Stream of departures threatens orchestra's sound

David Bilger : The latest to leave, at least temporarily.
David Bilger : The latest to leave, at least temporarily. (CHRIS LEE / Phila. Orchestra Association)
Posted: August 13, 2011

An insidious drip has started at the Philadelphia Orchestra, and this one will be hard to stanch. Talent is leaving.

The latest case is David Bilger, the orchestra's stalwart and elegant principal trumpeter, who has accepted a two-year visiting professorship at the University of Georgia, starting this fall.

He isn't quitting his Philadelphia post - not yet - but instead is hedging his bets in a way that trenchantly underscores what's at stake for the orchestra. Bilger will cut back on his orchestra weeks here and commute between Philadelphia and Athens, Ga.

How will he eventually decide between the two?

"Of course UGA would like me full time," he wrote in an e-mail. "Let's talk once I see how much I like Athens, and where the orchestra is in a year. There are options. :-)"

One or two departures per year can be expected in any ensemble. But there have been more. Principal clarinetist Ricardo Morales is taking the same post with the New York Philharmonic, and cellist Efe Baltacigil is to become principal cellist of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. José Maria Blumenschein, the orchestra's associate concertmaster, is the new co-concertmaster in the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne, and violist Stephen Wyrczynski landed at Indiana University in a permanent tenured professorship. Five or six additional players plan to retire. Others are being courted.

Suddenly, everything is different. When the Philadelphia Orchestra returns for opening night in October, it will be something other than what it was in its final concert last season. It will have gone from being one of the world's most sonically homogeneous and sure-footed orchestras to that most precarious of musical beings: ensemble in transition.

It's time to be extremely concerned. An orchestra - at least, a great one - isn't a workplace as much as it is a delicate web of ineffable relationships. Sometimes you can hear it playing out on stage in real time: Principal oboist Richard Woodhams has an exquisitely shaped phrase that elides with one by Morales. When the strings get the same melody later, they're informed and inspired by the previous playing. Subtle cues are taken and given - the length of notes, phrasing, breathing. On the best nights, the orchestra is like a school of fish: You marvel at the unity, and all the more because you can't figure out who made the first micro-hint to change direction. When you start losing certain key leaders - or if there's too much turnover in too short a time - order crumbles.

How did we get here? Morales and Baltacigil have not responded to requests to explain what went into their decisions. Morales has a streak of professional restlessness in him that suggests he would have left with or without bankruptcy.

But Bilger has been quite explicit. Among colleagues, he's hardly known as a hothead, which makes the note he e-mailed me all the more powerful. It's time - and maybe even too late - to speak plainly about exactly what's at stake. Will there be, or won't there be, a great Philadelphia Orchestra left by the end of this bankruptcy?

"It would be disingenuous of me not to admit to you that pursuing the position at UGA at this point in my career was a response to the current difficulties and uncertainties at the [Philadelphia Orchestra Assocaition]," wrote Bilger. "In fact, it would have been irresponsible of me NOT to be looking for career opportunities elsewhere. Previously, I had always believed that I would retire from playing as a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra. But now, given the uncertain financial future of the orchestra, it is imperative to reassess my career options."

Bilger goes on to say that "one of the more vocal members of the POA Board of Directors has stated on many occasions that the musicians of the orchestra won't leave, no matter what sort of contract (and pension) is offered to us. He has flatly stated, "Where will they go?' "

Answers are emerging, sadly and quickly now.


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

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