What the Philadelphia Orchestra needs to survive - and thrive

Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin (right) greets people standing in line to buy Philadelphia Orchestra tickets at the Kimmel Center.
Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin (right) greets people standing in line to buy Philadelphia Orchestra tickets at the Kimmel Center. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 24, 2012

Is there enough wealth in and around Philadelphia to support the great Philadelphia Orchestra? Will its current leadership destroy the ensemble as we know it, or save it? In view of everything that has transpired in the last two decades, have we built an arts center while putting its orchestra at risk?

The Philadelphia Orchestra is out of bankruptcy, and bankruptcy could solve only so much. That these larger questions now dog the city's leadership - that this is what it has come to - is a shocking thing.

Yet often overlooked is a remarkable fact: Despite troubles in the front office and the boardroom, the thing they exist to support - the ensemble itself - continues to operate at a superlative level. Review after review is a rave.

To put this decades-long achievement in a larger context, think about it this way: Has Philadelphia ever had a sports team that has scored so consistently high?

But that will end if management can't figure out how to package, market, and pay for it. For the orchestra to get through the next few years of planned deficits while raising endowment to a level necessary for an organization of its ambition, something like $200 million must be raised.

And if it's not? Orchestra chairman Richard B. Worley said at a meeting with donors earlier this month, "If we do not act decisively now, we will lose the orchestra."

There's no evidence that he's bluffing.

There are compelling reasons for Philadelphia to step up with enough support to put the orchestra on firm footing once and for all. At the meeting, Worley, Mayor Nutter, and new music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin listed some - the orchestra is an economic engine, a city ambassador in Asia and Europe. But here's the biggest of all: If we fail, and it either dies or, just as important, ceases to exist as one of the world's great ensembles, the failure will cast a shadow on our civic spirit for decades.

Philadelphia has only a handful of assets that stand shoulder to shoulder with anything in Paris, London, or New York. An orchestra disassembled could never be rebuilt, and its loss would be an incalculable blow to any future effort to create anything of world-class quality here.

Let me just say high up that I believe the orchestra will succeed - not because it finally has its house in order (it doesn't, quite), but because, in a sense, there is no choice. As a metaphor for what civilization can build when disparate elements come together to achieve something bigger, nothing in culture can touch an orchestra. No great city in the Western world exists that does not have a great one.

Philadelphia's is among the greatest, and continuing that will take money. In the big scheme of things, not a lot - but more, for sure, than has been raised before. As a longtime board member said to me, "We have to get beyond this Quaker mentality that $1 million is a lot of money."

There is, in fact, more than enough money in Philadelphia for the city to do anything it wants. Several old-line families worth billions have made contributions to the orchestra so far that fall within a range of zero to mere tokens. It's easy to come up with a list of local venture capitalists and entrepreneurs worth several hundred million dollars each.

I can think of one elderly businessman worth at least hundreds of millions who could solve the orchestra's troubles with a stroke of the pen and make up the donation in investment income within a few months.

What has been done to win the support of these people?

One of the most frustrating aspects of this fight for survival during the last 18 months has been the seeming inability of the institution to passionately voice why this is a fight worth fighting. Worley isolated the basic problem: Undercapitalization, he says, and he's right. Regardless of whether you agree that bankruptcy was the best route, he deserves gratitude for taking on a big, festering problem and putting his own money ($10 million so far) toward a solution.

But donors are inured to pitches that play on guilt or noblesse oblige. What the orchestra hasn't articulated with any emotion is its larger role - in short, not what we can do for the orchestra, but what it can do for us.

Ironically, on stage, the orchestra has pointed quite beautifully to what's possible. Those of us who love it carry enduring moments of meaning from our encounters with it.

Some of mine: Night after night on a U.S. tour, Wolfgang Sawallisch conjuring absolute ensemble precision swathed in a velvety, ideal Brahms sound in the Variations on a Theme of Haydn. South Philadelphians hanging from second-story windows during its visit to Capitolo Playground. New meanings suggested in a movement from Brahms' German Requiem at the Mann in a memorial a few days after 9/11. Simon Rattle unfurling the tension in certain chord progressions in Schumann's Paradise and the Peri.

