Arlington Symphony Disbands

Arlington Symphony Disbands

After more than 60 years of performing, the Arlington Symphony has declared bankruptcy and will no longer perform.

A cultural fixture in the county for more than 60 years, the Arlington Symphony Orchestra declared bankruptcy in May and is liquidating its assets to pay debts.

"I haven't spoken to a single person among us who wanted it to end this way," oboe player Wes Nichols said of the people he has performed with for about eight years. "It's a confluence of things that has brought us to this point. It's very disappointing. I can't put it into words."

With the organization plagued by debt and an uphill fundraising battle, its vice president Walt Wurfel said the symphony has canceled all future shows and cannot even afford to pay its musicians for the last time they performed.

"The symphony has been operating at a deficit for a few years," said Wurfel, adding that ticket sales only covered about two-thirds of its operating costs. "We relied on donors, state and local government, to make up the difference."

The symphony, Wurfel said, began its last season $50,000 in debt. Its endowments carry restrictions that have kept its board from accessing the money to pay off the debt, and in recent years private donation have dwindled.

"I think that the general economic situation, capped by the news of the government moving jobs out of the area, has caused businesses to be a little less generous," Wurfel said. "The arts and music situation in Northern Virginia also has a lot of competition among nonprofits."

For Wurfel, the closing of the symphony is a "special pain" and many in this close-knit company of musicians feel the same. Its maestro, Ruben Vartanyan, could not be reached for comment because he is now in the hospital, undergoing a routine examination according to those close to him. Yet Vartanyan, his company said, was the symphony's core.

"He's not flamboyant, doesn't throw his arms around all creation," said cello player Shela Wexler. "He just knows what he wants."

AN 11-SEASON VETERAN of the Arlington Symphony, Vartanyan was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, according to Wexler, into a musical family. Recognizing his talents at an early age, his parents enrolled a 10-year-old Vartanyan into the Moscow's Central Music School. Modern composer Dimitri Shostakovich met with him as a young man, an encounter that would remain with him for years. He later entered the Moscow Conservatory of Music. After serving with several symphonies, he was named conductor of the Bolshoi Opera.

"The music was always the reason we were there," said Nichols. "He knew that the music came first."

Vartanyan, Nichols added, brought his musicians closer together.

"There was a sense of collegiality between the musicians and the maestro," said Nichols. "That's what he had for us and what he got back in the same way."

Wexler said Vartanyan pushed his musicians to perform at their best.

"If you came to rehearsal and you weren't prepared, you were just mortified," she said.

In private, some criticized the symphony board's fiscal management, but most just expressed sadness over the closing.

"This isn't just about the Arlington Symphony," said Wexler. "There needs to be some examination of a new paradigm, a new way to run a symphony orchestra. The business community needs to step up to the plate."

Recent performance seasons have seen smaller audiences, leading the symphony to branch out by performing in nearby communities, said Wurfel. It had also put more emphasis on musical education programs to spread its public image.

"I'm quite hopeful that next year we'll be able to establish a new symphony on better financial footing," said Wurfel. "It hurts because Arlington really deserves a good symphony. It had one."