Philadelphia Orchestra chief to step down

Allison B. Vulgamore will leave Dec. 31 when her contract expires.

Drawing down the curtain on an unusually eventful tenure, Philadelphia Orchestra president and CEO Allison B. Vulgamore will leave the post on Dec. 31, at the conclusion of her current contract, the orchestra announced Tuesday afternoon.

Vulgamore took over the orchestra in 2010 after a succession of quick leadership changes there. The decision to leave now “stems from loving the organization,” she said. “The orchestra is in a far sounder artistic and fiscal position, and I expected to stay about 10 years or so.”

The next strategic plan has been approved by the board, she noted, “and it’s a good time to pass the baton.”

Vulgamore said that the orchestra’s next president “will need to raise the endowment that I very much feel needs to happen for this institution.”

A campaign to double the orchestra’s endowment is in the early stages, said board chairman Richard B. Worley. The nest-egg’s market value as of April 30 was $141 million.

Worley called the orchestra’s fiscal accomplishments over the last few years a “first act” in reaching stability. It eliminated substantial pension liabilities through bankruptcy, is sustaining operations without taking on debt, and has increased earned and contributed revenue.

The second act, he said, would be raising the endowment to a size where the investment income it generates would cover about a third of the orchestra’s budget. It currently covers 17 percent, he said.

The orchestra has not yet named a search committee to find its next president, but Worley said he expected it to do so shortly. Interim leadership may be required, he said, depending on the timing of a search and the availability of the next president.

The orchestra will also soon need a new board chairman. Worley’s term is slated to end with the orchestra’s annual meeting in the fall of 2018.

“I think we are in a position where we have a significant amount of the angel funding that we will need over the next few years in hand, and it’s a good time for change,” said Worley. “Fresh voices, fresh Rolodexes, fresh views and the like.”

Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin has been told of Vulgamore’s departure, and “he understands and he accepts,” says Worley. “She’s been a very important part of his life, too, and he’s going to miss her.”

Vulgamore, 59, said she will take some time to decide what to do next. She previously spent 16 years running the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and arrived in Philadelphia during a time of crisis. The Philadelphia Orchestra was running chronic deficits, had exhausted most of its unrestricted endowment, and had spent several months without a permanent president, board chairman, and music director before Worley took over as chairman.

Soon after Vulgamore started in 2010, the full effect of the stock market downturn was felt, and “we were hemorrhaging money,” said Worley. Vulgamore spent that year preparing a plan to right the orchestra’s finances that did not include bankruptcy, but which would have required substantial fund-raising – “in seven-figure chunks or even eight-figure chunks,” said Worley.

In January 2011, the ambitious plan was presented to a group of the orchestra’s biggest donors. “To be honest, I thought Allison knocked it out of the park,” he said.

But subsequent conversations with donors revealed they didn’t think the goal was reachable, and the orchestra started on its path toward bankruptcy.

“Allison, I think, was dismayed,” said Worley. “She had done what she thought was a very good job, and we learned we couldn’t raise it.”

It became the first major American orchestra to declare bankruptcy.

After bankruptcy, Vulgamore set about expanding the orchestra’s presence in the community and giving it a more populist tilt. A “young friends” group was launched. The orchestra regained a local presence on radio in a deal with WRTI-FM (90.1), and more recently landed a national spot on paid-radio provider SiriusXM.

During her time as president and CEO, the orchestra has greatly increased its presentations of live orchestra playing to film. Many concerts in Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center still follow the traditional format – overture, concerto, intermission, symphony – while others have been enhanced with theatrical elements to add visual appeal. A new app allows audiences to read real-time notes about the music as it is being performed in some concerts.

The orchestra has grown its social conscience, too. It has raised more than $4 million in foundation money to be spent over the next five years on its “HEAR” initiatives – health, education, access, and research – with programs that bring musicians to homeless shelters, schools, and other populations that traditionally do not have easy access to classical music.

Nézet-Séguin was well within the sights of the orchestra before Vulgamore’s arrival, but she signed him to the post and oversaw his launch. He has penned a new contract that keeps him here at least through the 2025-26 season, even as he phases in his new job as music director of the Metropolitan Opera, taking the title in New York in 2020-21.

Vulgamore’s time here has also been marred by some misses. The size of the ensemble has not rebounded to its full, pre-financial-crisis membership. In 2010, management and players agreed to hold 10 positions vacant out of 105, resulting in a complement of 95 members. The ensemble size is currently 96, and is scheduled to grow to 97 in the 2018-19 season.

Also, musicians called for a review of orchestra operations that resulted in the involvement of an outside consultant, Michael M. Kaiser, chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland. In October, the orchestra board approved some aspects of the plan.

A brief strike left about 1,000 fans sitting in Verizon Hall waiting for an orchestra that was never to appear on stage for the opening-night gala concert of the 2016-17 season. Musicians were negotiating for a deal to regain some of the concessions lost in the bankruptcy, and after a weekend off the job, ended up approving a deal that gave them only modest improvements.

Vulgamore early on described her style as that of a “velvet hammer,” and Worley acknowledged what he called her place as a “controversial figure. She’s got a strong personality, and in many ways we’ve needed that.”

But he said it was hard from the outside to appreciate “first, what courage it took for Allison to come here, and, second, how scary the path was at times for both of us,” adding that he and Vulgamore had formed a close partnership.

Said Worley: “It’s a bittersweet moment. When Allison and I took our jobs, we realized one of our most important tasks was to prepare the orchestra for a future without us, and I think we have.”