Until last week, Bénédicte Lauzière was the concertmaster of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony.

For 35 weeks per year the concertmaster role was a comfortable full-time gig for Lauzière, an accomplished violinist who trained at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City.

That is until the symphony closed its doors forever, seemingly with no warning to its artists and administrators.

The symphony announced on Sept. 21 that after failed attempts to raise $2 million, the cultural institution would be forced to close, leaving dozens of musicans jobless in an increasingly tight labour market. The entire board of directors resigned, and it was announced that the Conrad Centre for Performing Arts would be undergoing changes in management. 

“It’s been a lot of ups and downs in the past week,” Lauzière told CP24 in the days following the symphony’s sudden announcement that it was declaring bankruptcy and forever ceasing its operations. “Every announcement from them seems to be worse and worse. There’s a GoFundMe campaign going, and we’re hopeful that we can make music for the community in some form, but we don’t know yet what that will look like. Right now, it’s a lot of emotions.”

The symphony was Lauzière’s main source of income, a steady seasonal contract, which is a luxury that can be uncommon in an industry where musicians frequently hop from gig to gig.

“This is something we work really hard on, since we were kids, most of us,” said Lauzière. “This is a big deal financially, but it’s a bigger deal for the community.”

With its population of just over half a million people, Kitchener-Waterloo doesn’t have too many outlets for classical music. There’s the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Orchestra, which performs at a church in Waterloo, and events through the music department of Wilfrid Laurier University, but musicians in the area fear the sudden closure of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony will create a major gap in the city’s cultural scene.

“We don’t just do mainstream classical music repertoire, like Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart. We do those things, and we love it, but we also do pops concerts to reach a wider audience,” said Lauzière. “Last season, we even sold out a few concerts. Yes, subscriptions were down, but single ticket sales were way up.

“None of us saw this coming,” she continued. “It’s devastating. This will have real consequences on the whole community, because this is important work, and it’s work we’re passionate about.”

Due to the nature of the contracts used by the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, no severance has been made available to the musicians.

“The situation isn’t entirely clear yet,” said Richard Sandals, associate director of symphonic services for the Canadian Federation of Musicians, in an interview. “Even if the musicians are owed money, it’s not entirely clear to us that there’s any money to pay them with.”

Sandals said recent labour negotiations with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony had gone well, to the point that the symphony had even offered a three per cent increase in pay to its musicians, so the announcement that the symphony was closing came as a surprise.

“Everyone at the table got the sense that things at the symphony were worse than normal, but that it wasn’t anything they couldn’t manage,” said Sandals. “The suggestion of a raise for the musicians gave the impression that they thought they’d be able to manage.”

In the weeks to come, Sandals and other representatives from the Canadian Federation of Musicians say that they will be exploring “all sorts of normal trade union avenues” to improve the situation for affected symphony members.

“We’re working closely with the musicians, and helping them connect to other orchestras who have had these kinds of experiences,” he said. “We’re helping to manage their communications strategy, and build connections with other people in the community – people who might be able to assist with creating a new version of this orchestra.”

The Kitchener-Waterloo classical musical community is already stepping up to bridge the gap created by the symphony’s closure: members of the former symphony’s youth orchestra have been asked to join a new community orchestra that will practice weekly at Wilfrid Laurier University.

“They are going to be able to focus on their love of music and focus on their practicing and go on to be part of the solution in our community going forward,” said conductor Matthew Jones in an interview with CTV Kitchener. “It’s amazing to me – all the positive energy that surrounds this orchestra. We have only lost one rehearsal in the chaos that the community is going through right now. That’s extraordinary and really speaks to the commitment of our parents, the commitment of our youth, and the love of what we do here.”

The relief fund for affected musicians in Kitchener-Waterloo has reached $393,000 of its $2 million goal.

“Our work isn’t done,” says the description of the fundraiser. “We will continue to make music in the community and explore all options available to us to keep our orchestra alive.”