It was one of the cultural cornerstones of Long Island. It was going to be world class. Its music directors were international figures. Its board of directors included the Island’s rich and powerful. Its performances could be gripping. Its galas were spectacular. And now it’s dead.
The Long Island Philharmonic finally gave up even the most tenuous of ghosts this week. Its loss is profoundly sad but not surprising.
The Philharmonic was born in 1979 in a rush of enthusiasm driven by the singer Harry Chapin, who had moved to Huntington and thrown himself into the cultural life of the community. A persuasive fundraiser, he envisioned an active artistic life for Long Island.
Chapin encouraged what he called “the cultural cornerstones”: the Performing Arts Foundation Playhouse in Huntington Station, the Eglevsky Ballet in Massapequa, and a new, fully professional orchestra.
The first two existed, but starting an orchestra was difficult. The Long Island Symphony, based in Huntington, already provided a full concert season. It was competent, but most of its musicians were local schoolteachers who played on weekends.
Chapin and the bankers and businessmen he drew around him wanted something different — musicians from New York City, freelancers who were among the very best.
At first, the Philharmonic competed directly with the Symphony. Each offered five sets of three concerts each. In the Philharmonic’s first season, they played on the same dates; both opening night programs in 1979 offered the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.
After two seasons of desperate fundraising (some of the players took out second mortgages on their homes), the Symphony closed down.
The Philharmonic lost a powerful figure when Chapin died in an auto accident in 1981. Nevertheless, the Philharmonic had backing from Long Island’s prosperous banking and commercial communities — and it had star power. Its founding music director was Christopher Keene, a wunderkind who at the same time was general director of the New York City Opera and music director of the Syracuse Symphony. The Philharmonic featured famous soloists and performed to the highest standard.
Even after Keene died from AIDS in 1995, the orchestra seemed to prosper. Its next music director was Marin Alsop, now music director of the Baltimore Symphony and an elite conductor.
Still, there were always underlying problems. New York City is a deep gravitational well that pulls attention and money away from its suburbs. Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall feature the world’s greatest musicians. Wealthy donors would rather put money into the Metropolitan Opera or the New York Philharmonic.
And Long Island’s economy changed. Mergers left fewer banking and corporate sponsors. Public support for the arts waned. The orchestra was founded when governments could offer large grants, but that money dried up.
The orchestra almost went under in 2004 in its 25th year. It had to cancel the final two performances of the 2003-04 schedule. Ultimately, the Philharmonic could not offer a full season. It focused on a music education program in schools, a gala New Year’s concert and summer concerts in the parks.
The final blow came when a bank in New Jersey (that had taken over a bank from Long Island) refused to renegotiate the terms of a loan. It must have been excruciating for Larry Austin and John Russell, the orchestra’s ranking board members, to close the Philharmonic. They were there from the start.
Perhaps a few people who long to hear concert music from a Long Island orchestra will try again. But it will never be the same.
Peter Goodman, a former Newsday arts writer
who covered the Long Island Philharmonic, is an associate professor of journalism at Hofstra University.