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Orchestra starts on low note

To say music is a huge part of Marge Dunlap's life is a serious understatement.

The former violinist with the Austin Symphony Orchestra finally laid down her bow last year — after 71 years of playing. She'd started when she was 10.

A charter member of ASO, Dunlap is also now in her 17th year as the symphony manager.

It's a job that's getting tougher, she admitted.

"We're supported only by donations and grants," Dunlap said, "and we don't have the businesses in town to contribute like Rochester or the Twin Cities."


Instead, "we cross our fingers" when applying for the dwindling supply of available grants.

It's a sign of the times, Dunlap said.

The city, for example, has cut its funding by more than half; audiences that once numbered 500 have also dropped significantly. The performance in February 2010 drew about 275 people.

"It's getting a little scary," said Martha Chancellor, an ASO board member and percussionist with the symphony.

"We're starting out with less (money) than we usually do; it's worrying people on the board," she said.

With an annual operating budget of about $75,000 — which must cover the salary of conductor Stephen Ramsey as well as a small stipend for each of the 60 symphony members and multiple other expenses — finding a way to increase ticket sales is vital, the women agreed.

There's little comfort that symphonies across the nation are experiencing similar woes.

"That's what we're hearing," Chancellor said. "Guest artists aren't as busy, because symphonies can't afford to have them come play."


It's a shame, she said.

"To be able to attend a live performance — and not have to leave town to do it, it's amazing," Chancellor said. "It's a special thing."

So are the musicians, Dunlap added.

"When you think of the talent in this town..." she said, "and we've been around a while."

This is the 54th year the symphony has performed.

Members, though, are doing what they can to keep the tradition alive.

"The day after our first concert, we have two concerts for fourth- and fifth-graders," Chancellor said. "We want to get them interested in music; it's something you can do your whole life. You see a lot of gray hair in our group."

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