New beginning? Or beginning of the end?

In 1919, a successful campaign to Save the Orchestra "was one of the most extraordinary efforts ever undertaken," writes Edward Kupferberg in his 1969 book, "Those Fabulous Philadelphians: The Life and Times of a Great Orchestra."
In 1919, a successful campaign to Save the Orchestra "was one of the most extraordinary efforts ever undertaken," writes Edward Kupferberg in his 1969 book, "Those Fabulous Philadelphians: The Life and Times of a Great Orchestra." (United Press International)
Posted: May 08, 2011

The Philadelphia Orchestra's current crucible - its most serious ever - will shift from merely worrisome to outright catastrophic if the following sentiment becomes accepted wisdom: Philadelphia is a great city, and every great city needs an orchestra.

It's not that Philadelphia needs an orchestra; it needs this orchestra - the one we have now, the one we've always had, the one that to a wide sampling of world opinion actually defines Philadelphia's greatness.

The Philadelphia Orchestra is among the best ensembles anywhere, and if it becomes a lesser version of itself - in terms of its uniquely saturated sound, the quality of individual players, or its artistic drive - it's probably not coming back. A great orchestra is a rare and perishable thing. It takes decades to make, just months to ruin.

It's fine that orchestra management is portraying the bankruptcy as a new beginning. But what's spooking players is the hunch that it's the beginning of the end. Who's right?

That this is playing out primarily as a dispute between musicians and management is the first clue that what we have here is a labor negotiation masquerading as a bankruptcy case. Does this case belong in bankruptcy court? Will Judge Eric L. Frank decide at some point - the case continues Monday - to simply send the two sides back to the negotiating table?

Rather than continuing talks over concessions with musicians, the Kimmel Center, and Peter Nero and the Philly Pops, the Philadelphia Orchestra Association has moved to court to seek the changes it could not otherwise get.

"Now we have some hammers to accomplish it," association lawyer Lawrence G. McMichael said recently.

The real question, though, has less to do with whether the association can successfully extract concessions from its partners than with what it will come up with as a plan for its own future (though the two are surely related).

The "strategic plan" is a dry name for a document - still unfinished - that has everything to do with what kind of orchestra this is going to be. Leaders have made few details public, but the plan will outline where the orchestra plays (China, or Upper Darby?); whether it will program light classics or Ligeti, in what proportion, and where; what kind of artistic partnerships with Simon Rattle and other conductors it will grow; how much time it will spend each year returning to the Academy of Music.

The musicians have agreed to a salary freeze and work-rule changes, and have made other concessions.

Now, the only thing that matters - and the only thing that has ever mattered since finances began deteriorating almost two decades ago - is whether the orchestra's board and donors are willing to raise the money necessary to fund this orchestra at the same level of its peers in New York and Berlin.

In a memo to the board, chairman Richard B. Worley reported that the orchestra's annual fund-raising ranked 12th among U.S. orchestras and was "less than one-half the average for the five largest orchestras." Despite its unwieldy size - 75 members - some of the city's smartest money is conspicuously absent. Why aren't philanthropists H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest and David Haas on the board? Hess family scion and former politician Constance H. Williams? Civic leader Marsha Perelman?

The Philadelphia Orchestra, the city's prime global cultural ambassador, once had the region's most powerful board. No longer.

Then, there are the staffing troubles. A skeleton crew of just over 40 members - absent vice presidents for marketing and development, at a time when both areas have lagged - has been holding the place together for too long. Allison Vulgamore's two-year contract as president is up in January. Is she the best face for the organization as it enters its seeking-friends phase?

In several instances, she has not excelled. Donors and board members complain that she has made appointments for meetings and then canceled, never to be heard from again. An open-air simulcast of the season's opening-night concert, designed to attract a younger crowd at the Piazza at Schmidts in Northern Liberties, was a flop, drawing only a handful of listeners. Materials for the 2011-12 season were sent out with incorrect pricing, angering subscribers.

Vulgamore has been generous in assessing blame on the orchestra for past failings, but she has been in the job for 16 months, and at some point, if there's a mess, she owns it, along with the board.

The route they have chosen, bankruptcy, has waged war on friends - musicians, the Pops, the Kimmel - and war has been expensive. So far, 17 lawyers have been tapped to work on the case on behalf of the association, musicians, Kimmel Center, and Pops, according to court records.

That doesn't include the associates and paralegals, or financial consultants; it does not include the thousands of creditors, many of whom will want to retain legal representation; and it does not take into account the taxpayers' money spent through the U.S. Bankruptcy Court and U.S. Trustee Program.

Fees range from $235 and $750 an hour. Just up to the moment before the bankruptcy filing, the association ran up a $319,000 bill at Dilworth Paxson. Will the financial rewards of this episode outweigh the bills?

More damaging still are the nonfinancial costs.

There is a widespread perception among listeners that the association is flirting with a subtle kind of class warfare. While several large foundations stand by to make donations to the orchestra's recovery - tacit approval of the bankruptcy strategy - many of those who fill the seats say in e-mails and online comments that they see this as a union-busting maneuver.

The fact that so many are asking if they can bypass management and donate money directly to the musicians should frighten the entire organization - especially if it thinks it can launch and complete a $160 million recovery and endowment campaign. Large fund-raising campaigns need the oxygen of good feelings to flourish.

The Pew Charitable Trusts has chosen not to contribute to the orchestra's recovery campaign right now - who wants to get into the middle of a family squabble? If past patterns are a clue, Pew could be waiting for the orchestra to get its house in order before funding it, coming in near the end of the campaign, as it often does.

Perhaps there is comfort to be taken in the dismay of orchestra friends internationally. The world cares what happens here; about 800 articles and references to the orchestra's bankruptcy appeared in a recent Google search.

It Vietnam, it was "Dàn nhac danh tieng Philadelphia de do'n xin phá san."

"Filadelfský orchester smeruje do bankrotu" in Slovakia.

In Rome, "Giorni neri per la Philadelphia Orchestra" - Black Days for the Philadelphia Orchestra.

It's hard to say what kind of public-relations damage the orchestra has inflicted on itself by walking down to Ninth and Market Streets and filing its cry for help in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, but it's likely to be severe and lasting. During this summer's European tour, expect reviews to touch on bankruptcy before getting to the Berlioz.

The episode apparently has been disturbing enough to throw off the New Yorker magazine's usual unerring precision. A recent "Goings On About Town" listing for last Tuesday's Carnegie Hall appearance declares: "Like the Detroit Symphony, Philly's sterling band is a great orchestra trying to survive in an economically troubled city."

Well, no.

Philadelphia isn't Detroit - in its economy, its orchestra, or the vibrancy of its downtown. (And there's now train service to Philadelphia, in case the New Yorker decides to seek evidence of a thriving city beyond the Hudson.)

Still, the worst-case scenario over the next few months would have the orchestra musicians going on strike, or the association converting Chapter 11 (reorganization) into Chapter 7 (dissolution), which would in fact have a devastating effect on the orchestra and its city.

The path ahead is unclear. Nothing of this sort has ever played out locally, or at any of the nation's largest orchestras. But whatever happens, Philadelphians should hold the orchestra and its leadership to ensuring that the New Yorker ends up being simply provincial, not prescient.


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

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