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.

The bankruptcy process itself has been very expensive. Lead bankruptcy attorney Larry McMichael estimates the Orchestra will likely spend close to $7 million in legal and expert fees (add another $1.5 million if its battle with the just-jilted musicians union pension plan escalates into a blood bath) on the process. The Annenberg Foundation, the Orchestra’s largest supporter, has filed a limited objection to the recent emergency loan in court, in an attempt to protect its endowment contributions. All of this is fallout from a financial reorganization that some of the musicians still don’t believe was necessary. “Yes, the musicians blame Allison,” says John Koen, the cellist who speaks for the players. “As for me, I try not to blame her.”

The bankruptcy remains a big gamble. Even if the Orchestra gets everything it wants out of its filing, its five-year plan includes running lower but still substantial deficits for several rebuilding years, which will require Vulgamore and her board to go out and raise another $160 million. The plan also calls for fewer traditional concerts per year (some of which will be held at the Academy, not the Kimmel), more innovative programming and marketing, and a nod toward developing a new summer home at Longwood Gardens.

And while the plan is ambitious, some feel it should be part of an even larger restructuring on the Avenue of the Arts. “The Orchestra, Pops, Opera, Ballet and Kimmel Center should all be part of one nonprofit organization, structured like the University of Pennsylvania, with semi-autonomous boards and management,” says Joe Kluger, who held Vulmagore’s job for 16 years before becoming a national arts consultant. “We explored this idea with the Kimmel Center in 2004, just before I left, but the Orchestra board was reluctant to proceed. What I don’t understand is why the idea is not being discussed now as a solution to everyone’s issues.”

All of this is coming to a head just as the Orchestra’s charismatic new music-director-to-be, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, arrives in town early this month to conduct several concerts for free—a show of goodwill before his job as designate director officially begins in 2012. In addition, Vulgamore’s two-year employment contract—for an annual salary of $597,000, including perks—runs out December 31st.

When she was offered the job, the board asked her to sign a three-year deal, but she refused. “In two years,” she told them, “there will either be a Philadelphia Orchestra or there will not.”

“This is a defining moment,” says Wayne Brown, the director of music and opera for the National Endowment of the Arts, “in bringing artistic and fiscal sustainability to the art form. And it goes beyond the Philadelphia Orchestra, the same way that discussions of the auto companies in Detroit or the technology firms of Silicon Valley extend far beyond the borders of any city.”

Then he says what I’ve heard from pretty much everyone I interviewed for this story, including her most vehement critics: Allison Vulgamore is the right person for the job. If anyone can do it, she can.

But nobody is entirely certain it can be done.

BECAUSE SHE CAME HERE directly after 16 years in Atlanta, it’s easy to try to view Allison Vulgamore through the prism of the South. And friends do describe her as having some Steel Magnolia attributes. But her outsize personality and diversified confidence—even those she rubs the wrong way marvel at her ability to combine the heart of a musician and the brain of an organizational general—grow from a background that was, in so many ways, all over the place.

She grew up in the Midwest, the eldest child of a music teacher and a pipe-smoking theology professor who eventually became president of Albion College in Michigan. Even as a girl, Allison was strong-willed, artistic and creative. She was also “quite the horsewoman when she was young,” according to her younger sister Sarah; their grandfather taught her to ride. The Vulgamores did a lot of traveling, usually organized around visiting professorships. Allison spent fifth grade in Heidelberg, where she learned to speak German, and eighth grade at the American Community School in Beirut, where she had a singing group called the Exceptions that performed show tunes. She left high school early for vocal training at Ohio’s Oberlin Conservatory—where she learned “what a great musician sounded like” and realized she wasn’t it. (She also married an Oberlin classmate, keyboardist Peter Marshall; they divorced amicably in 2003, and had no kids.) So she joined the inaugural class of a new Orchestra Management Fellowship Program created by the League of American Orchestras. “We were told that the best thing to do was to ‘lose money wisely,’” she admitted in a video for the fellowship’s 30th anniversary. “That’s no longer a funny line.”

As part of her fellowship, she was placed at the Philadelphia Orchestra, living in a tiny apartment in the Academy House (a far cry from the five-bedroom, four-bath, $1.32 million home off Rittenhouse Square where she now lives with her Guys and Dolls-themed cats, Addie and Nate). It was 1981, when Eugene Ormandy was winding down his illustrious career and brash young Riccardo Muti was rising as the Orchestra’s new musical director. She sometimes found herself doing shuttle diplomacy between them.

“I would speak German with Ormandy at the Barclay and then Italian with Riccardo at the Academy House,” she recalls. “I was sent to ask Ormandy what pieces he was interested in conducting the next year. He said he wanted to do Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. When I told Muti, he said, ‘You tell that piccolo maestro that I am doing Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony.’” She later watched Muti and the Orchestra make their first important recording—of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, in a dilapidated church on North Broad Street. During breaks, she served the doughnuts.

Even at 21, she had a keen understanding of the Orchestra’s problems. In a two-page memo to her boss, Vulgamore deftly explained that while the Orchestra had plenty of artistic firepower, it wasn’t raising enough money, and that management needed additional marketing help and wasn’t hip enough to new media—which in 1981 included “the explosive world of video and digital.”

After her stint in Philadelphia, she took a position at the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, where she displayed her musical chutzpah during a Kennedy Center visit by the Philadelphia Orchestra.