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Sarasota Orchestra cuts popular programs, salaries to stay afloat

SARASOTA — Bruised by the weakened economy, Sarasota Orchestra on Monday announced several cost-cutting measures to help it survive the upcoming season, including salary cuts and the cancellation of the popular Manatee Valentine Pops program.

“What we’ve had to do is by necessity,” CEO Joseph McKenna said. “All the businesses — whether it’s the school districts, private business or the local court system — everybody has had to make adjustments. None of us have been excited about those adjustments. ... This is not a nonprofit or for profit thing, this is an everybody thing. And sadly this economy has really left no one exempt.”

With the economy squeezing grants, government funding and corporate and individual gifts, the orchestra had to rely on almost half of its emergency reserves — a total of $515,000 — just to get through last season, McKenna said. This has been the first time during his nearly nine years with the organization that he’s had to tap into reserves.

Even ticket sales, which did well last season, took a slight hit. Patrons bought less expensive tickets to see fewer shows, in some cases.

“It’s a gradual restructuring to how people are behaving in large part because of what the economy has done to our area,” McKenna said. “The economy and available resources have defined what people can do.”

It has also affected how organizations like the Sarasota Orchestra conduct business.

Programming and operational trims will save the orchestra $275,000 from an annual budget of $7 million, said McKenna.

“For us, it’s really looking at the long view,” he said of the economy. “We don’t know how long this is going to last. I don’t think anybody knows.”

The cuts include pay cuts of between 2.5 percent and 10 percent for staff, after their salaries were frozen last season.

McKenna and the orchestra’s artistic director, Leif Bjaland, took 10 percent salary cuts.

Wage reductions will save about $60,000, said McKenna. Also, four open positions will remain unfilled.

Program reductions include the loss of the Manatee Valentine Pops program, which lost $17,000 last season and the three-week Sarasota Music Festival, which lost $30,000 in its 45th season, according to a press release. Also cancelled is the Southern Serenade series, which was performed exclusively in south Sarasota County.

Now, residents there can take advantage of a three-concert Masterworks subscription series at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, with bus service provided.

A few educational programs have also been placed on the chopping block. They include the suspension of the “Fiddlin’ Fun” program and the elimination of two lecture classes and one adult ensemble program. Only two adult ensembles, which have been pushed back from September to November, will remain.

The orchestra’s Youth Orchestra program, which serves more that 200 students in Manatee and Sarasota counties, will not be affected, McKenna said.

Sarasota Orchestra will continue to provide other Manatee performances at Neel Performing Arts Hall on the campus of State College of Florida.

With the loss of Valentine Pops, it will host a special 50th anniversary celebration of its youth orchestra program featuring a concert with youth and professional musicians during the same weekend at Neel, McKenna said.

It will be dubbed “The Thrill of a Lifetime.”

“We’re really excited about it,” said McKenna. “It’s for local kids from Sarasota-Manatee County. We’re trying to look after our year-round people.”

January Holmes, Herald features writer, can be reached at 745-7057.