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?

That said, the orchestra’s meaning to the city — its relationship to its audience — would almost certainly be affected by an exit from the 19th-century Academy onto the information superhighway. Sawallisch has pointed out that although European orchestras enjoy a more prominent role in that continent’s cultural consciousness, their American counterparts have a more personal relationship with their patrons — a function of funding. In Europe, the money is unconditional, coming almost entirely from municipal governments. American audiences, though smaller, are composed mainly of patrons — people who invest their own money not only in tickets, but in orchestra endowments.

Much of the institutional identity of an orchestra like Philadelphia’s — the sense its players have of their own importance to the people they play for — comes from the relationship with this small but committed audience. There is no doubt that the new hall will at least renew short-term interest in the orchestra. Will it last? As those marketing executives cast a wider net, relying less on 24-concert patrons and more on four-concert ClassiX Live subscribers and one-shot pay-per-view customers, one wonders if the orchestra’s musicians will lose their spirit.


WHAT MARKETEERS AND OLD-time Academy buffs do agree on is that the orchestra’s best selling point is quality, pure and simple. The new hall on its own won’t guarantee the next century’s most lucrative recording and TV contracts. The famed Philadelphia Sound will. The irony, of course, is that at a time when orchestra management is bent on bringing in younger consumers from many classes and races, the institution’s big cheese is a 71year-old white German male.

Orchestras, more than any other group entity in any artistic endeavor, are made or broken on the talents of their leader. It is the most treacherous of management structures, delicate by way of being so narrowly invested — especially with today’s Philadelphia Orchestra, about to undergo dramatic change in very little time. It worries some, the extent to which the orchestra’s future rests in Sawallisch’s two hands. He embodies the orchestra’s problem, they say: Both are competent and true, but aging and sexless.

It is striking, then, to listen as the orchestra’s musicians claim more or less unanimously that the group will flourish artistically no matter what happens with its public image. (Several strong dissenters believe that spiraling debt will eventually kill the orchestra’s ability to retain top musical talent.) All the more striking considering the many personnel decisions the maestro will be making in the next 24 months. "Musically, he’s just astonishing," says associate concertmaster Michael Ludwig. "There’s no way you can say he’s some kind of caretaker." Kluger reiterates the sentiment, and won’t speculate on which of the orchestra’s guest conductors might someday take the helm. "Sure, Muti looked good in a leather jacket and made the girls hot," says music critic Michael Walsh. "But you can’t bank an orchestra’s future on that."