The Philadelphia Orchestra needs to rethink its future

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The Philadelphia Orchestra performs Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor during opening night of the new season Sept. 30, 2015.

If you divined during the Philadelphia Orchestra's 2011 bankruptcy that the orchestra might emerge unable to raise the money required to fund its traditional size and stature, the new musicians' contract gives form to your fears.

In the deal musicians approved Oct. 12, players did not reach the base pay of $131,000 that they had been scheduled to receive several years ago but that was canceled as part of a bankruptcy-era contract. Rather, the new base pay comes to $127,750, or about 3 percent higher than it was. And management agreed only to restore the ensemble's membership a hair, to 96 members from 95, which would leave nine vacancies and, by necessity, the continued use of many substitute players.

With the orchestra falling a notch in relation to base pay at some other top orchestras, the musicians' committee has warned some players will leave. Will they? Probably. Conservatories pump out superlative players by the dozens each year; management appears to have made a supply-vs.-demand calculation that everyone is replaceable.

I'd have a little more sympathy for the players' desire to preserve the Philadelphia Sound, and high quality in general, were the Philadelphia Sound anything more than a marketing idea today. But the players' and their union have never found it important to move along players who should retire, putting a crack in their stance as guardians of quality.

Ormandy has been gone for decades, and there has not been an abiding conservator of the Philadelphia Sound since. The orchestra has polish. But gone are the specifics of string fingerings, bow speeds, and other techniques extending well beyond the string section that made for a special mix of extreme power and blending. Some sections don't even cultivate a similar sound among themselves (think of the horns).

It could very well be that these concepts of discipline and unanimity, the institution above the individual, are simply passé.

It's sad, but not tragic. The Philadelphia Sound was made for an age in which orchestras were expected to exist simply for art's sake, holding an extremely specialized conversation among themselves. Today, the job of an orchestra is more outward looking, and the debates likely to follow a report expected in six months by consultant Michael M. Kaiser are long overdue.

What is the job of this orchestra, in this city, in this day and age? If it were up to me, I'd get all the input I could and hold a public forum on the question. But management is fearful of Kaiser's findings becoming public, asking players to sign a confidentiality agreement. Is there fear that Kaiser will say mean things about president/CEO Allison Vulgamore and the board? Maybe. But that isn't his style. In recent work for the Pennsylvania Ballet and Philadelphia Theatre Company, he has looked to the past - laid blame, if you will - only to the extent that it is useful in charting the future. He has mostly concentrated on the idea that you can't fund ambition or excite potential funders with cuts.

The orchestra's problem isn't hard to see. It is under-capitalized. It has the quality of a top-tier ensemble, but lacks the endowment to support it. It needs more money to program and market properly, and if it were programming and marketing properly, it might attract more money. The Philadelphia Orchestra is the city's longest-running chicken-and-egg problem.

The challenge is steep. The fact that the orchestra has raised only $20 million in new endowment money in a year is troubling. Of greater concern is that even the $100 million goal wouldn't be enough; twice that is needed. Others have set their sights higher: The Curtis Institute of Music proposes to raise $265 million by its centenary in 2024. That's ambition.

Will the orchestra seize this moment to finally put its troubles to rest? In the big scheme, it's not a lot of money to find in this city (and, if the orchestra is smart, beyond). If Kaiser were to recommend that the closest donors in the orchestra's orbit assemble, say, a $75 million package for endowment, that would build confidence. If, above that, funding were assembled for the Kimmel Center to buy the orchestra's biggest asset, the Academy of Music, that could generate momentum to get to the $200 million the orchestra needs.

A big part of the problem is that some of the region's richest donors are sitting on their hands. Where Kaiser can be useful is in helping to answer why. Curtis' approach is instructive. It has become at once more local and more international. Its board chair, Nina Baroness von Maltzahn, lives in the U.S., South America, and Europe; she is making connections between the school and aficionados in other countries. In December, she pledged two new gifts totaling $11.5 million, on top of previous gifts. This is the most valuable kind of philanthropy from a local perspective; it comes from outside the city, so it's not taxing the same old donor pool.

At the same time, Curtis is becoming heavily involved in public schools here, sending teaching artists to help fill the arts education gap. It is acting in tandem with a new set of societal realities; for example, the Ford Foundation, the nation's second-largest philanthropy, in June announced that it now will focus entirely on inequality in all its forms, including access to the arts.

Does that leave out orchestras? Hardly. It's pretty exciting to look at ours through the lens of inequality and see that seeds of many programs' breaking barriers between art and audience were sown years ago by the Philadelphia Orchestra. What's missing is a sense of proportion and clear mission.

The ingredients are there. Popular music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin comes across as genuinely interested in the well-being of this orchestra. This is an asset, but it's unfair to heap too many expectations on him. In terms of a viable strategic plan, the music director is but the icing on the cake.

I still believe deeply in the idea of an orchestra as uniquely equipped to be the spiritual backbone of a city. When I think back on the most powerful moments of the orchestra's last 25 years, they fall into two categories: moments of artistic clarity, in concerts led by Simon Rattle, Vladimir Jurowski, and a few others, and intimate points of contact with the people, in neighborhood concerts in places such as City Hall and South Philadelphia, where the music played, and you could sense the enormity of what it meant to listeners.

The orchestra, however, has limited its local work, performing minimally at the Mann Center - without Nézet-Séguin - and, last summer, with only two neighborhood concerts (both, oddly, in Center City, where you can hear the orchestra anytime).

This orchestra needs to be everywhere, like the Cleveland Orchestra with its residencies at Indiana University, in Vienna and South Florida. Philadelphia's residencies in China, given that country's periodic spasms of hostility toward Western culture, don't seem like a sure bet. The orchestra needs to examine turning the Mann into an urban answer to the Tanglewood Institute, where students in summer can learn from the masters. Miami's New World Symphony, with its outdoor music park, offers a lesson in equal access.

And it needs to get serious about leading arts education in local schools. The orchestra has some valuable education programs. What's missing is something on a very different level of ambition - programs that reach every public school student, regularly, in a serious way. In other words, a full presence that would simultaneously solve the district's music-education problem while building future audiences, donors, and arts-enlightened parents.

This is a level of social ambition that might well engage a generation of philanthropists simply not interested in funding art for art's sake. Wouldn't that be something: a Philadelphia Orchestra that's no longer a problem, instead transformed into the solution. There's an idea an entire city could get behind.

pdobrin@phillynews.com

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