Friday, April 18, 2014
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Musical Chairs in Atlanta - and Philadelphia?

The sole candidate in the Philadelphia Orchestra's search for a new president/chief executive officer today announced that she is leaving her current post.

Musical Chairs in Atlanta - and Philadelphia?

The sole candidate in the Philadelphia Orchestra's search for a new president/chief executive officer today announced that she is leaving her current post.

Allison B. Vulgamore, longtime president of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, has met several times in the last few months with Philadelphia Orchestra leaders and has emerged as the only current contender for the top job.

She is exiting the Atlanta orchestra after 16 years, she said, declining to speak about what her next move might be.

"When those new decades come, you take new challenges," said Vulgamore, 51. "I believe wholeheartedly in what the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has become with [music director] Robert Spano and [principal guest conductor] Donald Runnicles, but it has been a great 16 years and it's time for a new personal chapter."

Philadelphia would be a logical next step, but Vulgamore and the Philadelphia Orchestra have not consummated a deal, orchestra sources say.

"We are not commenting on the president search, and it is still ongoing," says spokeswoman Katherine Blodgett.

Two other finalists for the post, both also from smaller orchestras, are no longer in the running, sources say. One has already accepted a job with another orchestra.

It is possible that the orchestra will end this round of the search unsuccessfully, forcing it to start from scratch, several orchestra officials say.

Vulgamore is an orchestra-industry veteran who has led the Atlanta Symphony through a series of challenging events since her start there in 1993. Though Atlanta is a smaller and less prestigious ensemble than Philadelphia, it has grappled with many of the same issues this orchestra has - stormy labor relations, shifting plans for a new concert hall, the messy departure of a music director, a music-director search, fund-raising difficulties, and deficits.

Vulgamore said her decision to leave was tough and emotional.

"I cried in front of the orchestra, I cried in front of the staff, and I cried in front of Robert [Spano]. It's a long time in your life to be dedicated to an ensemble that has been every inch a part of your world."

She said that although her contract called for her to stay until next summer, she could leave earlier.

"One has to take opportunities when they arise."

In discussions with Philadelphia Orchestra officials, Vulgamore asserted the need for an emergency bridge fund to help gird finances against deficits for the next two years, according to orchestra sources; the need for such a fund was earlier articulated by previous president James Undercofler, who stepped down in January.

"An outstanding candidate emerged as our unanimous choice," wrote incoming orchestra board chairman Richard B. Worley in a memo to the board last week. "We are actively engaged in continuing discussions with that individual. To succeed in our recruitment, we will have to provide more clarity about our willingness to support the Orchestra in the immediate future. Candidates of the caliber that we have considered want to work with, and for, a board that is determined to succeed."

Worley said he would be raising the bridge fund from within the orchestra board. He is proposing a goal of $15 million, $3 million of which has already been committed by Worley and wife Leslie Anne Miller, and longtime orchestra friend Carole Haas Gravagno.

Vulgamore, who studied voice at Oberlin College, is married to Peter Marshall, a keyboard player in the Atlanta Symphony. She was appointed the orchestra's president and managing director in 1993, and was given the title of president and CEO in January 2008.

If the Philadelphia Orchestra took a creative route in hiring James Undercofler as the orchestra's last president - he had been a conservatory dean - Vulgamore would represent a return to standard industry practice.

She was a member of the inaugural class in the American Symphony Orchestra League (as it was then called) Management Fellow Program. Before coming to the Atlanta Symphony, she was general manager of the New York Philharmonic.

Previously, for five years, she was artistic administrator and general manager of the National Symphony Orchestra, and, in 1981 and '82 at the start of her career, she worked as assistant to the executive director at the Philadelphia Orchestra, where her current candidacy has been somewhat controversial within the orchestra board and staff.

In Atlanta, while it is difficult to sort out strategies and actions originating with the board as opposed to staff, Vulgamore's tenure was marked by a musicians' strike, squabbles with community groups, deficits, board resignations in protest and a large staff turnover shortly after her arrival.

She is credited with crafting a somewhat innovative collaboration with two conductors - music director Robert Spano and principal guest Donald Runnicles - and has managed to attract fans beyond the usual classical music club.

"I believe there are many in the Atlanta community who, when it came to classical music, could take it or leave it," former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller told the Atlanta Constitution-Journal. "Now they have taken it because of Allison and found out they loved it."

"The Board of the Atlanta Symphony has a sense of profound regret and respect as it acknowledges Allison's decision not to renew her contract as president and CEO at the end of the current season," said ASO board chairman Ben Johnson in a prepared statement. "This is a decision that we have unsuccessfully sought to have her reconsider."

The Atlanta Symphony has more than tripled its budget since Vulgamore's arrival, to $50 million in 2008 from $15.8 million in 1993, which would put it in the company of the largest orchestras in the country. But those numbers are rolled in with non-orchestra subsidiary businesses, including a new 12,000-seat amphitheater that books popular acts (for which the Atlanta Symphony sometimes plays backup).

The orchestra acquired SD&A Teleservices, Inc., a firm that designs and manages "telephone-based fund-raising, membership, and subscription sales campaigns for nonprofit organizations across the United States," including the Philadelphia Orchestra, according to marketing materials.

The Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park in the northern Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta was opened a year and half ago as a "revenue-generating exercise" (in the words of one orchestra executive) that other orchestras would want to emulate.

"Arts groups are searching for new models, and the message is that you have to embrace an entrepreneurial spirit," Vulgamore told the Journal-Constitution.

Whether the new revenue-generating ventures will stem a string of deficits the Atlanta Symphony has run during the past several years remains to be seen.

Vulgamore's salary during this time has zoomed, from $275,305 in 2000 to $439,721 in 2003, according to the Journal-Constitution. It jumped again - to $597,669 in the nine months ending May 31, 2008, according to forms filed with the IRS.

This is considerably more than compensation for Undercofler, who had been dean of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., whose salary was $420,000 for the year ending Aug. 31, 2008, according to the orchestra's tax returns.

 


 

Peter Dobrin Inquirer Classical Music Critic
About this blog

Peter Dobrin is a classical music critic and culture writer for The Inquirer. Since 1989, he has written music reviews, features, news and commentary for the paper, covering such topics as the Philadelphia Museum of Art at the Venice Biennale, expansion of the Curtis Institute of Music, the Philadelphia Orchestra's bankruptcy declaration in 2011, Philadelphia's evolving performing arts center and the general health of arts and culture.

Dobrin was a French horn player. He earned an undergraduate degree in performance from the University of Miami, and received a master's degree in music criticism from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, where he studied with Elliott Galkin. He has no time to practice today.

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