Encouraging progress in orchestra fund-raising

But much depends on musicians' staying, and Nézet-Séguin excitement.

Posted: January 31, 2012

The Philadelphia Orchestra Association has made incremental but encouraging progress in the campaign to finance its reorganization and operations for several years beyond an expected exit from bankruptcy. But it still has a "mountain of money" to raise.

About $35.5 million has been committed in gifts and pledges on the way to an immediate goal of $44 million, orchestra chairman Richard B. Worley said Monday.

In addition to previously announced gifts from the William Penn Foundation and other local philanthropists, the orchestra has nailed down two anonymous donations totaling $5.5 million, $1 million from Dorrance Hill Hamilton, and gifts from 50 members of its own board. Additional challenge grants are available if $6.5 million can be raised by Aug. 31, officials say.

The total needed, though, is more than the orchestra has ever before attempted to raise: an estimated $160 million to $170 million for operations and endowment.

All of this will be sought as the orchestra does its usual stumping for the annual fund.

"We still have an awful lot of money to raise," said Worley, who has, with his wife, given $5 million to the recovery effort. "It's been a long struggle, it's not over, but we're still standing and we're still playing, and Philadelphia is increasingly responding to us, and I couldn't be more encouraged."

Even before the orchestra filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on April 16, Worley said the city was "in grave danger of losing this orchestra."

Asked whether that danger still exists, he said:

"We have a lot of work to do to keep it. We are dedicated to keeping the Philadelphia Orchestra, not just some group of musicians, on our stage."

The musicians themselves are in the process of determining that outcome. Several prominent titled players - clarinetist Ricardo Morales, trumpeter David Bilger, and cellist Efe Baltacigil - already have accepted positions elsewhere, and another wave of departures is on the way.

Principal trombonist Nitzan Haroz has won an audition with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He declined to comment because, he wrote in an e-mail, "the details regarding the LA position are still being worked out."

Jonathan Chu, a section violist who joined the orchestra in 2009, has accepted the same position with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Others are said to be taking auditions or considering teaching positions.

Not every player is citing deep concessions in the new labor contract as a reason for leaving, but some are.

Chu said he did not want to leave Philadelphia, but, as a member of the team that negotiated the new contract, he was concerned about how its terms would affect artistic quality in the long term.

"It certainly wasn't a snap decision, but what makes me want to stay here is the artistic quality on stage, and I am really excited about [music director-designate] Yannick [Nézet-Séguin], who I think will be a huge boon to the orchestra and the city. But . . . I am not certain the people behind the scenes are as supportive of the orchestra as they need to be."

He said in deciding whether to go, players "look at the numbers, and you go where you think the future will be brightest."

"I hope we won't lose additional musicians," Worley said. "I'm not sure that every one of those career changes is because of our special circumstances. I'm not saying there is no influence. But I think the enthusiasm of our musicians about what's going on here is growing. I hope they will stay. Break my heart if they don't."

Orchestra president Allison B. Vulgamore said she and Nézet-Séguin were meeting with musicians who were considering leaving or requesting leaves of absence.

"I think he's had some very good and honest conversations with folks. Some people will go," she acknowledged.

The typical route for musicians who have won an audition elsewhere is to take a year's leave of absence while they try a new spot in another orchestra. Said Vulgamore: "I learned a long time ago in orchestra management that it's better to let someone go and let them have the experience to see what's on the other side, and sometimes they stay. But they often come back. I think it's a human way of helping people make decisions."

Vulgamore said she did not know exactly how many players were at risk for leaving.

If the plan for retaining musicians relies in part on the orchestra's new music director, who starts this fall, so does the strategy for raising money.

"It's a multiyear task," Worley said of the $100 million portion of the campaign earmarked for endowment. "We expected that it would begin during Yannick's leadership, and that the success of his leadership artistically would be very important to our ability to excite the community who will want to contribute."

If $100 million in new endowment cannot be raised by 2016, Worley said, the $60 million portion of the campaign intended to underwrite operations will have to be increased.

Signs of incipient Yannick fever have appeared. The spunky 36-year-old Montrealer has drawn sizable crowds to after-concert chats and other flesh-pressing opportunities. And this season, with his visibility increasing in advance of his official start, attendance has improved.

Paid capacity so far this season is 82 percent, or just over 2,000 tickets sold on average per concert in Verizon Hall (with a total average number of seats counted at 2,449). This time last season, attendance was running at 71 percent of capacity.

To be sure, the orchestra has dropped ticket prices and reduced its number of concerts slightly, which marketing vice president Janice Hay says accounts for the firmer numbers. As a result, revenue has dropped - to $6.3 million, as opposed to $7.1 million this time last year. Still, the experience of being in a hall with more listeners makes the audience - not to mention musicians - feel cheerier.

What the year-end deficit will be is not yet clear. Neither are certain aspects of the orchestra's strategic plan, which will have to be revised based on the outcome of several current negotiations, including talks with the Kimmel Center for lower rent.

"The reorganization has been longer and more complicated than we anticipated, and therefore its cost is going to be higher," Worley said. "The musicians' contract, as important and constructive a step as it was, is somewhat more expensive than contained in the plan.

"So we will recalibrate and figure out what our needs will be, what adjustments we can make internally to mitigate that sum, how much we will need to raise in addition, and that will be a process that will begin . . . before the actual emergence from bankruptcy."

The priority in this season of bankruptcy was bringing listeners into the hall rather than dollars into coffers, Worley said.

"We are very encouraged by the increases we've see this year in attendance, very encouraged by Philadelphia's reaction to Yannick, by the musicians' reaction to him and him to them, and I think there's a lot of excitement in the hall. I hear more and more from Philadelphians a growing sense of excitement and enthusiasm about the orchestra."


Contact Peter Dobrin at pdobrin@phillynews.com or 215-854-5611. Read his blog at www.philly.com/blogs/artswatch.

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