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.

“We wanted to move from being troubled to progressive as quickly as possible,” she explains, and the fastest route was through a new music director to replace mismatched Christoph Eschenbach. So when the search committee chose very young, very talented Canadian Nézet-Séguin—who wasn’t sure himself that he was ready for one of the most illustrious jobs in the orchestra world—Vulgamore went into search-and-capture mode, creatively stalking him all over Europe.

“Allison and I Skype a lot,” says Nézet-Séguin, “and when we do, we try to forget the present and imagine the future, what my first season will be, our goals for all the new events. And when we do this, I see back the Allison who was dreaming, who was telling me what I could do in the job. I just remember these long meals in Rotterdam, and she just kept telling me, ‘Nobody says no to the Philadelphia Orchestra.’”

In Atlanta, Vulgamore had been known for having a “war room”—literally (there was a room) but also metaphorically, so different constituencies within the organization knew where and how to meet and talk, even about major setbacks and complete disasters, avoiding what management wonks call “silos.” The situation in Philadelphia was just starting to feel war-roomy and silo-free—even musicians’ representative John Koen agrees the players felt like partners in their own future. And then, last fall, the players’ employment contract came up for renegotiation. This created a natural division in the war-room mentality, made worse when Koen got a memo in November 2010 announcing that the big, inclusive meetings to discuss long-term plans—during which many good ideas had already surfaced—were being put on hold. Everyone ran for the silos. The distrust mounted for months, and by early spring 2011, when it became increasingly possible that bankruptcy was the only option to save one of the greatest orchestras ever formed, many players had already decided that the “financial crisis” was being exaggerated as a bargaining ploy. (They were encouraged in this by their union, the American Federation of Musicians, whose under-performing pension plan was one of the Orchestra’s bigger financial headaches.)

So on Sunday, April 10th—a day that will live in Orchestra infamy—the players were in no mood for the meeting Vulgamore and board chair Worley called in the Kimmel Center players’ lounge. After finishing a performance of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella featuring the Pennsylvania Ballet, they changed into their street clothes and filed into the lounge, filling all the couches, the chairs, and finally all the available leaning space against the walls. John Koen had already been told the news, but had elected not to share it with his fellow musicians. He wanted them to hear it from management.

Vulgamore walked into the lounge and couldn’t help but flash back to the first time she’d been there, just 19 months before, moments after accepting her job. About a third of the players had been present that day, and she had wanted them to know just how humbled she felt to have been given the stewardship of the institution. After making them laugh with her Ormandy and Muti anecdote, she had discussed how they would face the incredible challenges ahead.

And now here she was, to tell them the most devastating news in the Orchestra’s 111-year history. She stood calmly as Worley announced that even with emergency fund-raising, the Orchestra simply couldn’t make payroll. The following week, the board would vote on whether or not to declare bankruptcy, and would, in all likelihood, vote “yes.”

The players were stunned. “They were expecting more posturing and instead got the real thing,” says Koen, referring to notes in his datebook from the meeting. “Allison has a gift of empathy. She did what was necessary, explained everything well. She said, ‘This is a very difficult thing, and I don’t expect you to feel good about it, but it’s the only option we have left.’”

Koen recalls one player standing up and proclaiming, “You are putting a stigma on this institution, which should be treated … respectfully!” Since the moment the players heard the news, Koen says, they have been in a state he can only describe as “grieving.”

“You know the different steps—shock and loss and anger,” he explains. “I don’t think we’re at acceptance yet.”

VULGAMORE STANDS AT HER whiteboard, diagramming with circles and arrows and four different colors of marker all the possible ways her negotiations might play out over the next few weeks and months. It’s exhausting to see just how many games of three-dimensional chess she is playing in her head at all times. No wonder she needs the occasional distraction of a chicken singing “Ring of Fire.”

While doing the diagram, she wears the kind of determined grin we all remember from our most committed schoolteachers. But when the first brown and green arrows start extending into December and January, her face takes on a more personal smile.

At first I think it’s because she realizes that the holidays aren’t far off, and maybe she’s letting her mind wander. Everyone in the Vulgamore family knows that “Ali” is all about Christmas; she’s the driving force behind epic cookie decoration, using one grandmother’s recipe for cookies and the other grandmother’s recipe for icing. But then I realize what the smile is really about.

By January, one way or another, Allison Vulgamore will be out of this labyrinth. The Orchestra hopes that the worst of the bankruptcy will be over by then, no matter how ugly its last acts are, and that some version of her five-year plan will have been certified by the court. She will either have raised the $3.3 million to tap into those challenge grants, or not. The Philadelphia Orchestra season will be in full swing, and Yannick will have taken the stage. The Orchestra Association will have either extended her contract or not.

In the meantime, she can start eating her regular breakfasts at Parc again, get back to swimming regularly and shopping at Reading Terminal for dinner parties (current cooking obsession: Moroccan). She might get to see her long-distance boyfriend in person rather than on Skype.

When she turns 54 in late January, she should finally be free to be more herself again. It reminds me of something her Orchestra Association boss, Rich Worley, once said about her. “We lassoed a thoroughbred, and then we hooked her to a plow.” I suspect even her doubters will be curious to see what she can accomplish if she gets to gallop at full stride.

“It’s time,” she says. “It’s time for everyone to come back together. I am hungry to get back to strategic planning. I’ve been living on rolling 100-day plans for the last two years. I look forward to getting back to 100-year solutions. Because this orchestra needs to be here, and be itself, forever.”