A US orchestra goes bust

The grandly named National Philharmonic Orchestra, operating out of Bethesda, Maryland, has called in the liquidators. Here’s what the musicians are being told:

Dear National Philharmonic Chorale,
National Philharmonic will be issuing shortly the press release attached about its impending shutdown.  You may already have seen the article in today’s Bethesda Beat about the staff furlough, so the word is out and we have to address it now.  We have been attempting to remain in close contact with Strathmore Foundation and County Executive and Council staff, but our calls are being returned less and less promptly, with less and less substantive information being provided.  In addition, we have retained bankruptcy counsel to prepare a Chapter 7 Liquidation filing.  Our final strategy is to release the press release in a last-ditch attempt to focus attention and hopefully obtain funding for National Philharmonic.  If that doesn’t happen, we will have to file the petition and shut down in an orderly manner.
It is our goal to complete operations of the Summer Choral Institute.
Let me know if you have any comments or questions.  We will continue to update you should there be new information.
Kind regards,
Leanne Ferfolia
President
National Philharmonic

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  • Y2K says:

    I let you guys have the last word a few days ago with Baltimore SO audit woes. The Baltimore Sun has a followup article on the audit itself after they read. It’s a depressing read.

    https://www.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/bs-fe-bso-audit-20190717-tm6c43gzvnbsverqqwoy62hwd4-story.html

    It is extremely expensive to maintain an orchestra. I have pointed this out over many years. Everyone is to blame for this sad state of affairs. These orchestras continue to play the same war horses year after year, generation after generation, century after century. Can you imagine a movie theater playing Star Wars year after year, generation after generation? And these orchestras want the public and the local/state governments to fund them and the public is saying no. A generation from now Rock and Roll bands as we know it will be shriveled away to nothing. Can you imagine if we were then asked to fund a core group of rock and roll bands because they are going bankrupt and that it would be an unspeakable loss of cultural legacy? Absurd.

    No one needs another Beethoven or Brahms cycle in the concert hall or in the studio. The big cities will have big pockets to maintain the big orchestras. The problem lies in small cities like Baltimore in the US. I can see a thriving market for small scale endeavors, you know, piano recitals and other chamber music. These will be much cheaper.

    Lastly, youtube has changed the landscape of classical music. When I want to learn a new work, I now go straight to youtube. Almost all of the past works performances and recordings are on it. Often youtube is the only place you can find certain works. It is so good and rich and enthralling that it has taken the fun of going the concert hall. The orchestras must come up with a solution to this 800lb gorilla. Youtube is here to stay.

    • John Smith says:

      You don’t seem to understand art and music, and the value of live performances. There are PLENTY of young musicians in orchestras, by the way.

      • Y2K says:

        Seriously? Conservatively, I’ve seen probably 400-500 live performances all over the world over the last 30 years. Maybe more. Maybe you have been to more and after all these decades, live performances get you excited still. Not me. After that many live performances, there is very little that gets me excited. How many Beethoven 3rd, Dvorak 9th, Schubert C major performances do you think a same person can tolerate?

      • Rico Quejada says:

        Sometimes live performances are very great and special. Most these days are routine sometimes slovenly readings of the same old war horses over and over. Here in Mexico, our local band plays a lot of music by living composers and it’s mucho gusto! Yes, they play some European classics, but they realize that to be relevant and worthy of public support they must play music of our time. Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Mahler…enough all ready.

    • mikael says:

      Agreed on the war horses. Sooo boring. Even Mozart would be bored. Give me some Respighi and Corigliano. I can suffer through some of the boring stuff if the program has something exciting on it. The CSO did some incredibly difficult piece, modern, by some guy named Shubert (I think) the audience didn’t go for it. The piece was incredible. The older audiences do not get anything written past the 1920’s. Case in point, I was sitting next to an older guy listening to a new Corigliano, after the piece he turned to me and said ‘I can do without hearing THAT ever again.’ Really dude? I feel bad for the musicians who have to dial in yet another boring piece of music that needs to be shelved. Didn’t understand your rock music comment. Foo fighters sell out stadiums. P.S. no one says rock and roll, it’s just rock music.

