Official: Philadelphia Orchestra is still in trouble

Official: Philadelphia Orchestra is still in trouble


norman lebrecht

July 03, 2016

A report by consultant Michael Kaiser, commissioned to appease anxious musicians, has highlighted dangerous structural flaws in the high-flying Philadelphia Orchestra.

Kaiser warns that the orchestra is overly dependent on large donors, any one of whom could trigger a crisis by pulling out. He says smaller donors have been neglected and the organisations communication skills are minimal (we could have told you that).

He recommends town-hall meetings, improved fund-raising in the $25,000 to $250,000 bracket and tighter coordination between artistic plans and financial realities.

A earlier recommendation for the orchestra tom merge with the Kimmel Center where it plays has, for some reason, been dropped.

Read Peter Dobrin’s none-too-encouraging report here.


kimmel center philly


  • Philadelphia Joe says:

    While this report is necessary and the article in the Inquirer by Peter Dobrin is interesting, many key reasons for the problems of The Philadelphia Orchestra are not highlighted, nor even mentioned.

    The Philadelphia Orchestra has had a long history of extremely poor management, extremely poor relations between management and the musicians of the orchestra, a disastrous period under its former failed music director Christoph Eschenbach, whose avarice, greed and poor musicianship nearly bankrupted and completely destroyed the institution. Under Eschenbach, the ensemble was brought to its lowest artistic point in its history. While the Orchestra has made great artistic progress under Yannick Nezet-Seguin, repairing the serious damage caused by Eschenbach, it must be stated that the Orchestra’s current President and CEO, Allison B. Vulgamore, is a very divisive figure, neither liked, respected nor seen as capable by the vast majority of musicians, nor by the international music management community. As long as she remains at the helm, musicians will remain suspicious, donors reserved and the public won’t get a strong sense of the feel good factor emanating from the Orchestra.

    It’s all about having the right people in the right place. Yannick Nezet-Seguin alone can’t solve the problem of audience attendance and donors. They also need a top, equally charismatic and liked CEO and and equally loved board of directors, less conservative, less local and much younger.

    • Catherine says:

      “Much younger?”Really? Would that comment be made of a male…..

      • Victor says:

        It appears that the comment refers to everyone, particularly the board of directors, so your comment is misplaced.

        Knowing a bit about the inner workings of the Philly orchestra, having graduated from Curtis and lived in the city, I agree with much of what is said in the comment above, particularly the history of bad relations between the musicians and the orchestra’s management. Concerning Eschenbach, I can only say that it was a bad period for the orchestra with many musician friends of mine who were in the orchestra, or who subbed in the orchestra at that time, were EXTREMELY unhappy watching the orchestra deteriorate bander Eschenbach’s careless and disinterested leadership.

        It is a great group of players and they don’t deserve all that has happened to them.

        • Edgar says:

          Eschenbach’s tenure must have been the absolute opposite to the that of the venerable predecessor Wolfgang Sawallisch. I make this comment as an outsider, who has experienced Sawallisch as Generalmusikdirektor in Munich. His is a professional ethos all too often missed nowadays, IMHO….

      • Max Grimm says:

        “Would that comment be made of a male…..”

        Yes, it would and it has been made. The last sentence of the original post and ‘Victor’s’ comment should make it apparent that “Philadelphia Joe” calls for a “less conservative, less local and much youngerBoard of Directors (roughly three fifths of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Board of Directors are male).

  • Olassus says:

    ” … smaller donors … in the $25,000 to $250,000 bracket”?


  • James says:

    “78 percent of its philanthropy comes from just 2 percent of its donors”

    NOT “78 donors.” Can’t people read anymore?

  • Dave says:

    After reading the article on the orchestra they truly are in a mess. The musician’s contract is up in September and I doubt they are interested in more concessions. Finding more donors in the 25k to 250k range is laughable. Look for more woes.

    • Bennie says:

      Alison simply stink among corporate donors. The decline in that area during her tenure of beyond obvious.

