Tough times ahead for area icon
Members of the Bach and Handel Chorale practice at St. John's Church in Jim Thorpe. Though the Chorale is facing a difficult financial situation and an unknown future, members continue to meet each week and are actively preparing for concerts on April 10 and May 1. Thanks in part to state funding freezes, the Chorale has had to trim its costs and is in need of support from the community.
The members of the Bach and Handel Chorale meet each week at St. John's Lutheran Church in Jim Thorpe, filling the rehearsal room with warm tones and the rich sound of sacred music.
But while members laughed and joked during a recent rehearsal, the chorale may face a bleak future. Unless its financial condition changes, the Bach and Handel Chorale as we know it, will soon cease to exist.
"Over the last year, we've lost $7,000 in state grants and foundation money," said Randall Perry, the director and founder of the chorale. "That's out of a total budget of $25,000. In a heartbeat, it was all gone. The bottom just dropped out from underneath us."
Perry announced the group's troubles during a recent rehearsal. The reaction of its members was to be expected: Shock, concern, and a fear that they may lose a local treasure.
"The look on their faces was, 'Is this it?' That was hard to take," he said. "Losing this would put a hole in a lot of peoples' hearts. I don't want to see this end and I hope that we can keep going, but this is where we are now."
The chorale's first big financial loss came last year, when the state budget crisis led to a freeze in state grants for performing arts. The group also lost several local grants and one generous benefactor.
"It all comes down to the recession," he added. "This has to be the most strenuous year we have had in 25 years. It's the same as when you don't have the money to pay your bills at home. It's very stressful."
The Bach and Handel Chorale isn't alone in its struggles. The Philadelphia Orchestra is one of several performing art groups fighting against bankruptcy. The New York Philharmonic ended last season with a record $4.6 million deficit. As money becomes tight, entertainment is often the first to get cut from household budgets.
The chorale will rely heavily on local partners, sponsors and donations this year. While sponsors have played an important role in the past, they may make the difference between surviving or failing as the chorale attempts to fund future concerts.
"For 25 years, there have been sponsors," he said, noting that local financial groups such as Mauch Chunk Trust, Jim Thorpe National Bank, and Thrivent Financial have supported the chorale for years. "It helps, but we cannot continue like this. Last year, we did five concerts just to bring more money into the budget."
While ticket revenue does help, it's not possible to finance an entire concert on ticket sales alone. Ticket prices range from $12 to $30, depending on the type of concert a small fraction of the cost it takes to stage one night of music.
"We always know that we are going to lose money in an orchestra concert, as far as ticket sales go," he added.
Perry has already ruled out a Festival Orchestra concert this year, citing budget concerns. It simply costs too much to hire instrumentalists. Audience members are also less likely to attend an orchestra concert in a recession because ticket prices are higher, he added.
The group's spring concert was scheduled to be orchestra-accompanied. Perry had purchased the music and was ready to sign a contract with the orchestra when the group's board of directors began to debate the cost.
"If we had gone through with this concert, we would have been bankrupt by July," said Jennifer Sterner, board president. "We're in survival mode now."
Determined to keep the chorale afloat, Perry quickly changed the May concert to a less expensive, piano-accompanied program, similar to the group's Christmas and Easter programs.
"People are disappointed. Our chorale is the only group that has a professional orchestra," he said. "This is how these songs were composed, and meant to be performed with an orchestra. I fought for years to get an orchestra. But it is what it is, and we need to change our course of action until we can create a new long-term plan," added Perry.
Short-term plans include intense fundraising by concert members, which may help to fill some of the budget gaps for this year.
"I feel so bad for our members, because they work so hard. They are sick and tired of fundraising," he said. "We've had to do everything just to make ends meet."
As Sterner and board members examine this year's budget, they're confident that they have enough money to limp through this year. What they're really worried about is next year, and what might happen if things do not change.
"I cannot project into next year. I just do not know what will happen," said Sterner. "It will depend on what type of contributions we get from our advertisers and patrons. We need new community support, whether they support us by attending one of our events or they make a contribution to the local arts. Support for the arts will no longer come from grants, even in the schools."
Perry is frustrated by the turn of events and hopes to bring the Festival Orchestra back if finances improve. He is particularly proud of the chorale's work, and the fact that you don't have to travel to the city to hear a real orchestra or Baroque music as it was meant to be performed.
"Nowhere else in Carbon County can you experience the Cantatas and Masses done historically accurate," said Perry. "We're very proud of the fact that you can hear this type of music in downtown Jim Thorpe.
"My biggest fear is that we will lose our momentum," he added. "We can't try anything new. This has really stopped our growth."
During rehearsals, Perry continues to push performers each week, promising to offer the best possible concerts this spring. Whether they are accompanied by the Festival Orchestra or a simple piano, the show must go on. These talented performers put their hearts and souls into each rehearsal, committing everything that they have to their next concert and an unknown future.
The Bach and Handel Chorale's Easter Concert will take place at 3 p.m. on April 10, at St. Mark's Church on Race Street in Jim Thorpe. The annual Spring Concert will also be held at St. Mark's at 3 p.m. on May 1.
For more information on upcoming concerts or to support the Bach and Handel Chorale, visit www.bhchorale.org or call the main office at (570) 325-4794.