Philadelphia Orchestra President Search Turns One

It's a year today since Philadelphia Orchestra president James Undercofler announced his decision to not seek the renewal of his contract, and it's been an queasy year, both for the economy generally and for the world of orchestras. Undercofler intended to finish out his contract, which would have had him leaving July 31 - a mere six weeks ago - but months ago the orchestra put an interim leader in place instead.

Frank P. Slattery Jr. may love the orchestra and may love his job, but the organization hasn't benefited by bringing in a member of the business community. One of the things boards of cultural organizations have steadfastly refused to believe is that arts administration is a legitimate and distinct profession. No one steps in and does a good job of running an orchestra or a museum without special training and hard-won experience - especially if your organization is treading water in perilous times, which, the Philadelphia Orchestra admits it is.

You can't run a music director search without a real professional who can speak the confusing code of conductors and agents. You wouldn't know how to deal with an attendance rate that's dropped to 80 of capacity unless you're immersed in the kind of audience research lifelong orchestra CEOs are. You certainly can't turn ticket sales around without a marketing director - the orchestra currently has none - and you can't hire a marketing director until you have a president.

In short, a tremendous amount of institutional ambition has been held in abeyance since Undercofler's announcement a year ago. This at a time when the economy has been in free-fall and audiences are clutching their purse-strings tighter than any other time since the Great Depression.

A search for a new president is underway, and it now focuses on a single candidate - an experienced orchestra professional who has dealt, almost scarily, with all of the same difficulties that have deluged the Philadelphia Orchestra since about 1996 - a strike, shifting plans for a new concert hall, deficits, the messy departure of a music director and unclear goals for what the orchestra wants out of summer.

Is he or she the right choice? I wouldn't presume to say.

What I do know is that it's a pathetic sight to see this great orchestra struggling the way it is. This is a moment that deserves our pity and outrage, but our action, too. Hear the orchestra this season. Hear it a lot. A new music director will likely be chosen this season, so think about what's best for the orchestra's musical future and express your opinion to the board. This is perhaps the most important time for orchestra lovers to be fully engaged.

As for a new president, if this round of the search does not bear fruit and the process has to start from scratch, it's hard to see how the orchestra will prosper again anytime soon. It will continue to lose its considerably talented administrative staff. Funders will grow even more uneasy than they are now. Mere survival will consume the attention of every employee of the orchestra every day instead of the kind of institution-changing thinking that should be going on now.

Even the brightest new president, should that leader start tomorrow, will need a long list of friends and resources to help get the orchestra through this season. He or she deserves a little faith at a time when it might be hard to grant. More than a few orchestra fans and important funders were dismayed by the way layoffs were handled earlier this year. It may be standard corporate behavior to gather staff in a conference room and then, with security personnel standing near, escort them out of the building. But the rewards for both employees and employers at cultural organizations often stem from the personal love for the thing itself - the music, the well-being of the institution. To dismiss them in this way sends the sickening signal that working for the Philadelphia Orchestra is just another job.

The orchestra needs leadership now - not in the form of a mindless cheerleader, but with the quick arrival of a clear-thinking, lifelong practitioner of classical music, a professional who can mend fences and articulate to the entire city why the orchestra is something worth saving.

At this point, a full year after the announcement of a strong president's departure, finding someone who can hit the ground running is more critical than ever.