Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony’s bankruptcy threatens classical music legacy

The importance of a vibrant classical music scene can’t be neglected

Image by: Herbert Wang
The K-W Symphony brings enriching culture to students.

We aren’t in the 1750s anymore, and classical music isn’t as popular as it once was. Despite this obvious observance, it was incredibly heartbreaking to hear the Kitchener-Waterloo (K-W) Symphony filed for bankruptcy. On Sept. 21 the K-W Symphony filed for bankruptcy. Even still, classical music plays an incredibly important role in maintaining the rich and diverse cultural scene across Canada.

Founded in 1945, the K-W Symphony Orchestra was the third largest in Ontario, employing over 50 musicians and around 17 staff. The orchestra was part of the community for 78 years.

Unfortunately, the K-W Symphony hasn’t been in a particularly strong financial standing for several years. According to the K-W Symphony’s registered charity information returns, the orchestra was operating under very slim margins.

One sign that an organization is struggling to fulfill its obligations to creditors and is heading for bankruptcy is asset deficiency. This refers to when assets exceed liabilities. The K-W Symphony had been experiencing this phenomenon since 2018.

The orchestra’s reliance on government funding doubled after the pandemic, and after Canada lifted lockdown restrictions, donation revenues in 2022 returned to half of what was reported pre-pandemic.

In 2021, classical music made up only 0.9 per cent of music streams in the United States, while R&B and hip-hop racked in nearly 30 per cent of streams. This points to what some might say is a falling relevancy of classical music.

However, what is often neglected in these discussions is the importance of classical music as a fundamental stepping stone in bringing us the most recognizable musicians we hear of today.

Charlie Puth learned the piano at the age of four, and Lady Gaga started playing the piano at the same age. Elton John began formal piano lessons at seven. While classical instruments aren’t the only entry into the wonderful world of music, they have acted as a proxy for some of the biggest names today.

Some may raise an issue with classical music as an elitist artifact from a different time which ought to fade into obscurity. But many barriers to entry into the world of classical music have been lifted
in Canada.

Scholarships for families who can’t afford to give their children music lessons are available through organizations such as the Canada Music Academy, whose mission is to ensure every child has access to the gift of learning music.

In an interview with The Journal, Founder and Director of Canada Music Academy Samia O’Day spoke to the steps her school has taken to integrate representation as a pillar to their operational thesis. The school teaches in over 40 different languages, with a core philosophy of telling people of any background that they belong.

“If we could just get people to approach [music] like they approach sports, it would make it very accessible and very fun. For kids, it could be transformational,” she said.

MusiCounts, a Canadian music education charity, provides funding and grants to ensure children can access musical instruments through schools and community organizations.

The late K-W Symphony gave economically disadvantaged children the opportunity to receive music lessons on orchestral instruments through their Bridge to Music program.

Sheet music can also be costly, but it’s now possible to get your hands on virtually any sheet music for free. The International Music Score Library Project, or IMSLP, is a free website for sheet music in the public domain.

The arts are, and always should remain a vibrant realm. In the arts, creativity can thrive through many mediums. Some ideas may be best expressed through visual works such as paintings and contemporary sketches, while other artists may communicate better through interpretative dance.

Classical music is another one of the mediums where creative ideas can prosper. Classical music and musical compositions have traditionally offered a canvas of works used by musicians to express their emotions.

A similar story to that of the K-W Symphony occurred when Orchestra London Canada filed for bankruptcy in 2015. In its place, London Symphonia vowed to carry on the orchestral tradition as the only professional ensemble currently offering a full season of orchestral music in London, Ontario. In a poetic sense, London’s symphony orchestra experienced a phoenix-like rebirth.

Perhaps such kind fate is in the future of the Kitchener-Waterloo region. Until then, musicians have set up a GoFundMe page for
those impacted.

In the meantime, I implore you to consider supporting your local orchestras and classical music scene. Even if it’s not your usual cup of tea, I’d invite you to try it. If finances are an issue, here at Queen’s, we get steeply discounted tickets to most concerts at the Isabel Bader Centre.

Worst case, you’ll support local musicians and the arts—best case, you’ve found a new way of appreciating the human experience.


Bankruptcy, Classical music, symphony

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