Such instances of communion between musician and listener produce nothing less than a change in our brain chemistry. I can't say what this has meant to others, but to see the faces of listeners at City Hall as the orchestra played only hours after a police officer was killed was to watch humanity being restored to a shaken reality.

Does anything else in our city have this kind of transcendental power?

Orchestras are remarkable chameleons, and anything ours needs to become can be found somewhere in its last dozen years. Assembling the parts in the right proportion, and sustaining them long enough to really judge success, is the trick.

That doesn't mean tough decisions don't lie ahead. Some thought bankruptcy should have been an occasion to totally remake the institution. If the problem was too much "inventory" (that is, the number of performances), the idea went, then subscription concerts should have been cut back, with musicians' time on the clock put to use in the pit of the Opera Company of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Ballet.

But that model would have thrown perhaps 100 freelance musicians out of work. Is there enough work in Philadelphia to support all its musicians? With the Kimmel Center's arrival in 2001, raising money from many of the orchestra's donors, the competition seemed too great to keep both going; it still does, unless the donor pool can be expanded. The bankruptcy created legal bills and operational difficulties for the Kimmel, Mann, Philly Pops, Academy of Music, and others. Very delicate, this arts microclimate.

Of chief concern is the possibility that in coming years the orchestra won't be able to adequately boost the revenue side of its balance sheet. The board's gaze inevitably will fix on expenses - more cuts in the musicians' contract. It worked once, after all, so why not again? This course would all but ensure a fatal flight of artistic quality, which would, in turn, alienate donors.

Musicians and aficionados are rightly worried that pandering programming, pops and circus acts will become a regular part of the orchestra's identity. To some extent, though, the choice between art and entertainment is not as black-and-white as some think. The vaunted Vienna Philharmonic spends plenty of time in the opera pit, and doesn't look down its nose at waltzes. It's a question of balance, and doing whatever you decide to do well.

The orchestra no doubt faces external challenges. To have labored anywhere in classical music of late is to have felt the excruciating dissonance of possessing the greatest thing in the world even as it slips away. Poor service, dull marketing, high ticket prices turn away many. But an equal problem is that what once held unquestioned primacy in classrooms as necessary to being a well-rounded person no longer does. Americans are not issued a grounding in classical music along with a Social Security number as a life essential.

The other major challenge may be a paradoxical effect of Center City's renaissance. Long ago, when Walnut Street was a stretch of boarded-up facades and you had to be a private-club member to get a decent meal, the orchestra was one of few after-dinner options.

Now, restaurants are a destination. Theaters have blossomed. Shopping is a full-time pursuit for some. The orchestra, which sustained street activity in Center City for decades, must compete for it.

Can the orchestra win back some love? Only if it figures out how to evolve multiple personalities - your neighborhood band and your world-class ensemble.

Nézet-Séguin suggested this at the donor meeting when he paraphrased a Mozart thought, presumably this one from a letter to his father about a group of his piano concertos: "There are passages . . . from which the connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why . . . . The golden mean of truth in all things is no longer either known or appreciated. In order to win applause one must write stuff which is so inane that a coachman could sing it, or so unintelligible that it pleases precisely because no sensible man can understand it."

You could do worse than make a Mozartean sentiment the core philosophy of your organization. Can the orchestra become something more populist while not yielding an inch of quality? Much depends on the conductor: Can he do the kind of ensemble-keeping required to reinforce balance, intonation, phrasing, and blending - not to mention the ability of his ear to cultivate specific string techniques required to maintain the orchestra's special sound? This ensemble doesn't always have the internal discipline to achieve these more rarefied characteristics.

As for the repertoire diversification that is on the near horizon (in a few days the orchestra is to accompany the 1961 film West Side Story), one can make the argument that, for egalitarian and humanitarian reasons, this evolution should have started years ago. Now survival depends on it.

The Philadelphia Orchestra: All things to all people, or bust.


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

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