With its recent national tour with Branford Marsalis, 90-plus albums available on Amazon.com, and a 50th-anniversary concert next May featuring a new organ concerto from its recently knighted music director, Dirk Brossé, the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia would seem to have arrived at its landmark birthday due for a well-earned victory lap.
Yet at its season-opening concert last month, board president Susan Schwartz McDonald looked out at the Perelman Theater audience and didn't hesitate to describe the organization as "venerable . . . but vulnerable."
Vague rumors have run through the community that the orchestra is indeed in trouble this time. Not quite so, says its charismatic new executive director, Janelle McCoy. The current season is secure, she says.
"It's a new day for us in a lot of ways, and it's a new day for Dirk," said McCoy, 42, who ran the Mendelssohn Club before being tapped by the Chamber Orchestra this summer - a job she took over two other offers. "He feels he has the freedom to program more of what he wants. He's the music director. I'm in the business of making his dreams come true."
Though her predecessor, Peter Gistelinck, brought in Brossé - a fellow Belgian and longtime friend - in 2010, there's little sense that the conductor, who returns for concerts Sunday and Monday, belongs to a past regime. One possibility under consideration is a tour to the Far East, where Brossé often works as a conductor and much-in-demand film composer. Other plans include expanding the orchestra's venues to West Philadelphia and involvement in more grassroots community projects, McCoy says.
But rough patches remain to be navigated. Gistelinck left an accumulated deficit from past seasons estimated by McCoy "in the low six figures" - high for an organization with a $1.6 million annual budget. Worse, some of the city's most powerful philanthropists won't give grants to groups running any sort of deficit. And the orchestra has no endowment.
The orchestra's downloads, distributed by Naxos, have not raised the international profile that Gistelinck hoped would eventually account for 10 percent of the orchestra's budget; instead, it's shaping up to be 1 percent. In addition, the arrangement had up-front uploading costs that had to be shouldered by the orchestra.
The busy orchestra's Perelman Theater series isn't its only platform. Still adhering to the go-where-needed philosophy of founder Marc Mostovoy, it was hired to play with Josh Groban at the Mann Center in August, toured with saxophonist Marsalis in October, and will collaborate with the Mendelssohn Club on the St. Matthew Passion in spring. The core membership of 33 musicians is part of a pool of local players that has a particular pecking order but offers the freedom to perform elsewhere.
Under the name he gave it when he founded it in 1964 - the Concerto Soloists - Mostovoy was similarly peripatetic, leading the group in seldom-heard baroque-period opera in 17 venues in town. He often stepped aside for the seasoned Max Rudolf, then for Ignat Solzhenitsyn, who was invited by Mostovoy while still at Curtis to lead Mozart piano concertos from the keyboard.
Mostovoy was confident the orchestra could sustain a longer season - almost doubled, to 10 programs - as a Kimmel Center resident company when he departed in 2004, to be replaced by Solzhenitsyn. (It looked like an ouster, though the founder now says he always intended to leave in order to continue the multimedia work he felt would broaden classical music's appeal. That last part didn't happen. "It was disappointing," he said recently in an e-mail, "but once one steps down, it's up to those who follow to do what they think best.")
After the economic crash of 2008, however, many wondered if there would be any concerts at all. By then, Gistelinck had been on board since 2006 and was full of new ideas about season expansions to Lansdale and Temple University, neither of which was successful. In what he said was a survival measure, he cut the 10-program season at the Kimmel Center back to four in 2009.
Said Solzhenitsyn in a recent e-mail, "I was profoundly disappointed by that retrenchment, opposed it vociferously and found its impact to affect negatively both the musicians of the orchestra and myself. Having said that, perhaps the board felt it had no choice."
Solzhenitsyn's announced departure within a matter of months wasn't prompted by anything specific, he said. "It was time. I wanted to feel free to accept guest-conducting engagements anywhere, anytime, to spend more time conducting large-scale symphonic canvases and opera." He is now principal guest conductor of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra and makes extensive guest appearances.
He also had mixed feelings about the Chamber Orchestra downloads, partly because they're not advertised (at least on Amazon.com) as live concerts. And when he has returned for annual concerts, he continues requesting four rehearsals for each concert, while Brossé makes do with three, with less-polished results.
Enter McCoy, who looks as though she should be on stage herself, and in fact was, during an extended stint the North Carolina native had in Atlanta as an opera and concert singer. Having put herself through school by working at research firms, she moved to administration as development director at the Painted Bride Art Center and then executive director of the Mendelssohn Club.
She's a conciliatory presence, and talks about bringing back Mostovoy in one capacity or another. Though she's well aware that she walks a financial tightrope, her priorities are weighted toward the musicians.
"The needs of the musicians come first," she said. "The more we have them onstage together, the tighter they become as an ensemble.
"It's a smaller orchestra. It can be a little dangerous because there's no place to hide."
2:30 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Monday, Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center
7:30 p.m. Nov. 11, Lincoln University
215-545-1739 or chamberorchestra.org.