What If the Philadelphia Orchestra Can’t Be Saved?

In 2009, the troubled Philadelphia Orchestra hired a formidable Atlanta executive to reverse its plunging fortunes. Two years later, the organization is in bankruptcy, its musicians have just signed a contract that’s left them furious, and its future remains murky.

In Allison Vulgamore’s 16th-floor office at the Philadelphia Orchestra, there’s a battery-operated toy chicken that hops around singing “Ring of Fire” in Johnny Cash’s voice.

It was a gift from her younger sister, to remind her of the songs they used to sing as kids in central Ohio. Part of the reason Vulgamore trained as a soprano in college, before heading into arts management, was that her family was constantly singing. They sang religious songs, folk songs (“Ali,” as friends and family still call her, did a killer “Sweet Betsy from Pike”), show tunes, Mozart lieder. But her dad had a soft spot for Johnny Cash, so “Ring of Fire” became a family favorite.

At the Atlanta Symphony, where she was president for 16 years, she liked to take the singing chicken into her colleagues’ offices to make them laugh. But since she arrived here almost two years ago to run the Philadelphia Orchestra, “Ring of Fire” has taken on a new meaning. It now seems like a description of her everyday life.

The same can be said of some of her personal passions away from music, such as reading Joseph Campbell’s work on the mythic “hero’s journey” and her quest to walk the world’s great labyrinths. These used to be her escapes. Now, they’re a little too close to home. Since the Orchestra declared bankruptcy last April, almost every day for Allison Vulgamore has been another hero’s journey through another labyrinth. Her dream gig—running the orchestra where she had her first job 30 years ago—has become a six-in-the-morning-until-10-at-night, everyday, life-sucking grind of tough love, tougher finances, and back-to-back meetings about almost everything but music.

IN PERSON, ALLISON VULGAMORE is impressive, likeable, and a little overwhelming. She has colossal passions, a bold personality, and a way of punctuating her statements with dramatic eye movements and sweeping hand gestures—reminders that she knows how to sell a song. She is also clearly fascinated by process in a way big-picture leaders sometimes aren’t, adept at reminding herself and others exactly where they are in the journey. I ask how she felt in August, when the players presented her with a letter, pre-leaked to the press, flat-out rejecting her draft of a five-year, $160 million rebuilding plan.

“I was disappointed to see the letter. I was hurt,” she admits. “But you have to behave consistently, lead consistently, despite incoming fire. I expected them to dissent. … It’s an incredibly agonizing time, and I feel that agony for them. But this isn’t the fun part.”

It’s easy to imagine Allison Vulgamore becoming a leader who combines some of the best qualities of Ed Rendell and Judy Rodin—relative outsiders who reinvented the city in ways no lifelong resident probably ever could have—with some of homegrown Pat Croce’s contagious energy and Lynne Abraham’s tough-cookieness. But that will only happen if she can fundamentally reinvent the way the Orchestra runs, reenergize ticket buyers and donors (she has to raise $3.3 million by year’s end to access challenge grants from donors), and do more of the schmoozing required to truly connect with the city.

So far, however, she has spent most of her time in a series of tunnels, largely dug by others, trying to rescue what she calls “the most fragile major arts organization in America.” And she’s not being hyperbolic. The Orchestra’s problems are mythic, complex, and, like all things Philadelphian, too easily blamed on what everybody else did or didn’t do in the past.

Depending whose side you’re on, the root causes are previous player contracts (not only salaries but stunningly expensive pension benefits, and crazy rules that can trigger overtime payments for just sitting there while the maestro and soloist are called back for another bow); previous failures of the board and management to improve fund-raising, marketing, community involvement, recording opportunities and new (and old) media outreach; and structural changes nationally in the co-dependent worlds of philanthropy and the arts, exacerbated by the economic collapse that started in 2008.

While these issues plague top orchestras nationwide, there is, of course, an extra, uniquely Philadelphian problem: the sibling rivalry between the Orchestra (which owns the Academy of Music) and the Kimmel Center (which runs the Academy, is the Orchestra’s landlord at the Kimmel, and has its own board and fund-raising). Their conflicts have created what one top arts leader calls “an atmosphere of unhealthy fund-raising competition,” which impacts all the groups using both facilities—as well as the Curtis Institute and the Mann Center. Bows have been drawn.

“We can either have a world-class orchestra and a regional performing arts center,” Vulgamore says, “or a regional orchestra and a national performing arts center. There isn’t enough money for both. And I didn’t come here to run a regional orchestra.”

