'A chance . . . to save this great treasure'

Posted: April 17, 2011

The stated motivation for the Philadelphia Orchestra's vote for bankruptcy is that leaders believe reorganization gives them a chance to shed a monetary obligation to the pension fund and other contractual arrangements they cannot afford.

That doesn't mean short-term finances are not equally challenging.

The orchestra had raised more than $15 million meant to cover deficits for this season and last, but even so it is forecasting a sizable shortfall: a $5 million deficit on a $46 million budget.

"Did I say we need cash? We need cash," chief executive officer Allison B. Vulgamore said Friday.

"This is not a place any of us wanted to get to," said Board Chairman Richard B. Worley. But, he said, "this is a chance, an urgent chance, to save this great treasure at a time in its artistic and executive leadership when it has the best chance that it's had in a long time to really turn around."

The orchestra figures it needs to raise about $160 million - a good portion of it quickly:

$12 million by November.

About $60 million (including the aforementioned $12 million) by August 2014 for working capital, funding the deficits, the cost of bankruptcy, and new initiatives in the strategic plan.

$100 million in new endowment.

Additionally, the orchestra needs to increase its annual fund-raising about 65 percent by 2016, from $9.3 million to $15.3 million.

The idea is to cover expected deficits over the next several years with special fund-raising while endowment pledges come in (incrementally, as they normally do in such campaigns) and begin to produce income.

Among relationships likely to be reconsidered under the jurisdiction of Bankruptcy Court is the orchestra's lease with the Kimmel Center, which owns the orchestra's primary venue, Verizon Hall. Orchestra leaders said Friday that they recently had asked for a reduction in rent, which the orchestra pays as part of a deal in which the Kimmel programs and retains income from shows in the Academy of Music, still owned by the orchestra.

Whatever the terms of a new contract with musicians, Vulgamore said, she wants Philadelphia to remain a destination orchestra for musicians.

But, she said, "I think a destination orchestra isn't singularly about pay. I think it's about what happens when you're here, how you feel about the environment you're working in, and who is around you and what musically you're doing. We need to have as much pay as we can, but we need to frankly have a relationship with the art that is rewarding beyond pay."

Whether the orchestra can succeed in its most ambitious fund-raising effort to date - the previous campaign sought $125 million and ended in 2008 - is uncertain.

The scale of the effort is large at a time when the orchestra would be competing with other groups for many of the same donors. The orchestra also is so far lacking the participation of the city's largest foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, whose cash and vote of confidence are typically part of large civic efforts such as this.

When Worley talks to almost any potential donor, he said, "somewhere in the conversation . . . you hear the notion that this is a lot of money and it's too much money unless it is for a plan that will bring this orchestra to financial stability."

A lot will depend on how much excitement the orchestra can create around the arrival of a new music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, a year from this fall, and the response to details of a new strategic plan the orchestra has yet to make fully public.

The plan is a mix of new ambition and the repackaging of previously tried ideas.

It is, Vulgamore said, an expression of the belief that "orchestral music is alive and well, and we have a tremendous responsibility to keep it a great international orchestra with the finest players. That is what the plan is about. That means that excellence is expensive."

Among the ideas being developed are the orchestra's return to the Academy of Music for a certain number of dates, concert operas, virtual program notes that help listeners through concerts in real time, a potential new residency in China, and a series at Longwood Gardens.

The aim is to reverse a disturbing dive in attendance: In 1989 the orchestra played for about 255,000 listeners in its main subscription series. Today the total is about 150,000.

"You can't support a great orchestra with 150,000 attendees and the kind of contributed revenue that we get," Worley said. "The only way to save this orchestra is to turn around the trends. We've really been eating our seed corn in the last few years, and we're running out of it."


Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com.

He blogs at www.philly.com/ philly/blogs/artswatch

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