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Ears Without Music. The End of the Napa Valley Symphony

The face of Napa culture irrevocably changed forever when local resident David Carr died in an automobile accident in August of 2011. Napa Valley’s Symphony Orchestra depended on the generosity of the patron for more than 40 percent of its budget much of the past decade. Now, with a hole that it is unable to mend, the performing group is heading into bankruptcy court to liquidate hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt.

There are still orchestras in and around the county. The Napa Valley Youth Symphony performs in the area nine to ten months a year—and even toured Europe in June. Otherwise, community music lovers will have to travel to Santa Rosa, Vallejo, Marin, Berkeley or San Francisco to get their fill of classical music. These are not terrible options, but it is not the same as having a reliable, local symphony.

Communities much larger and much wealthier are suffering similar fates. The Philadelphia Orchestra filed for bankruptcy in the spring of 2011. The Honolulu Symphony did the same in 2009. “I, of course, hate to see this happen to any of the local arts,” says Debbie Hayward, President of the Solano County Symphony. “It’s definitely tough times for a lot of us.”

“It’s always unfortunate when a fellow orchestra falters,” says Alan Silow, Executive Director of the Santa Rosa Symphony. “A lot of musicians in the area play with many groups, so it’s hard to have one less place for them to go and make their living.”

While classical music is not as influential as it was even a few decades ago, the average person rarely goes without hearing music performed by a symphony at least once a day. For instance: How many people cannot whistle the theme song from The Simpsons from memory? Would Jaws, Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Apocalypse Now, or even the Harry Potter series be as powerful without a stirring orchestral score?

While classical music has been relegated to a supporting role these days, there is still nothing quite like hearing music performed live and in person. “I think people are finding that they need some enjoyment that is more than just background noise,” says Hayward. “So it’s important that the community has places to go where they don’t have to cross bridges and pay for expensive parking to have a good time.”

Unfortunately, Napa residents are now without the opportunity of hearing talented local musicians play songs that have long been inseparable from those certain times of the year when traditional classical pieces fill the senses. There will be one less chance to hear “The Nutcracker” performed during the Christmas holiday season. The Fourth of July will be without Souza’s best marches. And what Valentine’s Day would be complete without the swelling melodies of those great romantic movements from Liszt or Schubert.

Classical orchestrations were the first truly global genre in music. From Russia to South Africa to Los Angeles, there are few places in the world that do not have at least one composer to tout as one of their own.

The most famous notes in the history of music come from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which was written in the first decade of the 1800s. Is there a parent in this country who has never put his or her child to sleep with Brahms’ Lullaby? One has a difficult time struggling to not cry when listening to Chopin, who has been dead for 160 years. And there are few people who have ever gone without citing the multiple scientific studies that have shown that listening to classical music can make individuals smarter (albeit only temporarily).

At the time this article was written, the Napa Valley Symphony was in the midst of determining whether it should enter bankruptcy through Chapter 7 or 11. The local musicians’ union prefers the latter option as it will allow the company to resume performing again—eventually. This route, however, would be more expensive and require the reorganized symphony to repay its debts to creditors via future earnings. If the group should elect to enter Chapter 7 (which its Board of Directors wanted to pursue) it would be liquidated and all its assets would be sold off to repay creditors—meaning the facilities (and possibly even instruments) would have to be auctioned off to cover past losses.

The Lincoln Theater in Yountville, the Symphony’s primary venue, has also suffered from Carr’s departure from Earth. In December of 2011, the theater closed its doors to undergo restoration that it is still struggling to fund. It has managed to open for special events, like the Festival del Sole, but regular performances are no longer the norm.

The theater was not the ideal setting for the Symphony, but it was welcoming to appreciators of the arts nonetheless. It had the capacity to turn a profit with 1,200 seats, nearly three times the seating as the orchestra’s old home at the Napa Opera House’s 440. Unfortunately, ticket receipts rarely equaled the supply as the symphony averaged $1.1 million in revenues from 2007 through 2010, versus more than $3.5 in expenses.

Some of the local orchestras are thriving, including the Santa Rosa Symphony. “We are the resident orchestra at the new Green Music Center,” says Silow, referring to the newly constructed venue on the campus of Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park (opening on September 29th, 2012), which is already attracting some of the best musicians performing in the world, including Yo-Yo Ma, and Alison Krauss. “We will end this year in the black (in revenue) for the ninth year in a row. And we plan to continue our success.”

In Solano, local orchestras are also treading above their margins. “We’ve been around for 25 years, certainly not as long as the Napa Valley Symphony, but we’re still hanging in there,” says Hayward. “We’re the county’s best kept secret—even though we don’t want to be.”

In the spring of 2012, Suisun City saw the grand opening of the newly constructed Kroc Community Center, featuring a state of the art theater. “We’ve got a few things coming for our 26th season,” says Hayward. “We will definitely be playing the Kroc this fall.”

In July, Napa Valley’s premier classical music event will be without its own symphony orchestra. The Festival del Sole depended on performers from outside of the County—and outside of the United States.

The symphony’s website is down and the phone at its office has been disconnected. The same is true as well of the non-profit fundraising organizations that have helped to keep the orchestra alive, the Friends of the Napa Valley Symphony and Friends of the Lincoln Theater.

The symphony will unfortunately not make it into its 80th anniversary. Even though it was founded during the Great Depression in 1933, it seems that the Great Recession of 2008 was more than enough to end the legacy. “We’re all looking to help each other,” says Hayward. “But no one’s found a new solution to the problem yet.”

Perhaps it was too much of a stretch to commit to a full-time, profession orchestra. The Napa Valley Symphony thrived for most of its existence as a part-time staffed orchestra. It was only in 2007 that the symphony converted to being fully professional.

There are many more options in the Valley that locals and tourists can depend on to entertain them. With so many impressive restaurants, wine bars, and local clubs, it is no wonder that some of those who might have ventured out to the Lincoln Theater have frequently decided to invest their time and money elsewhere.

The wine industry is what drives the economy in Napa. Unfortunately, the pleasure of a community orchestra was only one of the results of a thriving region and not an absolute.

James Hritz grew up in the Wine Country, but has written for various publications across the country. He is happy to be writing and working in his home again.