The Musicians of Orchestra London and the sound of victory

One of the final articles I worked on in 2014 was a story about the imminent demise of Orchestra London Canada.  Published in The London Yodeller in mid-December, thanks to the miracles of modern technology, you can still read it here.

I capped off 2014 co-writing a story about Orchestra London Canada.

I capped off 2014 co-writing a story about Orchestra London Canada.

This was a unique assignment in many ways.

If you are one of the few people who pays attention to by-lines, you’ll notice that the story was co-authored by myself and friend and colleague Richard Young. In a decade of writing, this was my first collaboration. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, involving animated conversation, plenty of background research, and many interviews. In the end, we had too much material for our word-count, so Richard did the writing and I got out my ‘red pencil’ to cut things down to size.

(Writing Tip: Always stick to your assigned word-count. It’s better to do your own word cull than rely on an editor who may leave your beautifully-crafted copy in shreds.)

This story was also close to my heart. As a former oboist, I completed my journalism internship with Orchestra London’s marketing department, and was hired by the organization upon graduation from J-school in 2004.

I worked as part of the Orchestra London marketing team for several years.

I worked as part of the Orchestra London marketing team for several years.

I continued to write press releases and other marketing and development copy for the orchestra on a freelance basis until August 2009, when I decided it was time to move on from what had become a toxic work environment.

(Work/Life Tip: When a client causes sleepless nights on a regular basis, it’s time to fire them.)

But I’ve kept in touch with several former colleagues, including many of the musicians.

So I’m sad to see this orchestra on the verge of bankruptcy, and angry at the board for allowing the financial situation to get so out of hand. You can read more about the mess here and here.

That brings us to last night, and a concert given by the Musicians of Orchestra London as a thank-you to their audience and as a plea to the community to help them find a way to keep the music alive.

You can read a review by Brian Hay here.

The evening was a sell-out, and a veritable love-in for classical music in London.

It was a sold-out event. Photo credit: Bryan Nelson.

It was a sold-out event. Photo credit: Bryan Nelson.

Luckily our newly-elected Mayor and a few City Councillors were there to see and hear it. (Hopefully they also heard the clanking church pipes and realized that at some point London does need a purpose-built performance venue if it wants to be taken seriously as a ‘world class’ city.)

But after last night’s good vibes dissipate, the orchestra’s musicians are still left wondering: How am I going to pay my bills? Some have already moved on to new ventures, and many others must seriously be considering their future options.

The board has gone silent, and seems to be hoping that someone will magically appear to pay their debts – the most pressing ones owed to Revenue Canada.

Bankruptcy seems inevitable, and many are calling for a financial audit.

Going broke would allow the orchestra to walk away from almost $1 million in accumulated debt, and an untenable union contract with IATSE.

It would also disqualify the orchestra from receiving Federal or Provincial arts funding for up to seven years.

The City of London has already said it won’t step in with emergency funding – probably the right decision given the murky circumstances surrounding this financial crisis.

But it could continue to provide a new ensemble with the annual $500,000 grant previously given to Orchestra London Canada. Then, perhaps other community agencies like the London Community Foundation could kick in some financial support, along with local businesses who understand that culture is an important piece of London’s economic puzzle.

Culture is an important part of the economic puzzle.

Culture is an important part of the economic puzzle.

A true partnership could be built between a future orchestra and Western University’s Faculty of Music, ensuring that players are also employed to teach the next generation. (Orchestra London’s top salary was about $26,000 – so members have always had to find additional revenue sources)

A new orchestra would have to be lean and mean. It would need the flexibility to create concerts that make the orchestra an integral part of the community, and that make financial sense.

But as last night’s concert proved, the Musicians of Orchestra London can do a lot more than play. They organized a sold-out event on a shoestring budget. They understand their craft, and they know how to reach their audience.

Conductor Uri Mayer said he chose to close the evening with Beethoven’s 5th because the Roman numeral V was a ‘v’ for victory – the victory of music.