“It’s like a big game of chicken,” says her friend Jennifer Higdon, the Pulitzer-prize-winning Philadelphia composer who works with top orchestras all over the world. “In fact, there are so many games going on at once it’s hard to know who’s playing chicken with whom.”

And nobody knows this—and how much is at stake—better than Allison Vulgamore.

“I have very dark nights about whether the quality is at risk,” she admits. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, and it has torn me apart. Because it’s the Philadelphia Orchestra.”

CAN ALLISON VULGAMORE SAVE the Orchestra? And can we afford to let her—or afford to not let her? The moment of truth will be arriving very soon.

On October 13th, the Orchestra announced a broad settlement with its musicians that, while ending bitter salary disputes, also makes the players the lowest-paid among the top seven American orchestras. This month, the rest of the Orchestra’s controversial reorganization is due to be filed in court. Even with a hard-won new collective bargaining agreement, the Orchestra still has an annual structural deficit of over $10 million a year, and without dramatic increases in ticket sales and fund-raising, it will periodically run out of cash. In late September, it filed for an emergency $3.1 million loan to cover expenses, and Vulgamore says it “barely made payroll” during its recent, enthusiastically received European tour: “We’re on our knees here, guys. On our knees.”

The bankruptcy process itself has been very expensive. Lead bankruptcy attorney Larry McMichael estimates the Orchestra will likely spend close to $7 million in legal and expert fees (add another $1.5 million if its battle with the just-jilted musicians union pension plan escalates into a blood bath) on the process. The Annenberg Foundation, the Orchestra’s largest supporter, has filed a limited objection to the recent emergency loan in court, in an attempt to protect its endowment contributions. All of this is fallout from a financial reorganization that some of the musicians still don’t believe was necessary. “Yes, the musicians blame Allison,” says John Koen, the cellist who speaks for the players. “As for me, I try not to blame her.”

The bankruptcy remains a big gamble. Even if the Orchestra gets everything it wants out of its filing, its five-year plan includes running lower but still substantial deficits for several rebuilding years, which will require Vulgamore and her board to go out and raise another $160 million. The plan also calls for fewer traditional concerts per year (some of which will be held at the Academy, not the Kimmel), more innovative programming and marketing, and a nod toward developing a new summer home at Longwood Gardens.

And while the plan is ambitious, some feel it should be part of an even larger restructuring on the Avenue of the Arts. “The Orchestra, Pops, Opera, Ballet and Kimmel Center should all be part of one nonprofit organization, structured like the University of Pennsylvania, with semi-autonomous boards and management,” says Joe Kluger, who held Vulmagore’s job for 16 years before becoming a national arts consultant. “We explored this idea with the Kimmel Center in 2004, just before I left, but the Orchestra board was reluctant to proceed. What I don’t understand is why the idea is not being discussed now as a solution to everyone’s issues.”

All of this is coming to a head just as the Orchestra’s charismatic new music-director-to-be, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, arrives in town early this month to conduct several concerts for free—a show of goodwill before his job as designate director officially begins in 2012. In addition, Vulgamore’s two-year employment contract—for an annual salary of $597,000, including perks—runs out December 31st.

When she was offered the job, the board asked her to sign a three-year deal, but she refused. “In two years,” she told them, “there will either be a Philadelphia Orchestra or there will not.”

“This is a defining moment,” says Wayne Brown, the director of music and opera for the National Endowment of the Arts, “in bringing artistic and fiscal sustainability to the art form. And it goes beyond the Philadelphia Orchestra, the same way that discussions of the auto companies in Detroit or the technology firms of Silicon Valley extend far beyond the borders of any city.”

Then he says what I’ve heard from pretty much everyone I interviewed for this story, including her most vehement critics: Allison Vulgamore is the right person for the job. If anyone can do it, she can.

But nobody is entirely certain it can be done.

BECAUSE SHE CAME HERE directly after 16 years in Atlanta, it’s easy to try to view Allison Vulgamore through the prism of the South. And friends do describe her as having some Steel Magnolia attributes. But her outsize personality and diversified confidence—even those she rubs the wrong way marvel at her ability to combine the heart of a musician and the brain of an organizational general—grow from a background that was, in so many ways, all over the place.

