Has the Philadelphia Orchestra totally lost the plot?

Has the Philadelphia Orchestra totally lost the plot?


norman lebrecht

May 24, 2018

This is the conclusion of an opinion piece by a musicologist – usual cautions apply – in the Philadelphia Inquirer today:

A right-wing fantasy tour of Israel; a glaring absence of women’s voices; an artistic vacuum when it comes to contemporary music; all hiding behind a romantic notion of the sanctity of classical music. These problems are all connected, and speak to the Orchestra’s anxiety at its own status in this city, and in the larger world. For generations the Philadelphia Orchestra was one of few institutions in this town that could claim a world-class status, and even for the many citizens who could care less about classical music, this was a source of pride. Today, it’s hard to find similar pride in an organization so attached to a nostalgic, often reactionary vision of its own history. There is room for lots of different kinds of music in our big city, and maybe it is for the best if the Philadelphia Orchestra is no longer at its center.

Philip Gentry is a musicologist at the University of Delaware, and author of the recent book What Will I Be: American Music and Cold War Identity (Oxford, 2017). pgentry@udel.edu

It could be the newspaper is trying to shrink its subscriber base.


  • william osborne says:

    The problem might not be visiting Israel, so much as the way activities during the visit were organized. Planned private meetings with righ twing politicians and visits to military bases appear less than neutral. I think the article implies that the orchestra fell victim to a group of conservative donors who were partially responsible for planning the visit.

    • Sue says:

      On the other hand, if it was the Left they were visiting all would be OK. Such staggering hypocrisy!! And who’s the real reactionary? The regressive Left these days. Calling others reactionary is one of their own projections. The bully pulpit of the Left needs to stop telling people who to do, how to think, live and speak.

      • Burton says:

        A bit hysterical are we? Hey – let’s construct a straw man, boldly topple it, then proclaim victory. Mission accomplished! That type of thing might work just fine for the Ayn Rand crowd but no so much beyond that narrow realm.

      • violafan says:

        “The bully pulpit of the Left needs to stop telling people who to do, how to think, live and speak.”

        HA! I just spit out my coffee laughing.

        This comment has to be a joke…

        • Doug says:

          Your comment merely demonstrates how deeply the brainwashing has seeped.

          • Bill says:

            To quote:
            “The bully pulpit of the Left needs to stop telling people who to do, how to think, live and speak.”

            So, noticing that someone is telling someone else how to speak and apparently doesn’t see the hypocrisy in this situation means I’ve been deeply brainwashed? Odd — I think the observation works from both sides. And it certainly appears that not-the-Left is engaging in the very same behavior she is railing against. It is only bad when “the Left” does it, I guess?

          • violafan says:

            No, it demonstrates that Sue’s comment was a joke.

            Republicans have been trying to control people’s lives for years.

          • Sue says:

            Bingo. Ths not so bright have not noticed yet.

      • Herr Doktor says:

        Sue, please, you’re taking away precious time from watching Jordan Peterson videos. It’s important that you go back to them.

      • jaypee says:

        Let me guess, Sue, you voted for cretin donald, right?

        • Cyril Blair says:

          If she did, she needs to be reported to the authorities, not being an American!

          • Max Grimm says:

            Please, keep the authorities out of it. After all, it’s the one thing Americans can seemingly agree on, regardless of their respective political alignment; a belief that the “other side” ended up holding office by fraudulent means.
            As for Sue, +1.
            @Jaypee If anything she votes One Nation or AFP.

        • Sue says:

          Another intelligent comment. Didnt see that coming.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    Exactly. Well said.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    On the other hand, the author should be careful of what he wishes for. The value of the Philadelphia Orchestra, in my opinion, goes far beyond the boundaries of eastern Pennsylvania. I wish we had a string section even 2/3rd’s as good in San Francisco (rather overrated strings).

    • MacroV says:

      Not that I’ve heard them, but perhaps you do.

    • Derek says:


      If I may comment :- previously, you made your liking for Mahler clear and brilliant strings is what is needed to do justice to the Mahler adagios.

