Orchestra CEO is being paid $597,000

Posted: June 09, 2011

How much money should the president of a major orchestra be paid? And should the person at the helm when an orchestra slips into bankruptcy be paid less for failing to keep finances afloat - or more, since managing such a crisis is tough?

All these factors relate to Allison B. Vulgamore, who is being paid $597,000 a year to lead the Philadelphia Orchestra, which filed for Chapter 11 on April 16.

While $597,000 a year is a lot of money, it is not an unusual sum in the industry. Broadly speaking, Vulgamore's compensation is at the middle of a scale that includes 10 top U.S. orchestras. Then again, none of those orchestras is in bankruptcy.

If the terms of employment continue past the end of Vulgamore's initial two-year contract, which expires in January, her compensation has the potential to grow. She passed up an agreement in her contract for an estimated additional 20 percent, which would have put her total compensation near or over $700,000 a year.

The package breaks down like this:

According to documents recently filed in the orchestra's petition in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Vulgamore was being paid an annual salary of $450,000 as of the middle of January. In addition, she received executive retirement benefits of $125,000; supplemental disability insurance of about $15,000 (on top of other regular benefits); a car allowance of $5,000, and a financial planning allowance of $2,000. Plus reserved parking at the Kimmel Center.

An orchestra spokeswoman said Vulgamore was declining to speak about the matter.

What Vulgamore gave up voluntarily, according to board chairman Richard B. Worley, was a scheduled $25,000 raise in her base pay, plus a "variable compensation" component in her contract - commonly known as a bonus - whose exact value was never calculated since she forwent that as well.

The range of the bonus - determined by an assessment of her performance - would have been $50,000 to $150,000.

The current total of $597,000 puts Vulgamore well above the amounts earned by her predecessors. James Undercofler received a total of $447,953 in the fiscal year ending Aug. 31, 2009 (for 11 months' work), according to the orchestra's tax returns. Before Undercofler, Joseph H. Kluger, who left in 2005, was being paid about $285,000 a year.

Some of Vulgamore's peers in the industry earn less, some more - some much more. Apples-to-apples comparisons are difficult, since in some cases orchestra executives also oversee related organizations, such as summer venues or presenting arms. Cost-of-living variables from city to city - which orchestra management is using as a factor in talks with musicians about their salaries - can also be hard to gauge.

Next to her counterparts, Vulgamore is in the middle of the pack. According to tax returns (which contain older figures than those available for Vulgamore), here is what some administrative leaders earned:

Paul Meecham, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, $294,000, fiscal year ending August 2009.

Mark Volpe, Boston Symphony Orchestra, $607,000, August 2009.

Deborah Card, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, $514,000, June 2009.

Gary Hanson, Cleveland Orchestra, $472,000, June 2009.

Deborah Borda, Los Angeles Philharmonic, $1.4 million, September 2009.

Michael Henson, Minnesota Orchestra, $390,000, August 2009.

Zarin Mehta, New York Philharmonic, just over $1 million, August 2009.

Lawrence Tamburri, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, $341,000, August 2009

Brent Assink, San Francisco Symphony, $481,000, August 2009.

Worley said Vulgamore's estimated 20 percent lower-than-potential compensation was meant to mirror the percentage of the cuts musicians were being asked to accept. Concessions, however, have not been determined. Contract talks with musicians are scheduled to continue Tuesday and Wednesday in Philadelphia with George H. Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

Cellist John Koen, chair of the players committee, noted that, on the one hand, Vulgamore's pay is not remarkable among her peers. On the other hand, he said: "She's making about twice as much as the highest-paid musician, and yet what we do on stage is the orchestra. No one ever pays to watch someone manage."

Worley, in a prepared statement, said:

"We're very fortunate to have someone as talented as Allison Vulgamore to guide us through this challenging period. During her tenure she has demonstrated incredible leadership as our CEO - attracting world-class talent such as [music director-designate] Yannick [Nézet-Séguin], developing a visionary strategic plan for the next five years and beyond, stabilizing attendance, cultivating donors and giving all of us the confidence we need as we look to the future.

"When she informed us that she wouldn't accept the $25,000 salary increase guaranteed in her contract, I was impressed. Additionally, she told us that she would decline the variable compensation that her contract entitled her to. All told, this is approximately 20 percent less than her contract calls for. Her commitment to the orchestra is clear and I am delighted to have her as our leader."


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

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