Band on the Run

New players. New hall. New problems. Old audience. And as the Philadelphia Orchestra reaches for solutions, will it lose all that’s made it great?

As if being square weren’t enough, orchestras have also taken on the burden of being seen as white, male and Eurocentric — "Tombstones of a dead hegemony!" says one ardent undergrad. These days, any orchestra flack knows that it’s not just the Academy of Music, but its playbill, that needs a facelift.

To stake a claim in the increasingly black-and-Hispanic-influenced music culture of urban America, Philly’s orchestra has taken after the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which stages free concerts in inner-city neighborhoods, and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, which sends players into black churches to perform chamber music. Our orchestra’s outreach efforts involve busing inner-city kids to the Academy for special concerts. And at a Cultural Diversion Initiative event at the Mann Music Center in July, black pianist Leon Bates (Philly born and bred) performed Gershwin on a bill that included orchestral music by Duke Ellington. ("If orchestras start thinking ’40 percent of our city is black, so our audience should be 40 percent black,’ they’ll commit suicide," says Walsh. "Orchestras are a niche market and always were.")

The outreach efforts are aimed at schoolchildren as much as they are at minorities. "One of the reasons classical music has an image problem is that music has been taken out of the public-school curriculum," says cellist John Koen, echoing other orchestra players. "I wouldn’t be here if my elementary school hadn’t put a cello in my hands." Lack of any music education, as much as antiquated repertoire, has led today’s young consumers to see orchestras as creaky, cobwebbed things, as entertaining as art history lectures. But in the process of filling the vacuum left by public schools, many orchestras have slipped into the singular, rather unsexy role of Teacher; kids rarely like what they’re told is "good" for them.

Though the Delaware Avenue promotion reveals important assumptions behind the orchestra’s current view of itself and its mission, the ClassiX Live tack is only one of many factors that will soon change the identity of classical music in this city. Our orchestra, in fact, is not just at a crossroads — it’s at a traffic circle, with myriad off-ramps and possible direction changes.

IN PURELY MUSICAL TERMS, the famed Philadelphia Sound will evolve significantly in the next few years. Forty of the orchestra’s 103 muscians, many of them principals, have been with the orchestra for more than 25 years. Many plan to retire before the 1996 season, some with encouragement from music director Wolfgang Sawallisch. Each of the maestro’s decisions on principals, in terms of irrevocability and impact, is akin to the selection of a Supreme Court justice, and over the next 24 months Sawallisch will make more than Eugene Ormandy did during his entire 44-year tenure.