Creative drive lets orchestra play on

The New Mexico Symphony Orchestra board voted in April 2011 to enter bankruptcy proceedings and close shop. A month later, the New Mexico Philharmonic was performing in its place, largely because most of the NMSO musicians, led by some prescient orchestra members, decided that failure was not an option.

Against some long odds – and with the help of civic leaders, charitable organizations, businesses, labor unions, other orchestras and fans of music – the musicians who put together the Phil did a lot of things right, beginning by recognizing reality.

Christine Rancier, a violist and a member of the Phil staff, says Carla Lehmeier-Tatum, a cellist, saw the possibility of NMSO’s bankruptcy more than a year before it happened.

The symphony always had been able to carry about $600,000 in debt and still manage, Rancier said, but starting in 2008, corporate sponsorships started drying up, the economy tanked, debt rose, and turnover among orchestra management and board members increased. Musicians were asked to take a pay cut.

Lehmeier-Tatum said she had hoped NMSO would find a way to survive, but she decided to organize an alternative “just in case.”

“We didn’t keep it a secret, but we didn’t make it public, either,” she said.

“Many of us believed it could be done. Many of us devoted our entire professional careers to this community. There was just this determination that not only did we want to take care of ourselves, but most importantly, we wanted to offer this to the community.”

Lehmeier-Tatum had been with the NMSO for 24 years; Rancier for 22 years.

“I’ve been in other orchestras where you showed up, you played your rehearsals and concerts, and you went home,” Rancier said. “This is a real family. It’s pretty tightknit. There was a will for everybody to pull together and try to make this work.”
Let’s pause a moment and consider the sheer audacity at work here. The perennially troubled NMSO was failing. The Philadelphia Orchestra, one of the world’s leading ensembles, went through bankruptcy proceedings, though it emerged to play another day. The San Jose, Calif., orchestra, based in the heart of wealthy Silicon Valley, couldn’t pay its bills and closed its doors.

Orchestras all over the country have struggled with declining audiences and eroding donor bases. Yet after more than an hour of conversation with Rancier and Lehmeier-Tatum, there is no hint they expected the Phil to be anything but a success.

From a three-musician nucleus, a board of directors was formed. It met weekly for two to three hours. There was no staff. Board members wrote bylaws and started a search for an executive director.

The new orchestra would need to be organized as a charitable corporation, so volunteer legal help stepped in to get the paperwork together. Donated office space was secured. All of the seemingly trivial things that make any business successful, from thinking about a marketing campaign to coming up with a logo for the new organization, had to be handled by the board.

Some musicians needed help paying their bills, since NMSO was behind on its payroll and the new orchestra wouldn’t launch until the symphony was officially dead.

So a relief fund was created with donations from unionized orchestras and from local trade unions. The Detroit Symphony donated $10,000. Musicians from around the country wrote personal checks.

“We recognized what we couldn’t do, so we’d find somebody in the community who could,” Lehmeier-Tatum said. A volunteer with extensive business experience wrote a business plan, for example. “It was an extremely collaborative environment with the business community members and the musicians” on the board.

The New Mexico Philharmonic offered positions to the 74 NMSO musicians who lost their jobs; 61 accepted. Most of the rest already had taken jobs with other music organizations.

Two days after the NMSO bankruptcy filing, Lehmeier-Tatum was in Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry’s office. Berry, an old trombone player, told her that a great city simply has to have an orchestra. He hosted a black-tie, fundraising gala.

The Phil performed some of the old NMSO’s engagements in its first few months, including a zoo concert that attracted 2,600 people. The current season includes more than 30 concerts. The Phil has started an after-school music program that is serving 52 Dolores Gonzales Elementary School students.

Several weeks ago, I argued in UpFront that New Mexicans have to stop letting poverty, ignorance, timidity, historic resentments, resignation and social pathologies define us, and to start defining ourselves by the talents we have and the ambitions we share.

What the creators of the New Mexico Philharmonic have done is pretty much what I had in mind.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Winthrop Quigley at 823-3896 or Go to to submit a letter to the editor.


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