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Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra Takes Intermission to Gauge Community Support

Running in the red, the organization is considering ending operations for good if it can’t consistently underwrite future shows

This week, the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra announced that it was taking 90 days to explore current and potential community support, and may close up shop if it can’t be found. Click to view larger
This week, the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra announced that it was taking 90 days to explore current and potential community support, and may close up shop if it can’t be found. (Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra photo)

Though its heyday may have been a few hundred years ago, classical music remains ubiquitous: from film scores to advertising.

But the arts patrons who attend and support performances seem to be a dwindling breed.

Like many of its sister ensembles around the country, the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra has been facing an uphill battle to recruit patrons.

This week, the organization announced that it was taking 90 days to explore current and potential community support, and if there is not enough enthusiasm out there to buoy the chamber orchestra for years to come, the group could put down its instruments for good.

“Where do tomorrow’s patrons come from?” asked Chamber Orchestra board chairman Joe Campanelli. “Who sits in today’s patrons’ seats when they’re gone?”

“It’s not like (classical music is) going to go away, but it needs to reinvent itself and make itself more accessible and less stereotyped,” he told Noozhawk.

The orchestra was founded by a conducting student, Jeffrey Evans, in 1978. Five years later, current Maestro Heiichiro Ohyama took the reins and has built the orchestra from a concept to a highly selective and distinguished institution.

“The musicians came to me and said, ‘You don’t have a product problem. You have a community support leadership problem,’” said Campanelli, who has been on the board of directors for almost four decades.

A few years ago, he rounded up major orchestra underwriters, not to solicit more donations, but to inquire whether they believed the musical group had another chapter to write, or had completed its mission of elevating classical music in Santa Barbara and should take a final bow.

His patrons insisted on the former, and an infusion of funding, revamped programming and organizational changes “re-energized the organization” for another few years.

But with the current season’s shows putting the SBCO in the red, the organization is again considering ceasing operations — a blunt play to gauge how much the community appreciates the cornerstone of its classical music scene.

During this 90-day intermission, the board is putting together a task force, hiring a consultant and considering everything from some sort of merger to an endowment. Long-term viability and what sustainability will look like are front and center of this self-audit.

Right now, Campanelli explained, small chamber orchestra events pay for themselves, while the three to four large events at the Lobero Theatre never do. Only 20 to 25 percent of revenues come from ticket sales — the rest, donations.

A sustainable funding plan will also mean covering this past season’s debts.

Though all the logistics for next season are already completed, “if we can’t underwrite the concerts, we shouldn’t put the season on,” Campanelli said.

Even as his ship appears to be taking on more water, Campanelli sounded an optimistic tone, recalling with awe how a person had recently stopped him on the street to hand him a $500 check.

“I was, like, blown away. The ground swell of people who have really cherished this level of expertise is stunning.”

The Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra’s final performance of the season will be May 16 at the Lobero Theatre at 33 E. Canon Perdido St., featuring Italian pianist Alessio Bax playing Robert Schumann. Tickets can be bought here.

“Our feeling is we have 40 years of greatness, we celebrate that, and if we’re given the opportunity to create another 20 or 40 years, that would just be awesome too,” Campanelli said. “This is not a doomsday thing — I don’t look at it that way, and I don’t think that’s the way it should be interpreted.”

To support the Chamber Orchestra, donors can call 805.966.2441 or visit its website.

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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