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It sounds grim for Pottstown

The impossibly good news coming out of the Pottstown Symphony Orchestra late last year appears to have been, in the long run, impossible.

The impossibly good news coming out of the Pottstown Symphony Orchestra late last year appears to have been, in the long run, impossible.

After the orchestra's late-March performance of Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 - a piece out of the reach of most regional ensembles - a series of resignations has left the organization without a music director and soon to lose its executive director. Also gone are three of its 10 board members.

The problem, as outlined by several departed officials, comes down to a lack of money and initiative to remedy the situation. The accumulated deficit reported by those officials, who requested anonymity, is $150,000 - roughly a third of the $425,000 annual budget.

"Too many heartbreaks," said music director Rosalind Erwin on Sunday when asked why she resigned April 29 and officially departed May 29. "I invested a lot, 61/2 years, and was very proud of what I was able to create. I did everything I could, from donating my own funds to meet orchestral payroll to getting friends of mine to contribute. . . . It all seemed for naught."

Despite the resignations, and the cancellation of a June 7 fund-raising concert by the Brian Pastor Big Band at Pottstown's Sunnybrook Ballroom, board president Kay Dougherty said this week that the 2008-09 season would be announced soon with a succession of guest conductors, and that there would be no cutbacks in either the number of concerts or musicians' salaries.

She and other board members (less than half in number than seven years ago) have painted a less-troubled picture that includes successes in fund-raising last year, highlighted by a Siemens Corp. gift of undisclosed size for the 2007-08 season.

The orchestra's past seasons have included three orchestra concerts, four chamber music performances, a young-artist competition, and a handful of outreach events. After determining the number in each category for next season, Dougherty said, "we'll begin to contact guest conductors. We have a very comprehensive list of people's names that have been given to us, and others who have contacted us."

She declined to discuss specifics on the orchestra's financial situation, aside from noting that "most symphony orchestras operate with a deficit." She also declined to discuss the cancellation of the Pastor concert eight days before the event.

Though Pastor said he was given half his fee up front, he was told by Dougherty that he would not receive the $5,000 balance. He has since turned the matter over to the local chapter of the American Federation of Musicians. "This was all done in good faith; it was more than a handshake," Pastor said. "I was so flattered to be part of such an important thing. . . . "

The emotion resulting from a troubled-orchestra situation seems particularly acute here since the Pottstown ensemble only months ago appeared to have attained an artistic level unlikely in a town of 21,000 with a troubled economic history.

The orchestra has enjoyed a longtime relationship with the Hill School, a Pottstown prep school whose modern auditorium facilities yielded high-quality concert recordings that have been aired on WHYY-FM.

The group also was in talks with Newport Classics to make a DVD next season pairing the Holst classic The Planets with photos of outer space from the Hubble Space Telescope. (That project died this year because of union restrictions.)

The long-planned Rachmaninoff performance - intended as a mark of how much the orchestra had progressed in recent years - turned out to be, in Erwin's words, "a requiem" for her association with it. A Philadelphia-based clarinetist-turned-conductor, Erwin is widely regarded as an accomplished, up-and-coming talent.

Executive director Kevin Wood, officially an orchestra employee until the end of July, said Sunday that he doubted it would be possible to put the organization back on its previous track. Though it receives some funding from Montgomery County and the state, there is, he said, "an unwillingness [in Pottstown] to give the sort of support a symphony orchestra needs to survive or to exist. It was futile to stay there and play the charade."

Wood doesn't believe proximity to the Philadelphia Orchestra hurt the Pottstown ensemble, which offers lower prices and easier access to the Main Line. The question, he said, is whether Pottstown wants a significant orchestra enough to support one.

Erwin agreed. "What is it that orchestras bring to a community? A quality of life!" she said. "Any community deserves a quality expression of Western culture."

Both sides expressed sorrow over what appears to be a nonnegotiable rift. Though board president Dougherty declined to comment on her feelings about Erwin's resignation, she called the conductor "an incredible talent."

For her part, Erwin said, "I wish them the best for the future. I'm sorry it can't be with me."