The Philadelphia Orchestra – Rest In Peace?

April 23, 2011

How are we to digest the news that one of the greatest orchestras in the United States and the world has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection?  How especially are those of us who grew up listening to this wonderful orchestra perform under Eugene Ormandy and Leopold Stokowski to react?  How might those of us who studied with members of The Philadelphia Orchestra respond?  In a few words…not well.

It is unlikely that The Philadelphia Orchestra will just go away.  I don’t for a minute think that any of the current stakeholders – orchestra members, staff, board, audience or contributors – will “go gentle into that good night.”   We must remember that the word ‘protection’ in a Chapter 11 filing means having the opportunity to reorganize and continue functioning while not being hounded by creditors.

However, The Philadelphia Orchestra that comes out on the other side of this process will be changed.  One group that will certainly be affected by that change is the membership of the orchestra.  Those of us who trained at American music schools and conservatories over the last fifty years and have played in professional symphony orchestras under agreements negotiated by the American Federation of Musicians have enjoyed a generally upward trend in compensation and benefits. This has all taken place within the inspiring but precarious economic framework (see: Is Classical Music Dying?) in which “philanthropically inclined individuals must annually contribute the 50%-80% gap between ticket revenue and the actual cost of producing the concerts.”

Do I think the musicians of the great orchestras of the world deserve to earn very respectable annual salaries with full health and retirement benefits?   You bet I do!  But whether our American society as a whole believes that is quite another matter.  Certainly in the case of Philadelphia, the question remains: Is there locally sufficient annually contributed income to support a full-time symphony orchestra with a 52-week season?

In the current economic malaise, we are told by our political leaders that ‘the state’ or ‘the municipality’ cannot even afford to continue to pay respectable salaries and benefits to policemen, firemen and teachers.  We should be mindful that even though all of these individuals provide invaluable, priceless services to us – policemen, firemen, artists, musicians and teachers do not work in the profit-making sector.  Yet, what monetary value are we to place on one who saves our life or immeasurably changes our life for the good?

Another question is whether there are enough regular concert audience members in Philadelphia to fill the seats over a 52-week season.  Allison Vulgamore, president and chief executive officer of The Philadelphia Orchestra, alluded to this when she cited the “tremendous decline” in audiences over the past five years.  We might blame this on current economic conditions, but the recession cannot be the only stressor in the equation.  In my next blog entries I will write about other factors that have contributed to the decline in symphony orchestra concert attendance in the United States – and what we may be able to do to begin reversing this trend!

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