The Demise and Resurgence(?) of a Great Orchestra

When the governing board of the Philadelphia Orchestra, one of this country’s great cultural institutions, voted to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on April 16, 2011, the shock waves were felt far beyond Philadelphia. The city could hardly imagine that the Orchestra, ranking with the Art Institute, City Hall, and the Phillies, as defining Philadelphia, had fallen on such hard times. While other orchestras of lesser acclaim have endured financial woes and, in some cases, become defunct, that fate could hardly be imagined for one of the great orchestras of the world. With its legendary music director Eugene Ormandy at the helm, the Philadelphia Orchestra has a recorded legacy that is unsurpassed by any other American orchestra.

Bankruptcy has set the Orchestra’s management and its musicians against each other. While the orchestra has pared its annual operating expenses by about $6 million, most of those savings have come from reducing pay and pension benefits from the musicians union’s contract. Meanwhile, the administrative and litigation expenses of the bankruptcy proceeding have soared well beyond the projected $2.9 million, in part because of litigation that is the result of the Orchestra’s withdrawal from the American Federation of Musicians Pension Fund, which administers the musicians’ pension benefit fund. Meanwhile, there have been some notable defections among principal chair and other players from the Orchestra to other orchestras, collateral moves that would have been unthinkable in years past. While music schools and conservatories turn out excellent instrumentalists every year, the fund of experience represented by the Orchestra’s key players cannot be easily replaced.

Like other orchestras, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s subscriber base has declined by more than 40% in recent years. Revenues are down; costs are up. A new lease has been negotiated with the Kimmel Center, the Orchestra’s home, and ticket sales are up this season over last season, but the Orchestra is still far from closing its budget deficit. American orchestras, unlike their European counterparts, cannot look to state support, and the present political climate, which is hostile to public subsidies of “elitist” arts institutions, is unlikely to change anytime soon. The Orchestra should be energized by the arrival this fall of its new music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, but it remains to be seen whether the Orchestra can return to its rightful place at the center of Philadelphia’s cultural life.

Classical music in general, and orchestral performance in particular, has never played the central role in the life of a community that is typical of most European cities. Certainly the repertoire needs to be energized with exciting new works, but orchestras are faced with whether the cost of commissioning new works is justified, when subscribers stay away in droves from concerts featuring new works. Orchestra management has sometimes failed to keep a sharp eye on the bottom line, continuing touring, for example, when all the costs cannot be underwritten. Almost no orchestras have recording contracts so there never again will be the legacy of the Philadelphia with Ormandy, or Chicago with Reiner, or Cleveland with Szell. Some orchestras (including Philadelphia) have started their own labels, but they lack the promotional muscle that the major classical labels possessed in past years. None of the American orchestras have had anything remotely like the success that the London Symphony Orchestra has enjoyed with its label.

It remains to be seen if the Philadelphia Orchestra (or any other American orchestra, for that matter) can survive and even thrive as in years past. While radio stations have the benefit of a vast recorded legacy to enrich their programming, the great orchestras must struggle to renew themselves. For the sake of our cultural life, let’s hope they succeed.

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