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?

More than once, the orchestra has been stung by patrons’ attachments to the Academy and its past inhabitants. The most glaring example: A day after writing a $20 million check to the Avenue of the Arts, Walter Annenberg dispatched two emissaries to Ed Rendell’s office to make sure the mayor knew that not a penny was to go to the new hall. Reportedly Annenberg was still upset — despite the passage of 14 years — at the graceless way orchestra management shuffled his good friend Eugene Ormandy aside after more than four glorious decades of service. No matter that the guys who gave Ormandy the shaft were gone from orchestra management, dead, or both.

In 1989 it was announced that groundbreaking would start at $50 million. It didn’t. Gifts, the orchestra announced in May, have topped $100 million. But a large piece of that pie is made up of matching funds: Clothier and orchestra nonsubscriber Sidney Kimmel has pledged $12 million on the condition that the orchestra raise twice that amount in grants, and a $35 million state pledge will be given only when the orchestra proves it has the rest of the funds to complete the project ($105 million, which effectively makes it a three-to-one grant). Nevertheless, Ed Rendell and Joe Kluger say the hall is now a matter of when, not whether.

The orchestra’s move, they say, will free up the Academy for scores of Broadway shows and international ballet, bringing big-time economic activity to Broad Street. Even better, the new hall’s technological goodies will transport the orchestra into the next millennium. The ability to record in its own hall (like the country’s other big-city orchestras) will mean better, more inexpensively made recordings. Perhaps most important, because of the hall’s fancy lighting and camera accommodations, the orchestra can begin building a laserdisc library, as well as selling great Philadelphia Orchestra performances on pay-per-view once the superdataway kicks in. A domino effect — call it the achievement of symphonic critical mass — will ensue. It is ironic, the idea that it is the visual media in which 21st-century orchestras will compete. And perhaps even more ironic, the way orchestra management seems to have forgotten that a Philadelphia Orchestra laserdisc shot at the Academy (Beethoven piano concerto, Muti on the podium, Claudio Arrau at the ivories) has recently been a best-seller overseas.

Nevertheless, orchestra management envisions a renaissance, a return to the days when it enjoyed an image of relevance at home as weII as abroad. As the first orchestra to enter the information age, Philadelphia would regain its old sense of self. This was the orchestra, after all, that attained international renown through a series of firsts. First to make an electrical recording. First to broadcast live on its own national radio program. First to perform a movie soundtrack. (This month, the orchestra is scheduled to go to court against Disney over Fantasia videocassette royalties; it could mean millions for the endowment.) First to tour Asia and Central and South America. The list goes on.