Economy is forcing orchestra to scale back

Posted: February 02, 2009

Reverberations from formidable fund-raising challenges, a steep rise in labor costs, and a depressed economy will rumble onto the Philadelphia Orchestra stage next season.

Guest soloists and conductors are being asked to take lower fees, and programming is assuming more modest proportions.

Even chief conductor and artistic adviser Charles Dutoit is making sacrifices. He had hoped to lead Richard Strauss' Elektra and costly choral works, but economic considerations have forced him into more restrained choices.

Unrelated to the economy, the orchestra's national profile will slip a notch next season. It will perform only three concerts in Carnegie Hall rather than the traditional four; Carnegie will hold to its agreement for three orchestra visits even though in recent years it has added a fourth, a spokeswoman for the hall said.

In addition, the orchestra has reached the conclusion of a relationship with the Ondine record label, and this season decided to end, at least for now, national and international simulcasts via Internet 2.

The lack of these public relations vehicles combined with the cancellation of its 2009 tour of European festivals puts the orchestra dangerously close to disappearing from the elite international orchestra scene, even as it continues efforts to simultaneously identify a new president/chief executive officer, board chairman, and music director.

The artistic budget will take a hit next season as part of an across-the-board budget cut, artistic vice president Jeremy Rothman said last week.

"The orchestra is reducing expenses across the board, but we're still seeing great artists and diverse repertoire," he said.

Interim acting executive director and CEO Frank P. Slattery Jr. declined to cite specific year-to-year budget figures, but he said of this moment generally: "I have never seen an economic situation like what exists today. Life is very tough out there, and we've put together as prudent a set of concerts as we can."

Board members and musicians say the deficit this year could go as high as $5 million. But marketing chief J. Edward Cambron said it was too early to tell: "We are not sure how we will end the year at this stage, and it's too premature to throw out any numbers."

A spokesman said that the orchestra had "not finalized our budget for '09-'10 yet, only pieces of it, like artistic."

One major line item is still a question mark. Musicians are scheduled to receive a minimum-salary boost to $131,040 next season from this season's $124,800 - a 5 percent increase - and some board members have been advocating renegotiating those terms to achieve savings.

To keep ticket-buyers from wandering, the orchestra is freezing prices for next season and is eliminating the $5-per-ticket fee it charges subscribers for making exchanges. "I don't want to nickel-and-dime them, especially with what's going on," Cambron said.

The total number of concerts during next season's subscription year will not be reduced.

"You've got to look at where your percentage of capacity is, and we're still going to be well over 80 percent" for this season, Cambron said. "That's where I'm thinking it's going to end up."

Programming might be generally conservative next season, but the orchestra has constructed a schedule that still includes a fair amount of artistic ambition. Most programs proceed the traditional way - Mozart, then Dvorák, then Nielsen - but a few are arranged so that more progressive composers such as Kancheli, Danielpour and Sheng comingle with the Mozart.

"By no means are we able to proceed with carte blanche. We have to be diligent and prudent in the way we are selecting our programs," Rothman said.

Artists have been "flexible with their fees and programs, and understanding of the challenges we're up against," he said, and the orchestra's 2009-10 season is still dense with guest musicians bound to make artistic news.

"We have to be sure that we not do one huge project and therefore sacrifice other things we're doing - that we're not robbing Peter to pay Paul to do programming," Rothman said.

Among likely high points:

The subscription debuts of such major-career musicians as pianist Yuja Wang, and sopranos Karita Mattila and Angela Brown.

A nod to Samuel Barber on the centennial of his birth with not only performances of popular works such as the Adagio for Strings, but also a rare appearance of Night Flight, a quietly gliding evocation of the solitude of flight experienced by the composer in World War II, with conductor Andrey Boreyko.

A performance of Aaron Copland's A Lincoln Portrait narrated by the actor Alec Baldwin (30 Rock).

Beyond the Score (replacing Access concerts, which the orchestra is eliminating) - a format hosted by Gerard McBurney in which the British-born composer/arranger/writer brings listeners through a multimedia exploration of the piece before they hear it in its entirety after intermission.

And in this season of leader-hunting, the roster of guest conductors potentially contains the orchestra's eighth music director.

Dutoit takes 11 weeks of programs - three more than he was expected to conduct when his appointment was announced. Vladimir Jurowski returns for two programs - one in October, and another in March that includes standard-repertoire Brahms, Schumann, and a piece that puts the high beam on interpretive matters, Beethoven's Symphony No. 3.

Montrealer Yannick Nézet-Séguin will lead one program: Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 with the orchestra debut of pianist Nicholas Angelich; the Franck Symphony in D minor; and the orchestra debut of Orion by Claude Vivier, a Montreal composer championed by Dutoit who was considered a major talent before his murder in Paris at age 34.

Other conductors include former music director Christoph Eschenbach in an all-Schumann program and Mahler's Symphony No. 7. Daniele Gatti, an important Milanese conductor who was here once in 1993, returns. Stéphane Denève leads James Ehnes in the violinist's orchestra debut with the Barber Violin Concerto. Dallas Symphony Orchestra music director Jaap van Zweden makes his debut here in a program that includes Bruckner's Symphony No. 9.

Not on the roster for next season is Simon Rattle, a perennial music-director possibility with whom the orchestra "maintain[s] an open dialogue about future engagements," Rothman said.

Rothman was noncommittal when asked whether the next music director is on the '09-'10 schedule: "It's certainly possible. One would hope that we're seeing conductors who really ignite the orchestra and the community."

Slattery was slightly more expressive on the question.

"Boy, I hope so. But who knows?"

Such an announcement could stimulate ticket sales, but even without it, orchestra leaders hope the power of music - or, to put it in more prosaic terms, its escapist qualities - will insulate the box office against the times.

Said Cambron: "I am a believer that, just like after 9/11, art and music have a role in times like this. It's easier to go down to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Kimmel Center than to get on a plane and go to Paris."


Coming Tomorrow

An update on the search for the next music director.


Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. Read his blog at http://go.philly.com/artswatch

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