These are not good days for classical music in Sault Ste. Marie.
Attendance at Musicfest: Bratwurst, Beer & Beethoven was so low this year that the Sault Symphony has decided to cancel its long-popular annual fundraiser after 26 years.
Ticket sales to other Sault Symphony concerts have dropped below the numbers needed to sustain them.
Clawing itself back from the brink of insolvency over the past two years, the orchestra is still struggling to pay off $20,000 in remaining debt.
Recent provincial reductions in funding for the arts are a further concern to the local symphony, added to the tendency of funding agencies to impose Canadian content requirements that don't reflect what Sault audiences expect from the classical music genre.
On top of all this, a paucity of music education in schools means still fewer numbers will appreciate classical music in the future.
Formidable obstacles notwithstanding, the Sault Symphony has a bold, audacious dream.
What if every concert could be free?
Dr. Lawrence Chong, the symphony's president, thinks it just might be possible.
"Our goal is to try to make it free for everyone," Dr. Chong tells SooToday.
"We have to stay profitable just so we can pay our bills to make it available. I'd like to reverse that, by just making it free."
"Our goal, one day, would be to make these concerts free to everyone in the Sault who is willing to come. We're looking for people who are willing to take us to the next level," Chong says.
Has that ever been done before?
"No," he says, "because usually, the scope is way too big. In order to make classical music more relevant you have to keep bringing in artists from outside when we have lots of great, talented musicians that can play the basics and the core classical music without any needing artists from outside."
"If we made it free, and allowed people to come in and get a taste of what it actually is, we know there are many people out there who have had their lives changed, or have been inspired to pick up a violin and learn it at the age of 40 because they got inspired going to a classical concert. It's very different listening to live music, versus popping a CD or downloading an MP3 or going on iTunes."
Obviously, Sault Symphony will need a big benefactor – or several of them – to make Chong's dream a reality.
How much support would it take to swing open the doors at Sault Community Theatre Centre and allow free access to local classical concerts?
Chong figures the magic number is $50,000.
Dr. Kim Bell, a fellow dentist and the orchestra's treasurer, reckons it's closer to $60,000.
Either way, Chong says the symphony's costs can be kept down by letting Algoma Conservatory of Music and other local groups bring in outside musicians, with the orchestra focussing instead on presenting local talent.
"The Sault is very talented. It would attract more of our local young musicians to participate and showcase their talents in a live audience. Our goal is to try to make it free for everyone."
Meanwhile, he's facing the more immediate task of paying down the symphony's $20,000 in debt.
That's just one-third of the $60,000 indebtedness he inherited when he became president two years ago.
"With a population of about 70,000 people in the Sault, we've had less than a thousand people attend all of the concerts for previous seasons. We see that as a problem. Not just here – we know that research shows it's a problem everywhere throughout the world."
"Young people – millennials, even non-millennials – are just not as interested in attending concerts. They're feeling a disconnect emotionally with the music."
"We're trying to get that revived. Otherwise, the Sault Symphony would have no more relevance in the Sault if don't increase the attendance to our concerts."
But there are positive signs.
The Nov. 23 performance of the Canadian Nutcracker, with Ballet Jorgen performing to live orchestral music, did very well.
Sault Symphony is expecting good numbers for its Feb. 8 celebration of Beethoven's 250th anniversary at Precious Blood Cathedral, and an Apr. 18 concert with Pierre Schryer and his band at White Pines.
The orchestra has strong support from local musicians and Algoma District School Board has provided it with office space.
"I want to give back to the community and provide help to one of the dying arts, classical music. I wanted to revive it in the City of Sault Ste. Marie," Chong says.
To learn more about the orchestra, to volunteer or to provide financial support for its work in providing local access to live classical music, please visit the Sault Symphony website.