She grew up in the Midwest, the eldest child of a music teacher and a pipe-smoking theology professor who eventually became president of Albion College in Michigan. Even as a girl, Allison was strong-willed, artistic and creative. She was also “quite the horsewoman when she was young,” according to her younger sister Sarah; their grandfather taught her to ride. The Vulgamores did a lot of traveling, usually organized around visiting professorships. Allison spent fifth grade in Heidelberg, where she learned to speak German, and eighth grade at the American Community School in Beirut, where she had a singing group called the Exceptions that performed show tunes. She left high school early for vocal training at Ohio’s Oberlin Conservatory—where she learned “what a great musician sounded like” and realized she wasn’t it. (She also married an Oberlin classmate, keyboardist Peter Marshall; they divorced amicably in 2003, and had no kids.) So she joined the inaugural class of a new Orchestra Management Fellowship Program created by the League of American Orchestras. “We were told that the best thing to do was to ‘lose money wisely,’” she admitted in a video for the fellowship’s 30th anniversary. “That’s no longer a funny line.”

As part of her fellowship, she was placed at the Philadelphia Orchestra, living in a tiny apartment in the Academy House (a far cry from the five-bedroom, four-bath, $1.32 million home off Rittenhouse Square where she now lives with her Guys and Dolls-themed cats, Addie and Nate). It was 1981, when Eugene Ormandy was winding down his illustrious career and brash young Riccardo Muti was rising as the Orchestra’s new musical director. She sometimes found herself doing shuttle diplomacy between them.

“I would speak German with Ormandy at the Barclay and then Italian with Riccardo at the Academy House,” she recalls. “I was sent to ask Ormandy what pieces he was interested in conducting the next year. He said he wanted to do Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. When I told Muti, he said, ‘You tell that piccolo maestro that I am doing Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony.’” She later watched Muti and the Orchestra make their first important recording—of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, in a dilapidated church on North Broad Street. During breaks, she served the doughnuts.

Even at 21, she had a keen understanding of the Orchestra’s problems. In a two-page memo to her boss, Vulgamore deftly explained that while the Orchestra had plenty of artistic firepower, it wasn’t raising enough money, and that management needed additional marketing help and wasn’t hip enough to new media—which in 1981 included “the explosive world of video and digital.”

After her stint in Philadelphia, she took a position at the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, where she displayed her musical chutzpah during a Kennedy Center visit by the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Soloist Emmanuel Ax was performing a Mozart piano concerto, and had been “improvising certain parts of the cadenza and throwing in little Mozart songs, not opera arias but lesser-known songs,” recalls her boss at the time, Henry Fogel. In the dressing room before one performance, guest conductor Eric Leinsdorf “was trying to trick Ax and come up with a song he wouldn’t know.” He suggested a somewhat obscure Mozart lieder called “An Chloë.” “Ax said he didn’t know it,” Fogel recalls, “and then Allison just started singing it, in half-voice. To do this in front of a world-famous pianist and conductor took some courage. Leinsdorf had a big grin on his face and sat down at the piano and started accompanying her.”

Vulgamore learned disaster management skills at her next job, with the New York Philharmonic, where in 1991 she became acting general manager at the age of 33 (“just about the time she added a few gray hairs,” Times music critic John Rockwell noted). She did her best to hold things together for the next six dramatic months, which included the departure of music director Zubin Mehta. The players, however, came away impressed with her calm under fire. During a summer tour of Russia, when the local water was undrinkable, she reportedly managed to smuggle in bottled water from Finland in U.S. diplomatic pouches.

In 1993, she was named to her first top executive job, at the overachieving but still second-tier Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which was trying to adjust to the emeritus-hood of its Ormandy, legendary music director Robert Shaw. Vulgamore and Shaw’s replacement, Israeli music director Yoel Levi, weren’t a match meant to be, and he departed in 2000.

Despite the tumult, the Vulgamore-led ASO became an orchestral oasis in the South—she and new music director Robert Spano were widely admired for “creative partnership” management and innovative programming. While a new concert hall for the downtown remained her holy grail, she was able to raise the money for a stunning new suburban concert venue, the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park. In the process, she became sold on the idea that to survive, orchestras needed to “own their summer homes.” (So keep in mind that while the Philadelphia Orchestra doesn’t own the Mann Center, Saratoga or Vail—where it summers—it could someday possibly own a venue at Longwood Gardens.) After her marriage broke up, she started to focus even more on her creative work.

