Philadelphia Orchestra prepares for a big ask

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Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra in a January 2014 concert at the Kimmel Center. (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)

Though the Philadelphia Orchestra has a steep climb ahead in its largest-ever fund-raising campaign effort, several key pieces helping to smooth the path are falling into place.

The Philadelphia Orchestra Association has secured the stability of its artistic, administrative, and board leadership - an important checkoff on the list of many foundations and philanthropists. Board chairman Richard B. Worley will stay on another three years, as will president Allison B. Vulgamore.

And the orchestra and music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin have committed to another five years together. His current contract runs through 2017, which means the new five-year deal extends his tenure to 2022.

"In the life of an orchestra and conductor, to make a real impact, a real imprint, it's a question of time," said Nézet-Séguin, noting that his time with the orchestra each year will expand slightly to 16 weeks for the main season, plus two additional for special projects.

"Five years is a nice thing, but if it works well, obviously, it was in my mind to renew, and I have to say that everything so far with my relationship with the city, this orchestra, the management in Philadelphia . . . has been exceeding my expectations. For me, it was not even a doubt to make the choice for Philadelphia."

The Montreal conductor, 39, has become the object of career speculation. Does a renewed commitment to Philadelphia preclude new titles elsewhere? "I decided to focus on what are the needs here, what is the best way I can be present," he said. "What the rest of my life will be, I cannot predict. This choice was not made about including or excluding anything else."

Worley was elected orchestra chairman for an initial three-year term starting in September 2009, and he and his wife, Leslie Ann Miller, have supported the cause with several previous gifts totaling well over $10 million. With this new term - made possible by an adjustment to the orchestra's bylaws governing term limits - he has committed another $10 million gift to the association from the Miller-Worley Foundation.

"I am happy about it. I'm happy they will have me again," said Worley. "We started out with a job that we knew was going to take some time to get done, and we know what we have to do to complete it, and another term will allow me to continue working for the orchestra, hopefully until the completion."

The new gift from the foundation established by him and Miller will be applied to both annual giving and endowment. "The orchestra means a great deal to us," he said. "We are very happy to be in a position to do this."

Vulgamore's last contract, which expired Dec. 31, was a three-year deal negotiated during the orchestra's bankruptcy. It included a base salary of $450,000, plus a number of extra benefits and bonuses that added up to a total compensation of $718,657 for the year ended Aug. 31, 2013, according to the orchestra's tax returns. She declined to specify the compensation spelled out in her new contract, which expires Dec. 31, 2017.

On the sequencing of the comprehensive campaign, which encompasses both endowment and other giving, Vulgamore said that other board members were mulling their participation and that the gift from the Miller-Worley Foundation was just one of several already committed. The orchestra is also having "important conversations with thoughtful people that I hope will mature into those lead gifts."

Another big piece of institutional stability still outstanding is a new labor deal with musicians. The association's current pact with its players was negotiated under supervision of bankruptcy court and expires Sept. 13.

The orchestra is raising a special pot of money each year to bridge the persistent gap between expenses and regular income from endowment, ticket sales, and annual fund-raising. In the long-term quest to bring expenses and income into alignment, the orchestra is plotting out an ambitious campaign to increase the endowment, whose annual investment income could become a larger contributor of income than is currently the case.

To lead its comprehensive campaign, the orchestra has hired a new chief fund-raiser. Bradford W. Voigt comes to the orchestra after serving as director of institutional advancement at Harvard University Art Museums.

"He's a terrific young leader," said Worley, "who will help us enormously in our development capability."

With an endowment of $133.8 million as of Aug. 31, the orchestra has been called "undercapitalized" by its leaders. They have declined to quantify the goal of the endowment drive, but have acknowledged that it would be well north of $100 million. Combined with regular annual fund-raising as well as special fund-raising to cover the budget gap, that adds up to a total being sought far in excess of the orchestra's previous campaign of $125 million, which ended in 2008.

Since becoming music director in 2012, Nézet-Séguin has drawn considerable critical praise. "The concert, following Mr. Nézet-Séguin's acclaimed Carnegie debut with the orchestra in October, was phenomenal," wrote a New York Times critic of a 2013 Carnegie Hall concert. "The ensemble, famous for its glowing strings and homogeneous richness, has never sounded better."

Nézet-Séguin also has proved to be a much-needed public face for the orchestra - in cheery curtain speeches, on social media, on tour, and at some community events like the Play-Ins that invite amateurs to gather for music-making. (He has not, inexplicably, performed at the Mann Center.) At Saturday night's Academy of Music Anniversary event, Nézet-Séguin could be seen busily glad-handing donors and guests at the postconcert dinner and ball.

One orchestra member who declined to be named said that his colleagues seemed generally happy with their music director, but that the bankruptcy refocused scrutiny from the music-making to more generalized concerns about attendance and fund-raising. "I do know they are happy to have a job - they see what's happening not just at the Philadelphia Orchestra, but what's happening everywhere," he said, referring to challenges in the orchestra world.

Nézet-Séguin's presence has had only a modest effect on attendance in Philadelphia. Ticket revenue is up, but that is a result of both increased ticket prices and a very slight increase in the total number of people who heard concerts in 2013-14. The orchestra sold 160,000 tickets to 84 subscription concerts in 2013-14, up a bit from 157,489 tickets sold to 79 concerts in 2012-13.

The conductor said that, unlike some of his older, European counterparts who don't see fund-raising as part of the job, "for me, it is not a duty. For me, it's a pleasure to meet everyone, our patrons, our subscribers, our donors, it includes everyone that is a part of the fabric of the orchestra. The same way I am happy to be involved in Play-Ins, I am also happy to be involved with dinners with main donors.

"For me, it's part of the same Yannick as all of these things."

 


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