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?

So it was that in 1986 the grounds for moving expanded beyond the acoustical and musical to the civic. The orchestra was now a "cultural treasure," a "source of pride." The original premise for the new hall — that the Philadelphia Orchestra needed a better place to concretize — was replaced by another: that the orchestra needed to perform as an economic engine driving the transformation of South Broad Street. Orchestra brass were taking cues from their counterparts in Dallas. In 1983, convinced by mayor A. Starke Taylor that their relatively inferior orchestra was a source of civic pride, the city’s residents overwhelmingly approved a $29 million bond issue to help build a hall. Six years later, though their orchestra was no better, Dallas had one of America’s most acoustically vibrant concert spaces. Philly’s orchestra management assumed that if an orchestra like Dallas’ could inspire a multimillion-dollar bond, then an orchestra like ours could at least raise $100 million and change in private money.

Nothing doing. The "civic pride" argument has gone nowhere, even in the new context of the Avenue. The accumulation of funds has been so sluggish that alternate plans — renovations of extant sites, scaled-down redesigns of the Spruce Street Oz, various refurbishments of the Academy — have taken root. There has been confusion, infighting, delay. Most unexpected, of course, is the plan offered by Willard Boothby Jr., president of the Academy. The proposal aims to double the planned Avenue of the Arts allocation for the Academy renovation to $44 million with help from Walter Annenberg and R. Anderson Pew. Orchestra management pooh-poohed it firmly, gently, in July. Firmly, because the Boothby proposal, which took root as the proposal for the new hall failed to take flight, now obstructs the project at Broad and Spruce. Gently because it’s unwise to cross sugar daddies like Annenberg and Pew.

Despite scare-tall of turning the Academy into a "Monty Python set" with hovering space domes and swiveling walls, management wants to can the Boothby plan mainly because they feel it does nothing to address one of the orchestra’s biggest problems — the Academy’s unavailability for rehearsal time due to the stage shows constantly coming through.


THE VARIOUS PLANS TO refurbish the Academy are ultimately the result of the puzzling ennui — present only in Philly — with regard to our orchestra. “I suppose,” says the orchestra’s director of education, Phyllis Susen, "that one can never be a prophet in one’s own land." But is it underappreciation per se? Or is the refusal of Philadelphians to let their orchestra shed its skin for a new hall a symptom of too much love? The kind of cloying, overprotective love that tries to freeze its object in time and prevent it from growing? It is baffling the way many subscribers — many of whom have seen the Philadelphia Orchestra perform in some of Europe’s great halls — insist, despite all evidence, that the Academy is acoustically sound.