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Bankruptcy Ends 60-Year Run For the Arlington Symphony

The Arlington Symphony in a performance last year: The orchestra had employed as many as 90 musicians.
The Arlington Symphony in a performance last year: The orchestra had employed as many as 90 musicians. (Debbie Accame Photography)

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By Aymar Jean
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The 60-year-old Arlington Symphony has filed for bankruptcy, shutting down one of the older orchestras in the Washington area. Over the years, it has played for children in elementary and high schools, families in parks and members in its concert hall at Northern Virginia Community College.

The professional symphony had struggled financially for years. Its debt now is about $140,000, with an annual operating budget of $300,000 to $400,000, board Vice President Walter Wurfel said.

According to papers filed Friday in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Alexandria, the symphony owes hundreds of creditors, many of them ticket holders, for its canceled May 14 concert. Over the past three seasons, its income has dropped by more than $100,000, mainly because of declining contributions and fewer grants, the filing said.

Mary Hewitt was the only board member to vote against filing the Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition. Hewitt, 93, has been involved with the symphony since 1965 and attended its first concert in the 1940s.

"It's a new, young board, and they couldn't see any way out," Hewitt said. "They didn't have the history of this wonderful organization, and I guess that was my chief trouble."

The symphony joins many others nationwide that have closed their doors in the past five years, nearly all citing difficulty raising money from large donors. After the sharp economic downturn in 2001, symphonies from San Jose to Savannah to the District have shut down or amassed huge deficits. Some have since bounced back and resumed playing.

Hewitt is working with Bonnie Williams, a former director of the symphony, to revive the orchestra. For now, Williams said, they are just exploring ideas. "A lot of focus is on what's happened, and why it happened."

"There are a lot of subscribers that are really not very happy about this," Williams said. She said Arlington still has the basis of a great orchestra -- talented musicians and a world-class conductor.

The Arlington Symphony employed from 60 to 90 part-time professional musicians, depending on the concert. Some musicians had other sources of income, but others became so devoted to Arlington's respected conductor, Ruben Vartanyan, that they may find it difficult to find new work, Wurfel said. The symphony had a subscriber base of 400, with a concert venue of more than 900 seats. It performed five concerts a year, similar to its neighbor, the Alexandria Symphony.

County Board Chairman Jay Fisette (D) lamented the loss of the symphony but noted that the area will still have Alexandria's symphony, which performs in the same concert hall, the Schlesinger Center, and receives generous support from the city and state.

"It's a disappointment, and that's no question," Fisette said. "The symphony has had hard times for quite some time. I know there's been significant challenge for this organization."

The Washington Chamber Symphony was almost $450,000 in debt when it closed suddenly in July 2002, leaving many season ticket holders unhappy.

Rhonda Halverson, who was executive director of the Chamber Symphony at the time it closed, said smaller symphonies such as Arlington's lack the visibility of organizations such as the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center, making it harder to raise money. Similar problems have arisen with symphonies outside other large cities, including San Francisco and New York.

"You have a lot of organizations competing for the same dollar," said Halverson, who now works for a symphony in California and finds the market there less competitive. "Most people only have limited funds to be able to use for contributions for charitable causes."

Arlington's symphony operated the way many others across the country do: relying on advance ticket sales to pay expenses, board members said.

The Alexandria Symphony had operated that way for years but changed its practices and is now making a profit, said board President Stan Krejci. Cash flow, he said, "is the bane of all symphonies. The cash never comes when it's supposed to."


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