Founded in 1932 as the Dutchess County Philharmonic Orchestra, the venerable Hudson Valley Philharmonic (HVP) is currently in trouble. Exactly how much trouble isn’t yet clear, but its owner, the Bardavon 1869 Opera House, has proposed cutting it loose to sink or swim on its own, citing skyrocketing budget deficits, according to Orchestra members. In a statement recently shared with patrons of the theater, Bardavon executive director Chris Silva characterized his organization’s position as wanting a “pause” of the 2022/23 season.
It wouldn’t be the first time that the HVP has faced rough financial times. In fact, the Orchestra was bankrupted in 1998 by a sweet-talking swindler named Francis A. Zarro, Jr., a Saratoga developer and attorney who pretended to have much deeper pockets that he actually did. Zarro proposed to fund an ambitious summer concert program, failed to deliver when it came time to pay the bills and ended up defrauding the HVP out of nearly $1.3 million. The Orchestra was far from his only victim: In 2004 Zarro was convicted of 13 of 38 counts of grand larceny, to the tune of more than $25 million. He was sentenced to seven to 21 years in state prison, but it took until 2010 to exhaust all his appeals.
Unfortunately, his shady dealings with the HVP were among the charges of which Zarro was acquitted, so there was no restitution of any of the lost funds. Three regional philanthropic entities – the Dyson Foundation, the Jane W. Nuhn Charitable Trust and the McCann Foundation – stepped in to offer grants to save the Orchestra during this crisis, provided the Bardavon would step in to reorganize. The New York State Legislature also found some funding to help with the rescue effort, and in June of 1999, the HVP officially became a Bardavon subsidiary.
That change of ownership brought with it an endowment fund, only five percent of which can legally be withdrawn annually, according to Rachel Crozier, a violinist who co-chairs the Orchestra Committee that negotiates with the Bardavon each time a contract comes up for renewal. The HVP, whose members are all unionized through the American Federation of Musicians, works on a September-to-May calendar. Its current collective bargaining agreement with the Bardavon was supposed to run from 2017 to 2020, but was extended on account of the COVID hiatus, Crozier explained: “Normally, we would be in negotiations now.”
Still reeling from the sudden death in August 2020 of their music director and conductor since 1992, Randall Craig Fleischer, and unable to perform live for a year-and-a-half, Committee members said that they were nonetheless floored when Silva announced that he viewed the Orchestra as no longer sustainable. “Coming in, we knew there would be talk about finances. But it was a bombshell that they would suspend the season,” said Fran Duffy, principal harpist and co-chair with Crozier of the Orchestra Committee. “We had optimism for growth, not cuts. Many orchestras are in better shape now than before the pandemic.” She pointed out that the two other orchestras of which Fleischer had been music director, the Anchorage Symphony and Ohio’s Youngstown Symphony Orchestra, “have either hired someone else or have been reviewing candidates based on guest conductors.”
Duffy also noted that the Bardavon has not had a development director “at least since 2019,” although there is a grantwriter on staff. That means that, other than the executive director, there’s no one at the Bardavon whose job it is to cultivate the pandemic period’s well-heeled new arrivals to the mid-Hudson to become major donors. “We are surprised by Mr. Silva’s suggestion that this area – the beautiful Hudson Valley region, a sought-after place to live and visit, with a thriving artistic community – is not able to support a modest symphony orchestra,” Duffy wrote.
In his statement to patrons, Silva pointed to reductions in grant funding as a major part of the Bardavon’s woes: “In 2023, the HVP will lose another $100,000 in direct support because a few major funders have changed their priorities. As a result, we project a $275,000 deficit for the HVP in 2022/23; for the Bardavon to continue to lose that amount of money each year threatens our entire operation and our future.”
While several meetings between the Orchestra Committee and Bardavon staff and Board members have taken place this spring, most recently on June 2, much remains unclear, the musicians said. According to Duffy, “Our Orchestra members are waiting for substantial financial information that we have requested almost two months ago but have yet to receive.” All they have been given in writing so far is a sketchy two-page Excel spreadsheet that does not answer many of their questions, they said, such as how much is available from the HVP endowment.
For his part, Silva declined to be interviewed for this article, saying, “Given the confidential nature of collective bargaining negotiations, and to ensure those talks follow the National Labor Relations Board’s guidelines pertaining to same, it would be inappropriate for us to discuss them further at this time.” The musicians, by contrast, are taking the position that they cannot even begin to formulate a proposal or negotiate with their employer – technically an entity called UPAC Manager, LLLC – until they have a better handle on the details of the Bardavon’s finances and why shutting down the Orchestra might be fiscally necessary. “We have no confidentiality agreement,” noted Duffy. “Neither side has presented their terms.”
Part of the reason the musicians feel blindsided was that talks with the Bardavon’s Board of Directors earlier this year seemed to have gone well, Crozier said: “They were really excited.” Duffy said that the Committee had presented a number of ideas for more educational offerings, concerts in libraries, young people’s concerts paired with screenings of Harry Potter movies and the like. “Unfortunately, there’s no education pay rate in our contract. The Bardavon education director doesn’t really work with HVP. But the Orchestra could be a huge resource for small ensembles in schools.”
Orchestra Committee members are convinced that the funding for such activities, along with HVP’s regular five-concert season, is out there to be found, if only there were someone dedicated to looking for it. Better marketing to pump up ticket sales is also needed, they said. And it wouldn’t hurt to have a new conductor as charismatic as Fleischer was to act as an ambassador. “If Randy had been here, I don’t think it would’ve happened,” Duffy said sadly.
Whether or not the Bardavon’s staff and directors are motivated to try to boost interest in this 90-year-old regional cultural treasure is another question. In Fran Duffy’s words, “Our official stance is that the Hudson Valley Philharmonic is an asset to the Bardavon, not a burden.”
To follow new developments as the Bardavon and the Orchestra Committee move closer to negotiations, visit www.hvpmusicians.org and MusiciansoftheHVP on Facebook and Instagram.