Conductor Uri Mayer said Beethoven's 5th Symphony represented the 'victory of music.'

Conductor Uri Mayer said Beethoven’s 5th Symphony represented the ‘victory of music.’

Last night, the Musicians of Orchestra London won the battle for the hearts of their core audience. Let’s hope London has the imagination to give them the financial and moral support needed to win the war.

Game Changers – Or how to find the Rainbow Connection

One of my dear friends who works in fundraising recently invited me to join her at the official launch of the London Community Foundation’s 2013 Community Vitality Grant Program. With the title “Community Vitality – Game Changing Ways” and featuring keynote speaker, Seattle-based ‘community builder’ Jim Diers, how could I resist?

Jim Diers

Keynote speaker, Jim Diers, was invited to share his passion for community building.

I checked my cynicism at the door, and vowed to open myself to the possibility that this might be more than just another pie-in-the-sky session about how little London Ontario could become a ‘world-class’ city with a bustling downtown and thriving creative class.

Diers didn’t disappoint.

His presentation began with the refreshing acknowledgement that any discussion about community building cannot simply be about where we want to get, but must also be about finding the means to achieve our collective goals.

And he offered three key ideas to help us get there:

To change community, change how you play. 
Break down the silos that exist between non-profit organizations, and government departments. Focus on the whole place, rather than just one slice of the pie. In Seattle, this meant establishing a Department of Neighbourhoods with physical (not virtual!) branches in each area of town – a one-stop shop where residents can access information and city resources. Diers described Department of Neighbourhoods staff as “overt double-agents,” city employees who actually work for the good of their own neighbourhood.  

Shift your thinking from starting with needs, to starting with strengths.
This comment was directed at the many non-profit social agencies in the room. Too many times, Diers said, agencies focus on what clients lack, rather than what they already have. If you start with what people can offer they become citizens with something to contribute rather than faceless service users. Quite a radical proposition to offer a room full of people whose own livelihood relies on having a social problem to fix.

Move from top-down projects to community-driven initiatives.
This is where Diers offered an actual road map for turning collective dreams into reality. Seattle is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the city’s Neighbourhood Matching Fund. It’s a simple concept that has had powerful results:  if a neighbourhood has an idea for a one-time project and can rally enough financial and community support, the city will match the funds.  Diers showcased many Seattle success stories, including neighbourhood parks, community gardens, social housing developments, and even a youth arts program. My favourites were turning the top floor of a parking garage into an urban community garden, and a public art competition that transformed a derelict underpass into a tourist attraction.

Seattle Troll

The Seattle Troll turned a derelict urban underpass into a tourist attraction.

As Diers noted, community-driven development has several benefits over government-driven initiatives:

  • Implementation actually happens 
  • Government resources are leveraged
  • Appropriate development is encouraged
  • More holistic and innovative solutions are found.

That left the room to discuss the question: What would game-changers look like in London, Ontario?

Here’s my answer – and as someone who works in the cultural sector, it might surprise you:

Clean up our urban waterways so they are swimmable. This includes the Thames River and Fanshawe Lake.

Creating a public beach at the Forks of the Thames has already been proposed by city planners, and widely ridiculed in the media. But I’ve swum in almost every city in Switzerland, including downtown Geneva and Bern, as well as in many communities on the Bodensee (the lake between Germany, Switzerland and Austria), so I don’t see why we can’t do it here.

Rainbow Connection

I’ll continue to dream about a day when I can swim in the Thames!

Of course, cleaning up the Thames is a huge project that would take more than community builders to achieve. But I’m allowed to dream, and I know it would be a game-changer.

I’m sure many in the room had more practical ideas that could quickly come to fruition with some elbow grease and a London Community Foundation Community Vitality Grant, and I look forward to seeing them spring to life.

As for me, I’ll leave you to contemplate this photo from….

Bern river swim

Swimming in downtown Bern, Switzerland…those are the parliament buildings in the background.

What are your game-changing dreams for London?