Phila. Orchestra and Mann not in sync this summer

Posted: May 28, 2014

In its 2011 strategic plan, the Philadelphia Orchestra raised a key question about the increasingly competitive marketplace of donors and audiences.

"How do we reduce unhealthy competition?" the report asked about its relationship with partners such as the Mann Center. The orchestra said it would work with the Mann to "evolve our relationship in a way that mitigates risk and improves impact for both of us."

So it has been for decades. Ever since 1976, when the orchestra moved into the Mann Center (then known as the Robin Hood Dell West), the two have played well together in Fairmount Park to establish a lively presence for orchestral music.

But the post-bankruptcy Philadelphia Orchestra seems less concerned about sharp elbows. The orchestra, which has traditionally not programmed summer concerts in its downtown home, is not only scheduling new concerts in Verizon Hall at about the same time as its season at the Mann, but is also doing so with the exact programming the Mann has used for the last several years to define its core market.

Two Verizon Hall concerts, July 25 and 26, are a Pixar show featuring excerpts from the Toy Story trilogy and Finding Nemo - the same show the Mann presented with the Pittsburgh Symphony last summer.

Mann leaders perceive the programs as direct competition. The week before the Pixar shows in Verizon, the Mann is hosting the orchestra in the film score from Gladiator, and the week after in two nights of music from Star Wars and West Side Story.

Mann leaders say they were taken by surprise by the Verizon concerts. Currently, the Mann presents the orchestra, which means it takes the financial loss of any audience traffic diverted downtown. While not asking that the two Pixar shows be canceled, the Mann is calling on the orchestra to be, in effect, a better colleague.

"The Mann has strategically taken the lead in presenting enjoyable summer crossover classical programming in our distinctive outdoor setting for five seasons now," Mann board chairman Christopher L. Bruner said in a statement. ". . . Because we have always seen ourselves as the orchestra's partner in these endeavors, the timing of these new programs at Verizon Hall is very unfortunate. The orchestra's decision to present crossover programming during their summer schedule at the Mann has the potential to do more harm than good to both organizations, and we urge them to reconsider both now and in the future."

Orchestra executive vice president Ryan Fleur said he was "puzzled" by the Mann's response. "I guess what I would say is simply that it's a competitive market in Philadelphia. We're not going to step in on a Mozart anniversary year and tell the Chamber Orchestra [of Philadelphia] that they can't do Mozart."

Fleur said the dates in Verizon Hall were in effect free credits in its lease arrangement with the Kimmel Center, unused dates for which the orchestra will not have to pay rent for the performances (though it will pay the Kimmel for rehearsal time). Asked why the orchestra did not program core classical repertoire for the slots, he said: "These two programs met our criteria for a net-positive return to the institution. We frankly could not guarantee that for a classical program at this time without further market study."

The orchestra also recently booked the "Classical Mystery Tour: A Tribute to the Beatles" for Verizon July 23 and 24. The same act was presented by the Philly Pops in March of last year. Asked whether the orchestra's Beatles programming represented competition, Pops president and CEO Frank Giordano said that "imitation is the best form of flattery," but declined to answer further questions.

The conflict over the Pixar shows is the most visible sign of tension between the Mann and orchestra. But the Mann has felt thwarted in recent seasons in its efforts to book the orchestra.

"We are still committed to having a major-orchestra presence at the Mann, and we always work toward having the Philadelphia Orchestra," said Mann president Catherine M. Cahill. Unable to get the orchestra to commit to nine concerts every summer in recent years, Cahill said, the Mann has turned to the Pittsburgh Symphony and other ensembles to fill out the classical portion of its season. The orchestra also has not agreed to schedule concerts at the Mann with music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, citing scheduling conflicts, even though the conductor has appeared with the orchestra at its other summer venues.

The Mann was built as the summer home of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Pixar skirmish comes as the Mann is plotting out its next few years. With little endowment and unstable government support, it is heavily reliant on ticket sales - single tickets, in particular.

Little more than two decades ago, the orchestra filled 18 concerts at the Mann with an unusual business model. There were two ways tickets could be had, by clipping a newspaper coupon and mailing it in for free tickets, or by becoming a member of the Mann with a donation that would grant the donor tickets to all 18 concerts.

When single-ticket sales started in 1992, the Mann began to see the need for more diverse programming. It has developed relationships with commercial co-presenters to bring in pop acts to help the bottom line, but is still running deficits.

As for Nézet-Séguin, Fleur says the Mann has not given the orchestra enough advance notice to book the busy conductor. Cahill says her number-one preference, always, is to book the Philadelphia Orchestra and its music director as early and often as possible. "We have extended an open-ended invitation for him to conduct the orchestra at the Mann. Each year we remind them of that standing invitation."

For Information

The Mann's Philadelphia Orchestra concerts open June 24 with the Ben Folds Orchestral Experience and run for a total of eight concerts, ending with a "people's choice" concert Aug. 1., 800-745-3000.


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