Cutbacks, changes in Philadelphia Orchestra's new strategic plan

Posted: May 29, 2011

The Philadelphia Orchestra will shrink the number of its subscription concerts 15 percent and cut its artistic budget an equal amount.

International touring will go on hiatus unless it can be fully funded - but look for the orchestra to return to its beloved former home, the Academy of Music, for up to three weeks a year.

The orchestra's board aims to recapture its "status as the premier nonprofit board in Philadelphia" and "attract and retain the best thinkers and influential members of the community."

The musicians will branch out into light classics and film scores, exchange white tie and tails for something less "stuffy," and perform in an environment that is more theatrical and accompanied by extras such as digital program notes and after-concert events.

The orchestra's staff will remain at 47 members, half its recent high and far below those of other major orchestras.

Patrons will be able to count on a relationship with the orchestra on every level - on its website, by phone, in the concert hall, in the restaurants and lobby of the Kimmel Center - that makes them feel more valued than they do now.

This is the new Philadelphia Orchestra - wooing big donors, getting audiences back, balancing its budget - envisioned in a five-year strategic plan that was nine months in the making. On Monday, the orchestra board discussed it in full for the first time.

The plan promises to continue to evolve, and hinges on a steep central ambition: that the orchestra can raise $160 million to put it into action.

Whether the 69-page blueprint, being circulated to donors, can generate enough excitement to raise that amount is not clear.

"I think we're on a path where we have a good, fighting chance to do that, and I think we will succeed," orchestra chairman Richard B. Worley said.

Given the orchestra's financial troubles, administrative turnover, and audience decline in the last two decades, he and others say another rescue after this one won't be possible.

"We only get to do this once," Worley said.

Asked whether the reductions in concerts, staffing, and the artistic budget portray a Philadelphia Orchestra that is a lesser version of itself, orchestra leaders said no - and yes.

"It does invest in art and musicians, and it does invest in media," president Allison B. Vulgamore said. "I don't think we've seen the Philadelphia Orchestra have a season quite as diverse as we're talking about in this plan of repertoire spread and concert environments and technology. I don't see those as cutbacks. I do see them as more frisky ways of thinking about being a great orchestra rather than, frankly, laurel-sitting and posture. It is absolutely front-forward behavior."

At the same time, "this plan does set out to lower fixed costs," said Vulgamore, who ardently makes the case that the Philadelphia Orchestra can still be a destination for the best musicians.

"I know it's alarming and terribly disappointing to some of our musicians right now that we're talking about less in order to get through this tunnel. I don't think that less has to mean that there isn't still the urge and the capacity to regenerate our excellence."

Said Worley, "You shouldn't take this to be every bit of our aspiration. What it is meant to be is a sober - an exciting, but also what I call a fiscally responsible - document that doesn't have rosy forecasts in it."

The orchestra board could vote as soon as July on the plan, whose research and preparation were funded with $528,000 in grants from the William Penn Foundation.

Several substantial factors in determining whether Philadelphia continues to be a destination orchestra for musicians have yet to reveal themselves. Management is pressing for steep concessions in a new contract with players, including double-digit percentage cuts in compensation and a pension shift to a defined-contribution plan from a defined-benefit plan.

Another major variable is the arrival in fall 2012 of new music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the extent to which he can be a magnet for talent. Worley quietly hopes that beyond the young conductor's charisma with players, a strongly positive Yannick effect on ticket sales and fund-raising is in the future.

The new strategic plan isn't the one the orchestra set out to devise when it began assembling committees and held conversations in August. Work proceeded until, in October, the leadership saw the orchestra's financial condition worsening, according to Worley, and energies were turned to researching bankruptcy.

"I am proud of this work, and I think Allison is proud of this work," he said of the document. "But this isn't the plan that she had hoped to present to the board, in the sense that she had hoped to continue to complete the whole planning process - to be looking more far-ranging at some things - and that is something that will have to be done in the future when we resume. We were running out of cash."

Though the plan calls for raising $100 million for endowment, earlier fund-raising efforts will concentrate on $60 million in bridge funding to get the orchestra through the next few years, fund the bankruptcy, and contribute to income before endowment pledges are received and begin earning income.

Raising that money will be a serious challenge. For one thing, donors want assurance that this time their money will help solve, once and for all, the orchestra's money woes. For another, the development staff has been depleted. Raising money, especially large gifts, is a slow process of cultivation, and leaders say the orchestra does not have a lot of time. Calls already have been made to some potentially large donors, and more are on the way.