  • Bennie says:

    Dedicated musicians try very hard to keep the dirty laundry within the house. Alison fully take advantage of that. You would not believe the concession the musicians have made already, and the frustration among them.

    Alison must go. She could order the $2500-a-bottle wine during her next job interview with some orchestra broad members elsewhere.

    P.S. Alison had no clue on who Yannick was before he was hired —- if she ever has/had any clue on what’s going on. It was some of the section leaders who sense the greatness of Yannick, then made a strong push to get him hired.

    • Michael B. says:

      This is just another wakeup call, but the powers that be are still snoozing. Unless drastic changes are made, and soon, there will be no more than five or so full-time professional orchestras on the current model, and Philadelphia is most unlikely to be among them.

      This situation forces us to recognize some very unpleasant truths about the state of American orchestras:

      (1) Orchestras, in their principal enterprise, that of making music, cannot avail themselves of automation and computerization that have enabled a great deal of labor saving, cost saving, and time saving in other areas of the economy. It still takes the same number of players, nearly 100, and the same time, roughly 55 minutes, for an orchestra to play the Mahler First Symphony as when Mahler premiered the work in 1889; you cannot do it with two guys with laptops in five minutes.

      (2) With a few exceptions, American orchestras are designed to provide safe, familiar, ultra-comfy programming to an aging and increasingly small slice of a metropolitan area’s social and economic elite and are really not part of the cultural and intellectual life of the community. Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Dvořak, rinse, and repeat.

      This leads to some very difficult choices that will have to be made if these orchestras are to survive at all.

      (1) In the absence of increasing donations from the private sector, very unlikely when younger people of affluence show little interest in classical music, or increasing support from the public sector, even more unlikely in the current political and economic climate, the orchestras will have to find a way to stabilize their finances. That means some very wrenching decisions. Unfortunately, the musicians’ union will have to go and salaries will have to come down considerably in most areas. The musicians’ union loves the status quo–high salaries and no responsibility of stretching oneself musically or learning new repertoire. That will no longer be possible. The game of one-upmanship that, for example, led to the brief strike in San Francisco will not be able to continue. The orchestras will have to be able to institute rational work rules that might make recording possible again and not have rehearsals and recording sessions governed rigidly by the clock as though the orchestra were a shirt factory. The stabilization will also have to involve the bloated, excessive administrative staffs of the orchestras, which will have to be chopped down considerably, with redundant positions being consolidated or eliminated (bye-bye, Ms. Vulga(rize)more!). There will no longer be the ability to hire so-called “superstar” conductors as music directors at salaries of $500,000 and up; the orchestras will have to rely on younger, non-superstar talent. For all of Yannick Nezet-Seguin’s supposed “brilliance,” he has shown little inclination to expand the repertoire beyond the safe, ultra-comfy, and predictable, and attendance has continued its slide during his tenure. (Eliminating the “superstar” conductors will have the secondary advantage that this will open up conducting jobs for younger Americans, who are generally shut out in favor of the vice-Kapellmeister of the Mecklenburg-Schwerin Philharmoniker, as well as for women and people of color.) The expensive superstar soloists (Yo-Yo Ma, Itzchak Perlman, Joshua Bell) mailing in performances of warhorses will also have to go. Many of the soloists (except for pianists for obvious reasons) should be drawn from the orchestra; for pianists, opportunities should be given to up-and-coming local talent.

      (2) The orchestras will have to find ways to become integrated into the cultural life of their communities. That means links with the visual arts, the theater, literature, and even with science and technology. This may mean formal affiliation with local universities; universities with music departments will provide a source of players and new compositions.

