After the tour: Choice of new music director tops list of key issues facing Philadelphians

Posted: April 18, 2010

The Philadelphia Orchestra's Asian tour promises an intimate visit with knowing, loyal fans in Japan, the potential for new friends in South Korea, and high visibility in China. But this time, it also comes as a three-week reminder of everything that's at stake for the institution.

Will the new Philadelphia Orchestra still embrace all of Asia, Europe, and South America - not to mention Ann Arbor and Tucson - as its rightful audience, or settle for a more regional presence? Can it recapture its ranking as one of the world's top orchestral ensembles?

And as the orchestra uses one of its precious tour chits to promote a partnership of indeterminate duration with Charles Dutoit, listeners increasingly are asking how much longer it will take to choose a music director. (Christoph Eschenbach's impending departure was announced in October 2006.) To donors and ticket buyers, an orchestra can transmit no stronger jolt of confidence than showing it has strong artistic leadership in place for the long haul.

Nothing will declare the orchestra's level of artistic ambition more emphatically than its long-awaited choice of music director.

When musicians, board members, and administrators return from concerts in Asia, they'll be barely over jet lag as they begin grappling with these big, who-are-we-anyway? questions.

Talks will be led by a leadership team just getting started after a clean sweep: president Allison B. Vulgamore, board chairman Richard B. Worley, and Vulgamore's chief of staff, Ari Solotoff, who starts in the new post May 17.

The strategic-planning process aims to align resources and ambition. But is the orchestra hiring a music director who will buy into an already established vision, or developing a vision around the music director it wants?

Internally, opinions have differed about which should come first.

"Ideally, they sync at some point," Vulgamore said of the two processes. "And so I am spinning a lot of plates to see if that can happen. For us to get started on the strategic planning and do all of the data collection, analysis . . . and begin to think outside of the box ourselves - that only makes us a stronger partner in the dialogue with a music-director candidate that becomes a part of that process."

Could there be a decision this season?

"This morning I heard a board member say it could be tomorrow, it could be two years from now. I'm like, well, that's kind of a wide thing to walk through. It's been one of my 100-day priorities. And the search group is collectively focusing, so I don't think it's two years from now.

" . . . I would love it to mean that this strategic process and the search process could sync. . . . I've told you the timeline for the strategic planning, which is May through December."

A group has emerged

Who are the candidates? Vulgamore won't name names, though clearly some board members and musicians are enamored of Vladimir Jurowski, while another camp backs Yannick Nzet-Sguin.

"We've seen some wonderful partners of different kinds, and there will be even more people we meet next year," said Vulgamore. "We're in the process of wanting as many of these new partners to stay in our life as guest conductors and important folk in our life as possible. So a music-director search isn't exclusively, in my mind, focused on just one appointment. That's not to say that there will be multiple named appointments, it just means it was a wonderful time to meet conductors who become a part of your life because you talk about potential together. And so we're taking our time to talk to a group that has emerged as being those that you want to have stay in your life."

But the path to a music director is hardly linear. Just because one name has emerged doesn't mean that person will accept the job. It's a chess game: a candidate may be waiting for another organization to make an offer, or for it to become clear that an offer is not forthcoming, before getting serious with Philadelphia. And others may be interested, but not yet.

That is likely the case with Jurowski, who turned 38 this month. He has commitments for the next several years - through 2013 at the Glyndebourne Festival, and through 2015 and potentially beyond at the London Philharmonic Orchestra. If he were offered Philadelphia with a start date in 2015, would he be inclined to take the job? It's likely, says a source familiar with the matter.

But what would Philadelphia do until 2015? Would Dutoit be asked - and be willing - to be music director through 2015? Or should the orchestra name a less strong candidate who can start immediately?

Jurowski's last visit marked a deepening of the relationship, by several accounts. Critics were ecstatic.