"Calendars are getting booked," said Vulgamore, who is shifting her time to work on the plan's big ideas and turning over some duties to Ari Solotoff, her chief of staff, who will take the new title of executive vice president.

The plan is broken into two phases. The first, to last five years, is about "sowing the seeds of innovation while putting us back on solid footing." The second, parts of which are already in development, would allow the orchestra to "pursue our dreams with full force, such as a model for a possible China residency program, a summer home at Longwood, and an expansion of our digital projects."

The plan interlocks in many places with the orchestra's bankruptcy petition, filed April 16. It states: "We are . . . aware that we are organizationally on our knees, and that there is an overwhelming need to bring all our work up to the quality and caliber of our performances on stage."

Much of the document relates to specific goals the orchestra is seeking in U.S. Bankruptcy Court - changing the pension system for musicians, severing the orchestra's relationship with Peter Nero and the Philly Pops, renegotiating a lease agreement with the Kimmel Center for Verizon Hall (and the Kimmel's lease to use the Academy of Music, which the orchestra still owns).

Sections dealing with the ensemble's artistic life are not fully detailed, but ideas include:

The establishment of a creative team whose permanent members include Vulgamore, artistic vice president Jeremy Rothman, and Nézet-Séguin. Potential rotating members mentioned are conductors Simon Rattle and Vladimir Jurowski, pianist Lang Lang, violinist Leila Josefowicz, and composer Tan Dun. The group will help curate the season: "We will not have one maestro setting the agenda, but rather Yannick will convene a creative team of individuals."

Production of concert or semi-staged operas, perhaps in collaboration with the Opera Company of Philadelphia, at Verizon Hall or the Academy of Music.

A Yannick Music Director Fund to underwrite special projects, such as "partnering with a modern cirque company to create a 21st-century Rite of Spring."

The commissioning of works, perhaps in partnership with other groups.

The shifting of repertoire to include light classics, Baroque, Broadway music, film scores, and "other pop genres."

In addition to content changes, the plan puts great emphasis on shaking up the concert experience with multimedia elements such as theatrical lighting, pre- and postconcert events in the lobby, work with designers to create new concert attire for the musicians, and concerts at venues such as the Navy Yard, "an airport hangar, or warehouse."

Other orchestras in the United States and Europe have launched many, if not all, of these kinds of initiatives, and the Philadelphia Orchestra has tried most of them in the last two decades.

The plan includes the expected ideas of improving the website, engaging younger audiences, cultivating current listeners as more frequent ticket buyers and donors, and the like.

The cutback in concerts, from 92 to 78, will come from reducing repeated concerts, not the number of different programs, Worley said. How musicians will spend the time they once spent performing depends on changes in work rules being sought in contract talks. Ideas include deploying them to do house concerts, record weekly video diaries, and take on education projects.

"There's chamber music that they do, teaching that they do. Some of them are on boards," Vulgamore said. "To be able to access that on behalf of the institution would be great."

The plan calls for the orchestra to maintain its residencies in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and at the Mann Center, as well as its Carnegie Hall series.

Although the plan's financial forecasts may not be "rosy," there is considerable reach in some of the goals: Boosting annual board giving from $1.9 million now to $2.8 million in 2016, increasing ticket sales from 156,000 in 2012 to 189,000 in 2016, and raising annual giving from $9.3 million in 2011 to $15.1 million in 2016.

Among the startling statistics to come out of the plan's research: Between 2007 and 2010, only one subscriber of medium tenure - several years rather than decades - gave a gift of more than $10,000.

The plan said: "This speaks to a profound need to cultivate and build a philanthropic ethos among our next generational waves."


'Bring on the Charisma'

The Philadelphia Orchestra's strategic plan is accompanied by quotes from orchestra patrons.

Here is a selection:

"Be bold. Do not let fear control the future, but - rather - remember the saying, 'Who dares wins.' "

"The orchestra needs leadership to integrate it with the community and to bring young people to the concerts. It is terribly sedate in its marketing and programming. It is also terribly exclusive and highbrow in its 'image.' . . . You have to make it easier to attend, less of a hassle . . . and you have to develop your relationships with us."

"Bring on the charisma. . . . Be creative, have fun - classical music is the soundtrack of life. Stop stifling it."

"The orchestra and board waited too long to start making significant changes."

"Make the orchestra concerts truly memorable events and I will have no problem paying full price for tickets. Show the community that the orchestra's management and board governance is fully in the 21st century, and not fixed on the past."

"I love the Philadelphia Orchestra, but it needs to love itself and accept who and what it is before things will get better. What does that mean? I can't tell you. Only you can figure that out."


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

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