She came back on the Philadelphia Orchestra’s radar in 2006, when she was a leading candidate for the open executive director’s job. It’s a little fuzzy why she didn’t get it (which matters only because of how underwhelming the guy chosen instead, academic James Undercofler, turned out to be). She says, “It wasn’t the right time. I had other things to do.”

Those included a six-month sabbatical from the ASO, which she refers to as “time out for good behavior.” She spent “about a month pulling my health together” in the Southwest, and celebrated her parents’ 50th anniversary in D.C. Then she left the country, doing a volunteer mission in Morocco (where she taught music in a boy’s prison) and studying poetry in Greece.

Refreshed and recharged, she returned to Atlanta and had to finally accept that the concert hall she dreamed of having built downtown wasn’t going to materialize. She began exploring her options, looking into becoming a national arts consultant. And then, for the second time in three years, the Philadelphia job, shockingly, came open again.

AFTER TWO RUSHED INTERVIEWS in conference rooms, Allison Vulgamore finally agrees to let me see her actual corner office, which is bright and cheery, with a long white table and director’s chairs with yellow backs and seats. She likes bold colors, especially yellow and orange. There is a small desk in the corner, just big enough for a Dell computer and printer. A big white washable writing board hangs on the wall.

It looks more like a home office outfitted by Ikea than the digs of a major executive. There’s a reason for that: This is the furniture from her old home office. She wanted a style different from that of her predecessor, but the Orchestra didn’t have a dime for new furnishings. So she brought in her own stuff.

In her own space, she seems more relaxed. She’s also wearing different glasses, clear frames this time, unlike the darker ones I’ve seen before, and her hair is pulled back in a chignon. She tries to explain all the looming deadlines and issues and how they can intersect at certain key moments. When I still look confused, she hops up, dashes to her whiteboard, and starts diagramming furiously.

Because part of the Orchestra’s financial issues involve rent—primarily rent paid to the Kimmel Center—she often invokes the old children’s performance piece “I can’t pay the rent … You must pay the rent,” faster and faster, back and forth. When she really gets going, almost everything Vulgamore says gets that “You must … I can’t … You must … I can’t” feel. Except she no longer expects a hero to step in and say, “I’ll pay the rent.” In the new model of the arts connecting to the broader community—rather than just to the biggest givers—we will all embrace our orchestra together, buy tickets and music downloads, watch concerts on a newfangled website and collectively pay the rent. That’s how nonprofits are to justify their continued tax exemption in the 21st century. It’s no longer enough just to be artistically excellent; you have to “provide public value.”

Vulgamore feels there’s no point in dwelling on how the Orchestra got here. While she occasionally slips (referring to the relationship between the Orchestra, the Kimmel and the Academy of Music, she says, “The original vision for this … well, it’s hard for me to call it a vision; let’s call it an outline”), she’s pretty good at focusing only on what is needed now.

“When I arrived, the notion that the Orchestra was fiscally sick was absolutely there,” she recalls. “The word ‘bankruptcy’ was mentioned in the paper my second day here, but nobody actually wanted to [acknowledge] it. Yet what we found, when we started peeling back the layers, was that we were much sicker than anyone realized. It was tragic.” While she and new board chairman Rich Worley thought the floodwaters were slowly rising around them, “We were already underwater.” She also quickly understood that the Orchestra “had alienated everyone,” and its public perception, largely filtered through Peter Dobrin’s coverage in the Inquirer, was of a “troubled institution” with “a lot of dirty laundry.”

“We wanted to move from being troubled to progressive as quickly as possible,” she explains, and the fastest route was through a new music director to replace mismatched Christoph Eschenbach. So when the search committee chose very young, very talented Canadian Nézet-Séguin—who wasn’t sure himself that he was ready for one of the most illustrious jobs in the orchestra world—Vulgamore went into search-and-capture mode, creatively stalking him all over Europe.

“Allison and I Skype a lot,” says Nézet-Séguin, “and when we do, we try to forget the present and imagine the future, what my first season will be, our goals for all the new events. And when we do this, I see back the Allison who was dreaming, who was telling me what I could do in the job. I just remember these long meals in Rotterdam, and she just kept telling me, ‘Nobody says no to the Philadelphia Orchestra.’”

