Orchestra leaders' plan spurned by musicians

Posted: August 17, 2011

In a stunning rebuke to the official leadership of the Philadelphia Orchestra, musicians have rejected a strategic plan prepared by president Allison B. Vulgamore and management leaders.

Players "formally reject its recommendations," states a letter to Vulgamore and Philadelphia Orchestra Association board chairman Richard B. Worley. "The document and its suggestions have serious flaws, and we do not believe it will do what a strategic plan is supposed to do: create a plan for the future that protects the music we create and builds on our legacy as one of the world's greatest orchestras."

The letter, which comes on the eve of the orchestra's departure for a three-week European tour, is to be presented to the board Wednesday, and was signed by about 80 of the orchestra's 100 or so members, said players committee chairman John Koen. In a sign of an increasingly riven institution, the message was delivered on "Philadelphia Orchestra Musicians" letterhead.

Vulgamore did not respond to messages seeking her response.

Koen, a cellist, said that musicians had not developed an official position on what should happen now, but that one idea "voiced by many musicians" was to start from scratch on a new strategic plan.

That said, the current plan makes some good points, he said. "Musicians have been saying for 15 years that the orchestra needs to spend more money marketing itself and needs a more robust development staff to raise money," said Koen. "The plan said they should do that, but so have previous plans, and it didn't happen."

The May 19 strategic plan detailed troubling trends in ticket sales and philanthropy, and outlined ideas to re-engage audiences and donors. The artistic budget would be limited, and international touring curtailed except to the extent that it could be funded. Although the language was vague, the plan proposed expanding the orchestra's repertoire into more populist realms, and suggested repackaging ideas such as dressing the musicians in more informal attire and holding social events in connection with concerts. Many of these ideas have been proposed or tried here before.

Vulgamore touted the plan as an expression of institutional cohesiveness, and said musicians were involved in its preparation.

But Wednesday's letter - written amid difficult and fruitless contract talks with musicians and the association's related Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition - says that while musicians participated in discussions early on, their role was curtailed after November, when the "internal financial crisis" became more pressing.

"That's why we were surprised by repeated public statements that we were somehow involved in the drafting" of the association's plan, the letter says. "As Ms. Vulgamore said in July on CBS, 'The conversations with the musicians started in October. So we've been working together for a long time.' No, we worked together 'a long time ago.' As you know, we did not even see a draft of the plan until just before it appeared in the newspaper at the end of May - more than six months after our involvement in the planning process ended." Orchestra musicians opposed the Orchestra Association's April decision to file for bankruptcy, but have been silent on the strategic plan - until now.

"The Philadelphia Orchestra has long been recognized as one of the world's foremost cultural institutions," the letter says. "We've toured the globe, bringing our renowned 'Philadelphia Sound' to five continents and dozens of countries. We recognize that the Orchestra is a sacred trust that has been handed down to us by generations of colleagues, not simply to perform concerts to the best of our ability, but to uphold the reputation built so carefully since the Orchestra's founding in 1900. The plan that was developed without our input would destroy that legacy, and we cannot endorse it."


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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