The end is near for the Minnesota Sinfonia.
After 36 years, the Twin Cities' third most popular professional orchestra will be closing up shop in January 2025. Known for its "Music in the Schools" program for K-12 students in Minneapolis and St. Paul, the orchestra also performs public concerts free of charge, most visibly on summer evenings in area parks.
Unlike its considerably bigger-budget colleagues, the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Sinfonia always has had one "face of the franchise" — founder, artistic director and conductor Jay Fishman.
Now 76, Fishman recently broached the subject of retirement with the Sinfonia's board, and, after discussions with a consultant about various options, the decision was made to discontinue operations. The orchestra will continue performing and educational programming through 2024, concluding with a series of farewell concerts next fall.
Over tea at his St. Louis Park home, Fishman said that if his job only included making music, he'd love to continue.
"I do tremendous amounts of stuff outside the music," he said. "And that's what's worn me out."
The Sinfonia is a small operation with most of the fundraising, administration and maintenance of the orchestra's music library falling to Fishman.
"My feeling was always that this needed to keep going," Fishman said. "Because, if we go away, no one's going to do music in the schools, free admission. No one's going to be playing on the East Side of St. Paul.
"But values have changed," he continued. "Most of the major funders are not getting into funding the arts. For example, Target used to give us about 8% of our budget. That's $40,000 a year, up until about four years ago. But they brought in new people to run their foundations who had different priorities."
Fishman said the Sinfonia isn't set up to cater to large donors.
"A third of our clientele have household incomes below $35,000 a year," he said. "They don't have discretionary money to give, even to buy tickets."
The orchestra's demise will leave a void in music education in the public schools of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
"In the heyday before COVID, we were doing 18 to 22 schools a year, about 10,000 kids," Fishman said. "We didn't charge the students or the schools."
Cellist Diane Tremaine and violinist and concertmaster Julia Persitz have been with the orchestra since its founding. They both said they'll miss the joy children expressed at the music. Persitz added that many of those kids have returned as adults to tell her how the Sinfonia's in-school programs influenced their career choices.
"I ask the kids at these concerts: Who liked the Mozart?" Fishman said. "Every hand goes up. Who liked the Mendelssohn? Every hand goes up. I still believe that doing music this way can impact kids, still help them academically and emotionally. Studies have shown that if you play an instrument, you use your whole brain. If the schools were really serious about improving academics, they would have every kid playing an instrument every day, starting in fourth grade."
While the Sinfonia will cease to exist come 2025, Fishman sees it still having a life through its educational videos, which use classical compositions to teach about math, science and literature.
"We now have four videos that are available to schools throughout the state," he said. "That means thousands of students. If those stay in the school libraries and go on YouTube, they can go all over the place. That would be a fitting legacy."
What: "Happy Holidays!"
When and where: 7 p.m. Fri., First Covenant Church, 1280 Arcade St., St. Paul; 2 p.m. Sun., Basilica of St. Mary, 1600 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.
Tickets: Free, information at mnsinfonia.org.
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. Reach him at email@example.com.