      I don’t know how great the Philadelphia Orchestra strings are nowadays but that is what I was delighted to hear from the London Symphony Orchestra in a Mahler 9 concert earlier this month. There was a total silence from the audience, especially in those last pages; you could hear a pin drop in the hall. An excellent performance and a magical experience!

      I hope that you continue to enjoy Mahler whenever the opportunity arises – with no strings attached if you see what I mean. 🙂

      • barry guerrero says:

        Thank you. I’ve ‘retired’ Mahler 9 from live performances for the very reason you mention. I saw Ozawa/Saito Kinen Orchestra perform it at Davies Hall in S.F. The mostly Asian audience was absolutely dead silent, as though you were listening to a recording in your home. I couldn’t believe it, but it was wonderful. Vic Firth from Boston was playing timps.

  • Helene Kamioner says:

    I think it’s so nice when quality orchestra’s like Philly, NY, Berlin, Vienna and Israel Philharmonic play in each other’s countries. Hooray for cultural exchange, left or right.

  • Leo says:

    People such as this writer should not be taken seriously any longer, even merely for the formulation if not for the content.

    Most “contemporary music” is not played in such institutions for the simple reason that the vast majority of both players and paying public conceive it as ugly and unlistenable. No political inclination, left or right, of the aforementioned genre can change this.
    The traditional bundling of “contemporary music” (or “contemporary art” in general) with all the “correct” political issues is the best demonstration of the weakness these practices: as it clearly cannot be appreciated for the impression it leaves with the listener, it’s acceptance is imposed upon the listener by means of moral threats: if he doesn’t like it, he is immoral.

    In my opinion this is complete nonsense.

    The use of the word “reactionary” most faithfully discloses the totalitarian logic of the writer: our opinion is “progress”, and everyone who disagrees is illegitimate.

    Such reasoning has nothing to do with accepted artistic or political discussion in a democratic society.

    • Sheldon says:

      One of the fundamental issues about the “ugliness” of so much contemporary music is that the composers frequently do not understand the instruments they are writing for. Walter Piston and Kent Kennan books on orchestration mean nothing if you don’t have at least a passing familiarity with the instruments. As a pianist who frequently is called upon to play young composers’ works, I cannot count the number of times I’ve had to recompose things to make them physically playable. Most of our young composers need better instruction in my opinion.

      • Leo says:

        That is true, the problem lies with the professors, and that is again, a downstream result of the philosophy of conceptual art:

        If the concept of an artwork is more important than technical mastery or aesthetic pleasure, the deduction of this to the composition of music creates condition in which what you describe is tolerated and not even seen as problematic. The notes you play aren’t important anyway.

        I heard countless times from players in professional orchestras performing such pieces “I just play whatwver till it’s over”.

        • buxtehude says:

          To your first comment: spot on!

          Will this ever end?

          • Leo says:

            It will end when enough people will take the initiative to put an end to this: cut public subsidy for nonsense the public isn’t interested at, for example.

            Until then it will keep going on and on, as it is obviously a lot easier to make noises and build a philosophy calling them music, rather than actually composing music.

            Another interesting point, relating also to orchestras and their programming choices:
            This “contemporary” music, being rejected by the public, has zero economic perspective, while new music written in ways more appealing and perceivable to the public, with time could have significant economic potential.
            In the past composers of successful works made quite a bit of money through that, no reason for it not to exist again.

    • Sue says:

      The authoritarian impulse and behavior is writ large in the article and most subsequent comments. I imagine they’re just not real bright.

  • Helene Kamioner says:

    Leo: I agree with you completely. Furthermore, regarding programming, which is something I learned in my many years working as a “managerial assistant,”…whoever, or whatever the artist/performer/group/ensemble, etc is required to submit a choice of programs and the auspices chooses from those offerings. So what audiences here in Israel, or anywhere is entirely up to the man who pays for the entertainment. So much for musicologists.

  • Helene Kamioner says:

    re my previous post….I meant to write “hear” not here.

  • Robert Holmén says:

    “…even for the many citizens who could care less about…”

    Minus 1 point for tired cliché phrase.
    Minus another point for not even getting the tired cliché right.

