If "SOS" buttons, standing ovations and offers of free performances can save the Columbus Symphony, then Saturday's concert won't be its last.

If "SOS" buttons, standing ovations and offers of free performances can save the Columbus Symphony, then Saturday's concert won't be its last.

But since the group's survival depends on a contract agreement that remains elusive, Marvin Hamlisch may have added a coda to the group's 57-year existence when he closed the concert with the wistful encore "Over the Rainbow" from The Wizard of Oz.

"Remember these lyrics in your mind," said the guest composer/conductor, who has promised to give a free benefit performance if the CSO's problems are ever worked out.

Earlier in the evening, Hamlisch began his concert-long plea for the orchestra's salvation by pointing to a 31/2-year-old boy who was sitting near the front of the packed Ohio Theatre. The orchestra has to be saved, Hamlisch said, so kids like him can have classical music in their lives.

"We have to protect this for the future," he said.

A look around the auditorium, however, suggested that the orchestra was doing a better job of serving the boy's grandparents. At least three-fourths of the audience appeared to be of retirement age.

That may be part of the problem, said Suzanne Marilley, one of an informal group of CSO supporters whose "SOS" (Save Our Symphony) buttons were offered to concert-goers entering the theater.

"(Hamlisch) said, 'If you let this go, think of what your children lose,'" Marilley said. "And here's the question: How many actual parents of children were there? The grandparents were there, but how many parents?"

But Marilley's group, which was founded in mid-April by former CSO musician Jerrie Cribb, has not spent its time worrying about classical music's aging fan base. It's mostly focused on supporting the musicians whose concerns, the members feel, have been ignored by the media.

"The Dispatch, in particular, listened only to the perspective of (board President) Buzz Trafford and (Executive Director) Tony Beadle," Marilley said.

"Over and over again, they seem to ignore (the musicians)."

However balanced or unbalanced the Dispatch's news coverage has been, its editorials have come down firmly on management's side, saying the musicians were not facing reality when they refused to accept drastic cuts the CSO board proposed to avoid future deficits.

Marilley said her group has fought back against this alleged imbalance by writing letters and by producing 1,100 "SOS" buttons-with a little treble clef for the second "S"-that were designed by her 17-year-old daughter, Celia Burke. She and Celia passed the buttons out at Hamlisch's first CSO concert on Friday, while her husband took over the task on Saturday.

More controversially, a member of the group studied the symphony's financial records and charged that the biggest increases in recent years have been in the area of non-artistic expenses, especially rents. The musicians union reported the findings at a May 20 press conference, but management denounced the figures as inaccurate.

Cribb, a cellist who performed with the CSO under music director Evan Whallon, said she decided to form the support group after discussing the musicians' predicament with Marilley, whose daughter is one of her cello students.

"We just thought it was time we stood up and supported them," Cribb said. "We don't want to live in a jock town."

But isn't the Buckeyes-obsessed Columbus already a jock town, she was asked.

"Yes, but there ought to be balance. There's no reason why this community can't support both."

Like Marilley, Cribb acknowledged that too much of the symphony's fan base consists of senior citizens, but she said several musicians have attempted to correct the situation.

"I mean, the symphony musicians came up with a number of really good ideas to be known better and to draw more young people in without having to compromise too far with rap and rock," said Cribb, who gave her own age as "over 70."

Of course, there will be no symphony audience of any age unless a way can be found to bring the musicians and management together on a contract for the 2008-09 season. In recent days, Cribb's group has urged public officials to support the musicians' call for nonbinding mediation in the contract talks.

Trafford told the Dispatch late last week that the board was "actively considering" the idea, though he downplayed the chances of its success. As of Wednesday, there had been no further development on the issue.

Representatives of the CSO management and musicians did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Despite the lack of progress, Cribb said she's optimistic the symphony will survive because it doesn't make sense for city officials to let it die.

"If they want to bring people Downtown and get the City Center going and all of that, then killing the symphony is not the way to do it," she said.

At Saturday's concert, Hamlisch expressed similar optimism. Even if the CSO goes away for a while, he said, Columbus will realize the importance of bringing it back.

"You don't know what you've lost," Hamlisch said, "until you lose it."