In Atlanta, Vulgamore had been known for having a “war room”—literally (there was a room) but also metaphorically, so different constituencies within the organization knew where and how to meet and talk, even about major setbacks and complete disasters, avoiding what management wonks call “silos.” The situation in Philadelphia was just starting to feel war-roomy and silo-free—even musicians’ representative John Koen agrees the players felt like partners in their own future. And then, last fall, the players’ employment contract came up for renegotiation. This created a natural division in the war-room mentality, made worse when Koen got a memo in November 2010 announcing that the big, inclusive meetings to discuss long-term plans—during which many good ideas had already surfaced—were being put on hold. Everyone ran for the silos. The distrust mounted for months, and by early spring 2011, when it became increasingly possible that bankruptcy was the only option to save one of the greatest orchestras ever formed, many players had already decided that the “financial crisis” was being exaggerated as a bargaining ploy. (They were encouraged in this by their union, the American Federation of Musicians, whose under-performing pension plan was one of the Orchestra’s bigger financial headaches.)

So on Sunday, April 10th—a day that will live in Orchestra infamy—the players were in no mood for the meeting Vulgamore and board chair Worley called in the Kimmel Center players’ lounge. After finishing a performance of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella featuring the Pennsylvania Ballet, they changed into their street clothes and filed into the lounge, filling all the couches, the chairs, and finally all the available leaning space against the walls. John Koen had already been told the news, but had elected not to share it with his fellow musicians. He wanted them to hear it from management.

Vulgamore walked into the lounge and couldn’t help but flash back to the first time she’d been there, just 19 months before, moments after accepting her job. About a third of the players had been present that day, and she had wanted them to know just how humbled she felt to have been given the stewardship of the institution. After making them laugh with her Ormandy and Muti anecdote, she had discussed how they would face the incredible challenges ahead.

And now here she was, to tell them the most devastating news in the Orchestra’s 111-year history. She stood calmly as Worley announced that even with emergency fund-raising, the Orchestra simply couldn’t make payroll. The following week, the board would vote on whether or not to declare bankruptcy, and would, in all likelihood, vote “yes.”

The players were stunned. “They were expecting more posturing and instead got the real thing,” says Koen, referring to notes in his datebook from the meeting. “Allison has a gift of empathy. She did what was necessary, explained everything well. She said, ‘This is a very difficult thing, and I don’t expect you to feel good about it, but it’s the only option we have left.’”

Koen recalls one player standing up and proclaiming, “You are putting a stigma on this institution, which should be treated … respectfully!” Since the moment the players heard the news, Koen says, they have been in a state he can only describe as “grieving.”

“You know the different steps—shock and loss and anger,” he explains. “I don’t think we’re at acceptance yet.”

VULGAMORE STANDS AT HER whiteboard, diagramming with circles and arrows and four different colors of marker all the possible ways her negotiations might play out over the next few weeks and months. It’s exhausting to see just how many games of three-dimensional chess she is playing in her head at all times. No wonder she needs the occasional distraction of a chicken singing “Ring of Fire.”

While doing the diagram, she wears the kind of determined grin we all remember from our most committed schoolteachers. But when the first brown and green arrows start extending into December and January, her face takes on a more personal smile.

At first I think it’s because she realizes that the holidays aren’t far off, and maybe she’s letting her mind wander. Everyone in the Vulgamore family knows that “Ali” is all about Christmas; she’s the driving force behind epic cookie decoration, using one grandmother’s recipe for cookies and the other grandmother’s recipe for icing. But then I realize what the smile is really about.

By January, one way or another, Allison Vulgamore will be out of this labyrinth. The Orchestra hopes that the worst of the bankruptcy will be over by then, no matter how ugly its last acts are, and that some version of her five-year plan will have been certified by the court. She will either have raised the $3.3 million to tap into those challenge grants, or not. The Philadelphia Orchestra season will be in full swing, and Yannick will have taken the stage. The Orchestra Association will have either extended her contract or not.

In the meantime, she can start eating her regular breakfasts at Parc again, get back to swimming regularly and shopping at Reading Terminal for dinner parties (current cooking obsession: Moroccan). She might get to see her long-distance boyfriend in person rather than on Skype.

When she turns 54 in late January, she should finally be free to be more herself again. It reminds me of something her Orchestra Association boss, Rich Worley, once said about her. “We lassoed a thoroughbred, and then we hooked her to a plow.” I suspect even her doubters will be curious to see what she can accomplish if she gets to gallop at full stride.

“It’s time,” she says. “It’s time for everyone to come back together. I am hungry to get back to strategic planning. I’ve been living on rolling 100-day plans for the last two years. I look forward to getting back to 100-year solutions. Because this orchestra needs to be here, and be itself, forever.”

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