  • almaviva says:

    If Philadelphia were to tour North Korea, Venezuela, or some other left-wing fantasy destination, would the esteemed author raise any objections? I guess he would come up with the need for dialogue, cultural exchange or some other attenuating justifications.

    • MacroV says:

      You may recall the NY Phil went to North Korea and I certainly don’t remember any celebration from the Left (whatever that is), and skepticism on many fronts. Careful you don’t burn down your house with this straw man.

      • Pianofortissimo says:

        I remember a NY Phil musician having bad conscience for eating roasted chicken and glass served in a dinner after the concert in NK, when people around were visibly hungry.

  • MacroV says:

    The “right wing tour of Israel” really is the key here. I don’t really have a problem with the Philly Orchestra going to play in Israel, though if it’s just playing meat-and-potatoes (and no Wagner) to the usual Israel Philharmonic audience, I do have to question the point of it all. But the orchestra shouldn’t really be in the business of facilitating donors taking an AIPAC tour.

  • Old Man in the Midwest says:

    I think it would be healthy for all cities to rely less on their orchestras as the major entity and focus of the musical life of their respective city and support all the other great music making that is available and often of a very high quality.

    In Chicago, there are many groups that have started up in the last 10 years that offer a high quality product. And these groups have a wide range of niches that allow for a thriving and diverse musical spectrum.

    That is what makes a healthy ecosystem for music. Not just having the Big Orchestra playing downtown.

  • Heath says:

    The Israeli program is an excellent opportunity for Israelis both of Jewish and Muslim descent to hear and work with this great orchestra. I’m very excited, and will send a link of the schedule to many friends in Israel. Too bad for those misguided souls who object. Guess they’ll just have to rely on their ability to type out a few angry sentences on a website.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Palestinians are not necessarily Moslem. Up until recently, they were around 50 percent Christian.

  • Sue says:

    “A middle class person embraces socialism and perhaps even joins the Communist Party. How much real difference does it make? Obviously, living within the framework of a capitalist society, he has got to go on earning his living, and one cannot blame him if he clings to his bourgeois economic status. But is there any change in his tastes, his habits, his manners, his imaginative background – his “ideology”, in communist jargon? Is there any change in him except that he now votes Labour or, when possible, Communist at elections? It is noticeable that he still habitually associates with his own class; he is vastly more at home with a member of his own class, who think him a dangerous Bolshie, than with a member of the working class who supposedly agrees with him; his tastes in food, wine, clothes, books, films, music, ballet are still recogniseably bourgeois tastes; most significant of all, he invariably marries into his own class. Look at any bourgeois Socialist…. He would be ready to die on the barricades, in theory anyway, but you notice that he still leaves his bottom waistcoat button undone. He idealises the proletariate, but it is remarkable how little his habits resemble theirs”.
    (George Orwell, 1937, “The Road to Wigan Pier).

    The more things change the more they remain the same.

  • william osborne says:

    The timing of the visit to Israel is unfortunate. Since March 30 over a hundred Palestinians have been killed. And the number wounded is exremely high. According to Haaretz, “Of the approximately 5500 injured, 2,596 people were hospitalized in government hospitals, including 1,499 who were hit by live ammunition.” 130 are in serious or critical condition. Among the injured, 454 were minors.

    The other side of the coin is Hamas which has attempted to impose strong restrictions on women. Fortunately their efforts have been strongly resisted. Hamas, however, might appreciate that the orchestra didn’t program a single woman composer for the next season. The ironies…

    • Heath says:

      William Osborne, time to stop reading the liberal media. Those of us who are informed know that the Palestinians and Hamas are their darlings. In answer to your comment, the Palestinians that you talk about have:
      1) Been firing live rounds at Israeli troops. Israel has some of the smoking guns.
      2) Throwing molotov cocktails, firebombs, common practice for them. This is deadly as is live fire.
      3) Throwing rocks and other objects which are deadly.
      4) Have been penetrating the Israeli border.
      Now, would your country stand for it if this was going on at its border? I’m afraid you’re the quintessential hypocrite who likes to tell what is Israel is doing right and wrong. On a single day, 53 out of 60 Palestinians who were killed were identified by Hamas as Jihadis. Poor Jihadis coming into Israel to kill, right William? As for others, it’s time for Hamas to stop using human shields. Don’t you think?