"Sounds like Vladimir Jurowski's convinced the Philadelphia Orchestra he's the one, the new music director," WRTI's Lesley Valdes said of his fourth visit, three sold-out concerts in March.

The Inquirer's David Patrick Stearns wrote that "classical music circles have been buzzing about his breadth of repertoire. His Tchaikovsky can be thrilling, but what about heavyweight Beethoven (always a good barometer of musical depth)? Answer: The Symphony No. 3, "Eroica," a symphony of such philosophical weight that it seems to be at war with itself, emerged alive, unlabored, distinctive, and intelligent."

Several musicians began lobbying management to just go ahead and hire him.

"It doesn't get any better than this," violinist Jonathan Beiler told audiences before the concert.

Vulgamore says she has been playing catch-up with the search, which started before her January arrival.

"To be honest, I came late in this process and the committee has been gracious enough for me to take trips to meet candidates in order to say hello, represent the organization, catch up in learning." She traveled to Europe several times to hear conductors, she said.

And what about Dutoit? Will he ever have the music-director title?

Even though he has received nearly unanimous critical praise since the start of a job that has an unusual title - chief conductor - and less authority than a music director, Vulgamore says he is underappreciated.

"Charlie's music-making with the orchestra is great. The whole notion of a title - I don't have any further comment on that. What I do know is that we - in my opinion, it's only my opinion - the community discussion about Charles Dutoit is misguided not to take advantage of the great musical experiences that are happening within the orchestra. We've somehow discredited a great conductor. I get sad that people think, 'Well, he's a step-in,' and he's far from a step-in."

This she said before Tuesday's Carnegie Hall performance by Dutoit and the orchestra, which brought a New York Times review that was admiring, but fraught with serious reservations.

"Mr. Dutoit elicited refreshing crispness and shimmering sounds from the orchestra in La Mer. Still, there was something aloof about the performance," wrote critic Anthony Tommasini. "The Rite of Spring had uncanny accuracy, slashing attacks and blazing energy. Yet here too something was missing. In the introduction of Part 2 Mr. Dutoit took a tempo that kept the mysterious music moving along. Yet the results seemed almost rushed, as if Mr. Dutoit were impatient.

"The Philadelphia Orchestra is struggling with financial challenges and searching for a music director. Finding an inspiring and fully committed conductor is imperative for this great ensemble."

Ticket sales improving?

Dutoit has been popular with audiences in the past, though this season - which has lacked both a music director and a marketing vice president to fully promote him - ticket sales have slumped. Capacity rates have dropped from 85 percent to 61 percent of the hall filled (though no-shows mask the fact that 71 percent of the seats have been sold).

While the orchestra's financial crisis is by no means solved, it is reporting some encouraging vital signs. Thanks to a combination of cost savings plus contributions to the emergency bridge fund, a deficit for this season once forecast as high as $7.8 million is now being predicted at $2.9 million on a $44 million budget.

If the orchestra this season can raise more than the $8 million currently committed to the bridge fund, that deficit will be even lower - or possibly, says Vulgamore, "Zero. I don't know if we can make it, but it's a great goal."

The endowment has improved (along with financial markets generally). In the 12 months ending Dec. 31, the orchestra saw a 28.4 percent return on its assets, said orchestra CFO/vice president Mario Mestichelli. The market value stood at $125.5 million (including all orchestra endowment assets, such as $18 million at the Academy of Music) as of Feb. 28, he said, with the orchestra carrying no external debt or line of credit.

Vulgamore sees a bright spot on audience capacity that would improve finances and get the orchestra closer to filling its budget gap: Single-ticket sales are up enough for some concerts that demand may exceed supply.

Concerts this weekend are sold out (which, for various reasons, is not unusual at this time of year).

"It's been great going to Charles Dutoit and the orchestra and saying, 'Can we maybe consider seating people on stage if we need to?' If we need the inventory, we're going to open it up and create more inventory. . . ."

She then finishes the thought with vocalized italics:

" . . . to get us to the budget."

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

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