pops concerts, dropped a European tour and scaled back plans for performances that require extra musicians.
The symphony, one of 50major orchestras in the country, has been a cultural force in the state since the 1940s. It receives about 40percent of its budget from individual and corporate donations, 30 percent from ticket sales, 20 percent from legislative appropriations and 10 percent from other sources such as local government grants and endowment earnings.
But state funding became shaky this year, as the legislature was hit with its worst fiscal crisis since the Great Depression.
"It was toughest year we ever faced by far," said Sen. Charlie Albertson, co-chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "There were those who did not want to fund [the symphony] at all."
The legislature has funded the symphony for decades because, unlike most orchestras, it has an educational function and plays in schools across the state. The state provides $2.2 million in annual funding and since 2004 has provided an additional $500,000 a year, for which the symphony has had to lobby each session.
Rather than cut the symphony's budget in a fiscal crisis, the legislature increased it with the $1.5 million challenge grant.
Among the key backers were Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand of Fayetteville, state Rep. Alice Graham Underhill of New Bern, and Albertson, known as the "singing senator," because he is a country singer who has performed at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.
"There is something about music that touches people like nothing else, whether it's church music or other music," said Albertson, who as a boy was taught to play guitar by a blind woman who lived across the street from his Duplin County School.
He said lawmakers were impressed that the musicians and the orchestra's leadership were willing to cut their own salaries.
Underhill grew up attending concerts in Raleigh. She said there is broad support in the legislature for the symphony, because it touches so many lives. The main question, she said, was how much the state could afford.
"These are hard times," Underhill said. "But these are not times to abandon what our forefathers set up for us."
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