      • william osborne says:

        I read a wide range of media, and look at both sides of the equation. The assertions in your post would need to be documented to be credible. Haaretz is valuable because it is on the ground in Israel and is well informed, and because it provides information and perspectives not found in the American media.

      • Gareth Jones says:

        Come on your reaching: all terrorists do these things, including Jewish ones in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Dead citizens are a failure for any government

        • Michael says:

          There is no war that doesn’t have civilian casualties. They are tragic but that blood is on the hands of the aggressor, not the defender. Every country has the right to defend its borders and its citizens.

          • Gareth Jones says:

            Well, maybe – though I wouldn’t argue state rights in any very strong sense when it comes to the benighted residents of Gaza. But whatever the rights and wrongs of that there are no ways forward through violence by any side

          • Michael says:

            Gareth – I agree. Violence is only moral when in defense, never when initiated.

  • JoBe says:

    It is sad but not surprising that the lie of the 62 killed “protesters” keeps on being peddled. Even the Associated Press and the New York Times have stated that by Hamas’s own account, 50 out of these 62 were armed terrorists, erm, “freedom fighters”, emphasis on “fighters”: https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2018/05/16/world/middleeast/ap-ml-israel-palestinians.html

    • Gareth Jones says:

      It’s not a lie: they were Hamas fighters inside Gaza protesting against Israeli Government policy and actions. They’re still dead human beings

      • Michael says:

        Gareth – It’s insufficient to just say protesters were killed. There are peaceful protesters and there are protesters who throw molotov cocktails. Israeli defense forces targeted the latter. Which is not to see there weren’t tragic casualties among peaceful protesters. But every country has the right to defend itself.

        • Gareth Jones says:

          “Insufficiency” is a relative concept: those individuals remain dead. I’m generally pro-Israel but these killings were neither justified nor strategically necessary. British rule in Palestine fell to bombs & Molotov cocktails… but then we didn’t have American backing

          • Michael says:

            Osama Bin Laden remains dead. There are good guys and there are bad guys and saying people are dead without background on who they were or how they died is not fully vetting the morality of the actors.

            You also contradict yourself. In one sentence you say molotov cocktails brought down the British and in the next sentence you say they’re not enough to justify deadly force. Also, Israeli action against the British was against military targets. Even the King David Hotel was a military target. Hamas targets civilians.

  • Helene Kamioner says:

    Why SHOULDN’T the Philadelphian’s play Israel? The reasons for preventing these performances are clearly one sided, by promoters of the BDS movement. Since its founding Israel has always been culturally evolved and involved. Is there really any need to criticize the inbred creativity and respect for culture for which Israel and is Israeli’s are internationally recognized. We have given the world some of the greatest musicians, performers, artists, dancers, visual artists, etc. This is an undisputed fact. I really will never understand why any musical organization should miss the opportunity of performing and sharing their gifts with Israel, as the audiences appreciate, love and respect and long for good music. How can this be denied? Now that Louisiana has denied the BDS movement and has come out for Israel, is that state now to be isolated?

    Anyway, Here’s a nice article worth reading. https://whyy.org/segments/philadelphia-orchestra-begins-european-tour-including-first-stop-in-israel-in-25-years/

  • Gareth Jones says:

    I think if the Berlin Philharmonic visited London, met with pro-independence Scottish politicians, and visited HMS Rosyth as well as conducting masterclasses on Salisbury Plain we might raise the odd eyebrow….
    More than happy for the PO to visit Israel and timings are always complex but… some rum scheduling

  • Ben says:

    1) This musicologist is an idiot. However, that’s what most people on Earth needs: To find someone more stupid than you. I call it ‘self-esteem’ booster.

    2) The ongoing protests —- which I respect on certain days of each month — is plain silly. It’s no different from preaching U.S. foreign policies by protesting in front of McDonald’s. Yea, it gonna work.

    • Ben says:

      (are) plain silly….

      And thank you, most of you have just find someone more stupid than you (I am honored)