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.

Soloist Emmanuel Ax was performing a Mozart piano concerto, and had been “improvising certain parts of the cadenza and throwing in little Mozart songs, not opera arias but lesser-known songs,” recalls her boss at the time, Henry Fogel. In the dressing room before one performance, guest conductor Eric Leinsdorf “was trying to trick Ax and come up with a song he wouldn’t know.” He suggested a somewhat obscure Mozart lieder called “An Chloë.” “Ax said he didn’t know it,” Fogel recalls, “and then Allison just started singing it, in half-voice. To do this in front of a world-famous pianist and conductor took some courage. Leinsdorf had a big grin on his face and sat down at the piano and started accompanying her.”

Vulgamore learned disaster management skills at her next job, with the New York Philharmonic, where in 1991 she became acting general manager at the age of 33 (“just about the time she added a few gray hairs,” Times music critic John Rockwell noted). She did her best to hold things together for the next six dramatic months, which included the departure of music director Zubin Mehta. The players, however, came away impressed with her calm under fire. During a summer tour of Russia, when the local water was undrinkable, she reportedly managed to smuggle in bottled water from Finland in U.S. diplomatic pouches.

In 1993, she was named to her first top executive job, at the overachieving but still second-tier Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which was trying to adjust to the emeritus-hood of its Ormandy, legendary music director Robert Shaw. Vulgamore and Shaw’s replacement, Israeli music director Yoel Levi, weren’t a match meant to be, and he departed in 2000.

Despite the tumult, the Vulgamore-led ASO became an orchestral oasis in the South—she and new music director Robert Spano were widely admired for “creative partnership” management and innovative programming. While a new concert hall for the downtown remained her holy grail, she was able to raise the money for a stunning new suburban concert venue, the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park. In the process, she became sold on the idea that to survive, orchestras needed to “own their summer homes.” (So keep in mind that while the Philadelphia Orchestra doesn’t own the Mann Center, Saratoga or Vail—where it summers—it could someday possibly own a venue at Longwood Gardens.) After her marriage broke up, she started to focus even more on her creative work.

She came back on the Philadelphia Orchestra’s radar in 2006, when she was a leading candidate for the open executive director’s job. It’s a little fuzzy why she didn’t get it (which matters only because of how underwhelming the guy chosen instead, academic James Undercofler, turned out to be). She says, “It wasn’t the right time. I had other things to do.”

Those included a six-month sabbatical from the ASO, which she refers to as “time out for good behavior.” She spent “about a month pulling my health together” in the Southwest, and celebrated her parents’ 50th anniversary in D.C. Then she left the country, doing a volunteer mission in Morocco (where she taught music in a boy’s prison) and studying poetry in Greece.

Refreshed and recharged, she returned to Atlanta and had to finally accept that the concert hall she dreamed of having built downtown wasn’t going to materialize. She began exploring her options, looking into becoming a national arts consultant. And then, for the second time in three years, the Philadelphia job, shockingly, came open again.

AFTER TWO RUSHED INTERVIEWS in conference rooms, Allison Vulgamore finally agrees to let me see her actual corner office, which is bright and cheery, with a long white table and director’s chairs with yellow backs and seats. She likes bold colors, especially yellow and orange. There is a small desk in the corner, just big enough for a Dell computer and printer. A big white washable writing board hangs on the wall.

It looks more like a home office outfitted by Ikea than the digs of a major executive. There’s a reason for that: This is the furniture from her old home office. She wanted a style different from that of her predecessor, but the Orchestra didn’t have a dime for new furnishings. So she brought in her own stuff.

In her own space, she seems more relaxed. She’s also wearing different glasses, clear frames this time, unlike the darker ones I’ve seen before, and her hair is pulled back in a chignon. She tries to explain all the looming deadlines and issues and how they can intersect at certain key moments. When I still look confused, she hops up, dashes to her whiteboard, and starts diagramming furiously.

Because part of the Orchestra’s financial issues involve rent—primarily rent paid to the Kimmel Center—she often invokes the old children’s performance piece “I can’t pay the rent … You must pay the rent,” faster and faster, back and forth. When she really gets going, almost everything Vulgamore says gets that “You must … I can’t … You must … I can’t” feel. Except she no longer expects a hero to step in and say, “I’ll pay the rent.” In the new model of the arts connecting to the broader community—rather than just to the biggest givers—we will all embrace our orchestra together, buy tickets and music downloads, watch concerts on a newfangled website and collectively pay the rent. That’s how nonprofits are to justify their continued tax exemption in the 21st century. It’s no longer enough just to be artistically excellent; you have to “provide public value.”

Vulgamore feels there’s no point in dwelling on how the Orchestra got here. While she occasionally slips (referring to the relationship between the Orchestra, the Kimmel and the Academy of Music, she says, “The original vision for this … well, it’s hard for me to call it a vision; let’s call it an outline”), she’s pretty good at focusing only on what is needed now.

“When I arrived, the notion that the Orchestra was fiscally sick was absolutely there,” she recalls. “The word ‘bankruptcy’ was mentioned in the paper my second day here, but nobody actually wanted to [acknowledge] it. Yet what we found, when we started peeling back the layers, was that we were much sicker than anyone realized. It was tragic.” While she and new board chairman Rich Worley thought the floodwaters were slowly rising around them, “We were already underwater.” She also quickly understood that the Orchestra “had alienated everyone,” and its public perception, largely filtered through Peter Dobrin’s coverage in the Inquirer, was of a “troubled institution” with “a lot of dirty laundry.”