June 4, 2012
The Philadelphia Orchestra at the Crossroads
When players of the Philadelphia Orchestra arrive in Davies Symphony Hall this weekend, after 10 days of concerts and outreach in China, which orchestra can audiences expect to hear?
At almost any other point in the orchestra’s past, it would have been clear that this ensemble existed with a single purpose: to play at the highest level. For as long as any listener has been alive, the Philadelphia Orchestra has stood shoulder to shoulder with the international elite. Its sound is still unique. Twin characteristics of homogeneity and power have even established a clear primacy in certain repertoire — the Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances on Sunday’s program, for instance.
But 14 months ago, Philadelphia committed a singular act of cultural infamy as the first major U.S. orchestra to enter bankruptcy. The filing hasn’t prevented a single concert, and yet everything is different now. The Philadelphia Orchestra, a consistent pioneer in recordings, radio, TV, and internet, has become a test case of a different kind. As it puts the pieces back together during the next few years, organizationally and financially, Philadelphia will answer the question of whether an orchestra can be all things to all people: a progressive educator for youth and a greater public brought up without the experience of live orchestra music, a soundtrack to entertainment as audiences ogle films, perhaps a vehicle for pops — and a great orchestra.
Other orchestras, of course, have already diversified their identities. But few of those have Philadelphia’s budget size, and none have spent decades proudly cultivating only one constituency — that focused strain of listeners bluntly described as classical cognoscenti.
As it approaches a vanishing point of a certain kind, the Philadelphia Orchestra may make its San Francisco audiences among the last to hear the orchestra in the authoritative, old-world state it has inhabited for many decades. A new music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, starts this fall, and he may or may not cultivate the orchestra’s special sound.
Salaries Cut, Some Players Flee
Change is already underway. Following the bankruptcy — and, more specifically, the deeply concessionary contract forced on musicians as part of a court-supervised contract negotiation — about a dozen or more players started looking for work elsewhere. A handful has already succeeded, and some have specifically cited the new contract and its 20 percent pay cut as the reason for their flight.
San Francisco audiences may be among the last to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra in the authoritative, old-world state it has inhabited for many decades.
Next season, the orchestra will be down a couple of its best string players. Principal trombonist Nitzan Haroz has accepted the same post with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Will others follow? Vacant seats in other top ensembles beckon. Not surprisingly, the orchestra’s bankruptcy lawyer says filing for chapter 11 was “one of the smartest things the orchestra could have done.” But players also look at the numbers — the numbers being salary and pension — “and you go where you think the future will be brightest,” said one violist.
For him, the brighter future is with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where he starts in the fall. I know of two other exceedingly fine principal players who were offered plum jobs elsewhere — and have turned them down.
The bankruptcy forced to a head a question this and other orchestras have been asking: How good does an orchestra need to be? In other words, given the generally lower level of musical literacy in this country and the painful pull of rising costs in a tough economy, should orchestras be putting more money into outreach and marketing while lowering compensation for musicians? In Philadelphia, corporate-minded board members look at the impressive output of top music conservatories and calculate that open spots will be filled easily, with no loss in quality.
Maybe. But aficionados know there’s a wide gulf between competence and playing that shines with charisma and individuality. Are there enough music lovers willing to give the kinds of large gifts needed to support top-tier musicians?
Certainly, emotions have been stoked by a new contract for President Allison B. Vulgamore that, although not out of line with those of her peers, seems unduly generous given the plight of her employer: a $450,000 base salary with a “performance-based compensation” cash bonus of between $50,000 and $175,000 per year; a retirement contribution of $125,000 per year; up to $15,000 per year for supplemental disability insurance; “executive health benefits” of up to $10,000 per year for costs not covered under the group plan; a $5,000 car allowance, and more.
Charles Dutoit: Rock Within a Whirlwind of Change
Stability of leadership is important at a time like this, and replacing a president for an orchestra in bankruptcy wouldn’t be easy. On the musical front, the orchestra has been fortunate to have Charles Dutoit around.
Dutoit has had various titles with the orchestra since 1980: guest conductor; then artistic chief of the orchestra’s summers in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. and Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park; and now chief conductor. He was never made music director — an injustice, in the estimations of some orchestra fans. Dutoit would have had much to offer as music director. He is a savvy programmer of repertoire and guest soloists. At this point, his gestures for communicating ideas to the orchestra are a kind of shorthand. Tending overall sound has been his main concern.
If Philadelphians are looking for a savior, their hopes are better answered through self-reflection
This orchestra, however, encounters only a very few conductors on a regular basis who undertake the kind of nitty-gritty ensemble-keeping necessary to maintain standards — pulling pieces apart and putting them back together, explaining connections in material embedded in a score, going out into the hall and fine-tuning balances, voicing chords, and asking for changes in bowings or even the kinds of instruments being used. This is what it takes to elevate a reading into a revelation. Simon Rattle has done this kind of work in Philadelphia consistently. More recently, Vladimir Jurowski has as well, unmasking certain works as masterpieces which were previously misunderstood as second rate (like Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony).
You have to feel for Nézet-Séguin. It is on these shifting shoals that the young Montréaler takes over as Philadelphia’s eighth music director. Already, in guest appearances, he has acquired a nimbus as a dependably cheery presence, a cooperative team player, and promising fund-raiser.
Orchestra leaders hope he will grow musically.
But if Philadelphians are looking for a savior, their hopes are better answered through self-reflection. Between 1989 and 2009, attendance for the orchestra’s main subscription season fell from 255,000 to about 150,000. A leading orchestra can’t be sustained with numbers like that argues Richard B. Worley, chairman of the Philadelphia Orchestra Association, especially given the fact that the most generous donors often come from among the most loyal listeners.
And so, 112 years after its founding, with a bankruptcy judge expected to decide on a reorganization plan within weeks, the Philadelphia Orchestra awaits the larger verdict on whether listeners still expect it to be great, and, if so, how badly they want it.
Peter Dobrin has been music critic and culture writer with The Philadelphia Inquirer since 1994.
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