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 Sawallisch plays musical chairs, the orchestra is supposed to exit the Academy for a space of its own at Broad and Spruce streets. For better or worse, it probably will happen, if only because Ed Rendell’s political investment and several lending banks’ financial investments will acquire a self-fulfilling weight. It may happen soon. It may not. The timing will depend on the level of turmoil over current plans for refurbishing the Academy. Either way, the price will be steep. If the Academy wranglings last another year or two, the price could be very steep. In 1986, the hall’s estimated cost was $60 million. But as battle lines were drawn between those who wanted the orchestra to stay at the Academy and those who wanted it to go, the project stagnated. By 1991, the cost had risen to $116 million. It’s now $140 million, and according to the Orchestra Association, the organization’s management body, will remain so. That price includes a $1 million-a-year payment against the $20 million note used to finance the purchase of the Broad and Spruce site, as well as diminishing annual interest payments that currently add up to nearly another million. After the land purchase, however, the real estate’s value deflated. As a result, the lending banks (PNB, CoreStates, First Fidelity) have made the orchestra put up a large part of its endowment as collateral. If something should go terribly wrong and the endowment needs to be tapped, the orchestra would be forced to violate its promise to keep the new hall’s finances independent of its other activities. Even barring disaster, one wonders, in view of the collateral arrangement, whether financial projections that incorporate $16 million in future debt overestimate the good will of potential lenders.

Whenever the new hall is built and opened, its cutting-edge acoustics and recording facilities will presumably allow the orchestra to play to new audiences in new media: live radio and television, video laserdiscs, pay-per-view. This makes the strategic and artistic questions now before the orchestra — new hall, new principals, new sound — necessarily philosophical. How relevant is image to integrity? Must the orchestra take on the mantel of "importance" in order to validate itself? Is an audience of ClassiX Live subscribers that comprehends the orchestra as a night out, and not much more, showing disrespect?

The irony, to anyone who’s followed the Philadelphia Orchestra over its history, is the way a Dave and Buster’s-type promotion — any promotion at all, in fact — is necessary to get the city’s young-bloods interested. "It never ceases to amaze me," says Joe Kluger. "Most Philadelphians probably know they have an orchestra, and that it’s good. But stop a ten-year-old boy on the streets of Tokyo, tell him you’re from Philadelphia, and the first thing out of his mouth is ‘Ah, Philadelphia. Eugene Ormandy.’"

In Philly, orchestra tickets almost never sell out, and audiences scurry off to their cars with the last chords still resonating about the Academy’s vaulted dome. But in China’s bigger cities, the septuagenarian Wolfgang Sawallisch is as common a household name as Stallone is here. And in Buenos Aires, fans cascade fresh carnations from the balconies. Something is going on here in Philly, right under our noses, and most of us don’t know the first thing about it.