      (3) The repertoire will have to open up. The only way that younger people will become enthusiasts and start buying tickets will be to present a broader range of music, including music of our time, with more works by women and people of color. This does not mean pops or dumbing the orchestra down, as suggested at various times by Ms. Vulgamore–young people with intelligence have the most sensitive bull$%#@ detectors of anyone, and will avoid anything if they feel that they being patronized or talked down to. Unfortunately, many orchestras are going in the opposite direction. A couple of years ago, my wife and I attended a San Diego Symphony concert with an all-Shostakovich program (scarily modern for that ultra-conservative orchestra). The program was the First Cello Concerto and the 10th Symphony, with no big-name soloist in the concerto. The hall was completely full, and I would say that half of the audience was under 25, unprecedented for that orchestra. (There are composers who do take cues from pop music, jazz, and world music, and this does not mean crossover or dumbing down–this is merely a continuation of a process that has gone on since the fifteenth century, when a number of composers wrote masses in which the cantus firmus was a popular tune of the day, “L’Homme Armé” (the armed man).)

      (4) There will have to be a way of getting recordings and performances out, either by physical CDs (probably not the optimum in most cases), downloading (hopefully with sufficient resolution to enable reasonably high-fidelity listening), or even streaming or podcasting. This is another area where work rules will have to change to enable this. As it stands, this is impractical for most major American orchestras because of union regulations.

      The blunt reality is that, in America, classical music was always the music of immigrants–Germans, Czechs, Italians, Eastern European Jews, and now Asians. It really never took root here. There is no place for it here in the current hyper-masculine American mentality where anything that cannot be assimilated immediately and with no thought is the subject of deep suspicion. As the movies of the 1950’s often said: “I knew that [so-and-so] would turn out to be a spy for the Commies–he didn’t like rock-and-roll and always was reading and listening to Tchaikovsky.” It will take bold ideas, a lot of guts, and a lot of work to somehow turn this around.

      • NYMike says:

        Spoken like a typical union-basher with no realization that almost ALL great European orchestras are also made up of union members with some form of state support, to boot. Without competitive union salaries and work rules true professionals would retire, leaving the field to amateurs using second-line instruments they could afford. This would of course be great for quality, now wouldn’t it?

      • Gerhard says:

        Are you seriously claiming that in America the musician’s union has any saying in the choice of an orchestra’s repertoire? I have never heard this before.

  • Dave says:

    I’m all for union musicians. The bottom line still becomes putting fannies in the seats. An overhaul seems to be in order. Someone should be working night and day trying to attract a younger audience. Is social media being utilized properly? I wonder. Programs with only Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky won’t cut it these days. Perhaps we are looking at a slow death for Philadelphia.

  • Barbara says:

    In America, the Head Coach of a National Football League Team is leading an enterprise that is hugely profitable and popular, yet he will focus all his energies, year-round, with few days off, on fulfilling his role as the team’s leader. By comparison, many Music Directors of American Orchestras spend well less than half a year leading organizations whose overall lack of popularity and recognition places them in desperate need of development, advocacy, innovation and creative leadership. In crude capitalist terms, orchestras are selling an arts product, and a Music Director is supposed to be the chief steward of that product, largely accountable for its success or failure. Yet while shirking these responsibilities, these conductors are paid at levels that are utterly obscene within the context of the pay scale of classical music workers. Sorry, but when an art is in danger of dying, being judged solely on the basis of one’s conducting is an unaffordable luxury. The principal measure of evaluation for a Music Director should be the extent to which he/she has helped make the organization a dynamic force in the community it serves and established the broad-based value of orchestral music and performances with the people of that community.

  • kundry says:

    Easy fix. Mrs.Jaqueline Desmarais, who pretty much bought Yannick his career, should have no trouble financing the Orchestra shortfall.
    At least for the next few years, while the MET is waiting for the sophomoric conducting revelations of the much hyped Maestro. We are also waiting with baited breath for the “rake’s progress” into the Wagner repertoire.
    Let’s see – Dutchman first , then Tannhauser, Lohengrin , Walkure ( more energetic !) , then a bit of mellowing maturity with Parsifal and Tristan. By then , Mrs. Desmarais will be 95 , Philadelphia again in bankruptcy court and the MET house at 30% attendance.
    Peter Gelb will write his memoirs from his posh estate and nobody will remember what an opera should sound like ( singers and orchestra ).
    Sorry , I forgot – the cheap tickets will be $ 450.