A Quick Look at the Historic $4 Million Give to Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center

In what the New York Times called a "symphony-sized donation," the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center received a $4 million bequest from Jane Kitselman, a patron and cellist who died on March 18th at the age of 87. It represents the largest unrestricted gift in the society's history.

Forgive us for running the risk of over-extrapolation, but we can't help but contrast the seemingly upward arc of chamber orchestra giving versus the perennial financial challenges facing many symphonies. To see what we mean, let's quickly turn to the state of Michigan.

As we noted elsewhere, the state's symphonies are in big trouble. Labor costs keep going up, yet attendance continues to dip. In this sense, the challenges facing Michigan's symphonies are no different than those in other states, particularly in smaller-market cities. Yet, at the same time, in the same state, the University of Michigan recently announced it was creating a new chamber music competition with a grand prize of $100,000 to focus attention on the "rapidly evolving field."

Again, it's always dicey to extract high-level takeaways from a small sample size, but certain facts are irrefutable. Of course, we're talking about expenses. As the Times piece implied by alluding to the "symphony-sized" donation to Lincoln Center, chamber orchestras, by their very definition, are small. A typical group consists of three to eight performers. Fifty max. A full-size symphony, meanwhile, has about 70 to 100 musicians.

We bring this up in a time in which high labor costs continue to plague symphonies. The chamber model, quite obviously, requires less overhead. Less overhead, the logic goes, can translate into greater financial security. Does this consideration play into a foundation's long-term thinking?  It's hard to say for sure, but it certainly wouldn't be the first time donors gave with the big picture in mind. Needless to say, this is a topic we'll be coming back to in future posts, especially if we notice more gifts flowing to the chamber space.

In the case of Kitselman, the gift was personal. In addition to her historic gift to the society, she had previously provided financial support to the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and contemporary music group Speculum Musicae. In recognition of Kitselman's gift, the society plans to dedicate the performances in its coming Beethoven String Quartet cycle to her, and to dedicate a concert to her every year.

What's more, as previously noted, Kitselman's gift is unrestricted. That's music to the ears of the folks at the Lincoln Center, who've been grappling with the legal fallout of a certain restricted donation for over a decade now.