The Cost of Losing the Philadelphia Orchestra

Can Beethoven in jeans keep a world-class group alive?

Tonight’s a Philadelphia Orchestra night. I sit in the front row. Over the past 10 years, I’ve become acquainted with many violinists and cellists. Truthfully, I am a orchie groupie. I like watching the whole team watching each other. I can catch their mistakes (very few) and their wry exchanges with each other. I can tell when they like what their playing or when they’re just going through the motions. When the team is connecting, it is sublime. It is heavenly. It lifts the spirits.

The Philadelphia Orchestra. Just the words say power, extraordinary, world-class. To be a member of this orchestra is among the highest pinnacles to which a fine musician can aspire. Its sounds, style and reputation have set it apart.

But I am worried.

There are no sure things in the new reality in which we exist. As the Orchestra has gotten younger and better musically, its audience has grown older and less committed. The philanthropic landscape has deteriorated. The costs of being in a new hall are as grand as the hall itself. On nights that Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven are on the program, the place is full. That, unfortunately, isn’t often. Ticket prices are a concern.

Bearing down on all of this is the Orchestra whose players are somewhat divided between those who have seniority and security and younger players whose families are just starting and whose financial pressures are shaped by current events. Throw in a board that seems hell-bent on doing to its players what the NFL’s owners have in mind for theirs, and you have the perfect storm—or perhaps the imperfect pitch.

Deadlines are soon approaching that will require major decisions. Concessions by the union? Bankruptcy by the Orchestra Association? Major changes to the grand ambitions? A second-tier set of aspirations?

All of this comes at a time when the institution has been infused with new leadership. Alison Vulgamore was recruited—after a national search—from the Atlanta Symphony, where her fundraising prowess made her a phenom. But Atlanta and its community aspirations are a national model and may not be transferrable to a city whose corporate and charitable resources are stressed. These stresses, the fact that the new building is funded and open, and the absence of a widespread understanding (or dare I say concern) about the serious risk for the Orchestra’s future present challenges that may not have been fully grasped.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, our new youthful maestro, would appear to add another breath of fresh air, talent and creativity to the mix. But one has to ask: Can this guy gather the collective musical and organizational talents and mold a new younger Orchestra with the financial and market chaos that will be hanging over his head? His youthfulness suggest a long-term player along the lines of the great icons of this band, Stokowski and Ormandy. But if the ship isn’t righted, Yannick could turn into another Muti … here today, gone tomorrow.

The old model is totally broken. New ideas are desperately needed. Jeans night? Date night? Selections in the program that appeal to younger audiences? Audience appreciation. How did the Phillies do it? There is a way. A brighter future wouldn’t be possible without the core group of amazing talent, and this crew has it in huge piles.

Someone needs to come to the rescue. Could Mayor Nutter or Governor Corbett or some other highly respected and sophisticated community leader step into the fast-developing breach between the Orchestra’s leadership and its talent? Can Philadelphia save this incredibly important institution and preserve its world-class standing? Can Philadelphia become a model for engaging youthful audiences in the love of the world’s greatest music?

The answer had best be “yes.”