Orchestra, Pops working on a joint strategy

Posted: July 01, 2010

As the deadline passes for ending or continuing a relationship between the Philadelphia Orchestra and Philly Pops, the word from both sides is:

Never mind - at least for now.

A five-year merger agreement between the two groups expired at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, and the Philadelphia Orchestra Association had the option of dissolving the Pops' board and fully absorbing the smaller group. But orchestra president Allison B. Vulgamore said Tuesday that the orchestra would not exercise that option.

Instead, board members from Encore Series Inc., which runs the Pops, have agreed to participate in the preparation of a strategic planning report encompassing both orchestra and Pops and addressing such issues as programming, market research, financial projections, staffing, and fund-raising.

Work on that process is expected to start in July and conclude in December, said Vulgamore and ESI board chairman D. Walter Cohen.

"What is most important is to find a successful path financially and artistically for the Pops and all areas of the POA," said Vulgamore.

The report is also likely to address the question of artistic succession. Esteemed jazz pianist and conductor Peter Nero, 76, founding leader of the Pops, has his own separate contract that runs several more years.

While talks continue, Nero has established what leaders on both sides characterize as a productive relationship with Vulgamore - a turnaround from what it had been with other Orchestra Association representatives.

"Since Allison arrived [in January] it has been such a different environment," said Cohen. "She has been so supportive of the Pops and Peter Nero, and we're all very gratified. It's changed the whole milieu considerably."

Previously, various orchestra officials had broached the idea of the Pops and the orchestra parting ways at the conclusion of the five-year initial merger agreement rather than taking the final step of a total absorption of administration and board.

The musical components of both groups, the actual ensembles, are expected to remain separate, according to several board members, though Vulgamore said she did not want to predict any particular outcome.

"We do know one thing - the board of ESI and Pops needs its own plan regardless of who is conducting it and who is playing in it," she said.

The Pops, she said, was running a deficit this season, but the POA was committed to "floating" the group. "It's a significant shortfall between revenue and expenses, and we continue to meet our obligation to provide for that," Vulgamore said.

Pops board members have complained that the group has not received the kind of marketing and fund-raising support from the orchestra that would fill houses and coffers. "For a while we felt like second-class citizens," said Cohen.

Now, he said, he is encouraged that differences between the two groups can be resolved, and that the Pops can continue to operate as part of the orchestra rather than returning to its previous state of autonomy.

"I think we've got our work cut out for us, but I'm much more optimistic than I was six months ago," he said.

Regardless of the outcome, the Pops has announced its season for 2010-11, with its usual mix of Broadway, nostalgia, holiday programs and, in a season finale, Nero as both conductor and pianist.

After the Pops' traditional Fourth of July concert on Independence Mall was canceled for lack of funding, Mayor Nutter stepped in and found sponsorship. The concert is back on, set for Friday at 8 p.m. The Philadelphia Orchestra performs Saturday at Penn's Landing.

"I think it's pretty wonderful that we have Peter Nero and the Philly Pops one night at Independence Hall and then the Philadelphia Orchestra the next night at Penn's Landing," said Vulgamore. "There's room for both orchestras."

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


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