What If the Philadelphia Orchestra Can’t Be Saved?

In 2009, the troubled Philadelphia Orchestra hired a formidable Atlanta executive to reverse its plunging fortunes. Two years later, the organization is in bankruptcy, its musicians have just signed a contract that’s left them furious, and its future remains murky.

In Allison Vulgamore’s 16th-floor office at the Philadelphia Orchestra, there’s a battery-operated toy chicken that hops around singing “Ring of Fire” in Johnny Cash’s voice.

It was a gift from her younger sister, to remind her of the songs they used to sing as kids in central Ohio. Part of the reason Vulgamore trained as a soprano in college, before heading into arts management, was that her family was constantly singing. They sang religious songs, folk songs (“Ali,” as friends and family still call her, did a killer “Sweet Betsy from Pike”), show tunes, Mozart lieder. But her dad had a soft spot for Johnny Cash, so “Ring of Fire” became a family favorite.

At the Atlanta Symphony, where she was president for 16 years, she liked to take the singing chicken into her colleagues’ offices to make them laugh. But since she arrived here almost two years ago to run the Philadelphia Orchestra, “Ring of Fire” has taken on a new meaning. It now seems like a description of her everyday life.

The same can be said of some of her personal passions away from music, such as reading Joseph Campbell’s work on the mythic “hero’s journey” and her quest to walk the world’s great labyrinths. These used to be her escapes. Now, they’re a little too close to home. Since the Orchestra declared bankruptcy last April, almost every day for Allison Vulgamore has been another hero’s journey through another labyrinth. Her dream gig—running the orchestra where she had her first job 30 years ago—has become a six-in-the-morning-until-10-at-night, everyday, life-sucking grind of tough love, tougher finances, and back-to-back meetings about almost everything but music.

IN PERSON, ALLISON VULGAMORE is impressive, likeable, and a little overwhelming. She has colossal passions, a bold personality, and a way of punctuating her statements with dramatic eye movements and sweeping hand gestures—reminders that she knows how to sell a song. She is also clearly fascinated by process in a way big-picture leaders sometimes aren’t, adept at reminding herself and others exactly where they are in the journey. I ask how she felt in August, when the players presented her with a letter, pre-leaked to the press, flat-out rejecting her draft of a five-year, $160 million rebuilding plan.

“I was disappointed to see the letter. I was hurt,” she admits. “But you have to behave consistently, lead consistently, despite incoming fire. I expected them to dissent. … It’s an incredibly agonizing time, and I feel that agony for them. But this isn’t the fun part.”

It’s easy to imagine Allison Vulgamore becoming a leader who combines some of the best qualities of Ed Rendell and Judy Rodin—relative outsiders who reinvented the city in ways no lifelong resident probably ever could have—with some of homegrown Pat Croce’s contagious energy and Lynne Abraham’s tough-cookieness. But that will only happen if she can fundamentally reinvent the way the Orchestra runs, reenergize ticket buyers and donors (she has to raise $3.3 million by year’s end to access challenge grants from donors), and do more of the schmoozing required to truly connect with the city.

So far, however, she has spent most of her time in a series of tunnels, largely dug by others, trying to rescue what she calls “the most fragile major arts organization in America.” And she’s not being hyperbolic. The Orchestra’s problems are mythic, complex, and, like all things Philadelphian, too easily blamed on what everybody else did or didn’t do in the past.

Depending whose side you’re on, the root causes are previous player contracts (not only salaries but stunningly expensive pension benefits, and crazy rules that can trigger overtime payments for just sitting there while the maestro and soloist are called back for another bow); previous failures of the board and management to improve fund-raising, marketing, community involvement, recording opportunities and new (and old) media outreach; and structural changes nationally in the co-dependent worlds of philanthropy and the arts, exacerbated by the economic collapse that started in 2008.

While these issues plague top orchestras nationwide, there is, of course, an extra, uniquely Philadelphian problem: the sibling rivalry between the Orchestra (which owns the Academy of Music) and the Kimmel Center (which runs the Academy, is the Orchestra’s landlord at the Kimmel, and has its own board and fund-raising). Their conflicts have created what one top arts leader calls “an atmosphere of unhealthy fund-raising competition,” which impacts all the groups using both facilities—as well as the Curtis Institute and the Mann Center. Bows have been drawn.

“We can either have a world-class orchestra and a regional performing arts center,” Vulgamore says, “or a regional orchestra and a national performing arts center. There isn’t enough money for both. And I didn’t come here to run a regional orchestra.”

“It’s like a big game of chicken,” says her friend Jennifer Higdon, the Pulitzer-prize-winning Philadelphia composer who works with top orchestras all over the world. “In fact, there are so many games going on at once it’s hard to know who’s playing chicken with whom.”

And nobody knows this—and how much is at stake—better than Allison Vulgamore.

“I have very dark nights about whether the quality is at risk,” she admits. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, and it has torn me apart. Because it’s the Philadelphia Orchestra.”

CAN ALLISON VULGAMORE SAVE the Orchestra? And can we afford to let her—or afford to not let her? The moment of truth will be arriving very soon.

On October 13th, the Orchestra announced a broad settlement with its musicians that, while ending bitter salary disputes, also makes the players the lowest-paid among the top seven American orchestras. This month, the rest of the Orchestra’s controversial reorganization is due to be filed in court. Even with a hard-won new collective bargaining agreement, the Orchestra still has an annual structural deficit of over $10 million a year, and without dramatic increases in ticket sales and fund-raising, it will periodically run out of cash. In late September, it filed for an emergency $3.1 million loan to cover expenses, and Vulgamore says it “barely made payroll” during its recent, enthusiastically received European tour: “We’re on our knees here, guys. On our knees.”