    • Brettermeier says:

      “Can you imagine a movie theater playing Star Wars year after year, generation after generation?”

      Star Wars IV vs. Men in Black: International. Take your pick.

      In other words, maybe composers should compose better music. As long as nobody wants to listen to it, nobody will pay for it. (I think the last time I was pleasantly surprised was sth. from Sollima.)

      “It is so good and rich and enthralling that it has taken the fun of going the concert hall.”

      No, THAT is “a depressing read.” The sound is abysmal (as per the encoding used), finding anything is horrible, and most of the time the ambience is worse (maybe you have a great desk.) (No coughers or other noisy people (if unmarried), though. That’s a plus.)

  • phf655 says:

    In 2005, Strathmore, an elaborate arts center in the hyper-affluent Maryland suburbs of Washington DC, opened to the public. This facility is approximately 20 miles from the Kennedy Center. The troubled Baltimore Symphony performs most of its programs there, in addition to its other venue in downtown Baltimore. The orchestra that folded is apparently the resident orchestra of Strathmore.
    Despite its affluence, Washington DC presents the aspect of a company town – the ‘company’ being the vast bureaucracy of the United States government. As a visitor from elsewhere (New York) I am always amazed at how much of its non-governmental economic and cultural life is transported and transplanted from elsewhere. Given the city’s homogeneity and large transient population, the sobriquet ‘National’, pasted onto many local institutions, seems to become a euphemism for ‘local’ or ‘provincial’. This even applies to the so-called National Symphony Orchestra, the resident orchestra of the Kennedy Center, currently led by the admirable Gianandrea Noseda. Despite having been led in the recent past by Dorati, Rostropovich, Ivan Fischer, Leonard Slatkin and Eschenbach, the orchestra has never entered the first rank of United States Orchestras, probably because of the absence of a first-class conservatory of music closer than Baltimore (i.e. Peabody), makes it an unappealing position for a musician interested in the stimulation obtained from teaching.
    All of this suggests that Strathmore was built, undoubtedly at great expense, without much regard to what would happen when it opened to the public.

    • Y2K says:

      Great points. It’s a beautiful center. What will be it’s future? I have my doubts. The classical music base is getting smaller and smaller with each generation. Most of the donors who keep orchestras and centers open are older and eventually the money will dry up. It’s dried up in cities like Baltimore. I’m classically trained and I live and breath this stuff but my kids and wife don’t want anything to do with it. It’s really sad. Unless we get kids into classical music and grow our base, and unless we introduce new works into the repertoire, classical music has a very bleak future in the US.

    • fflambeau says:

      Washington D.C. is NOT Bethesda, Md. (which is very affluent) and I dispute your contention that the National Symphony is not first-rate. But that’s another question.

      A politician is claiming that: “On Tuesday, council president Nancy Navarro also put out a statement about the closure, saying the county has given the National Philharmonic more than $2.5 million in the last decade.”

      Likely true but at the same time the orchestra (not to be confused with the National Symphony) gave hundreds of free concerts per year so that the funding (just $250,000 a year by Navarro’s own account) amounts to a couple of bucks per concert.

      Nancy Navarro should be ashamed of herself and her statement and the wealthy suburb of Bethesda should pay more.

      • Vlnst says:

        I have never seen such an engaged and delighted crowd at a classical music concert, as I saw every single time when the National Phil gave its free concerts for Montgomery County school children. Two concerts each day, for five days in a row. Free. In a nearly 2,000 seat hall

    • TubaMinimum says:

      Strathmore is interesting to me because it is 20 miles away from the Kennedy Center. That is a world away in DC traffic terms, particularly for evening shows that require catching some of rush hour. You are talking at least an hour away if nothing unexpected happens, and free parking versus $23 parking. Those parts of the concert experience make a huge difference for patrons who might be looking for a nice time on a Thursday night. So it’s always felt to me that Strathmore should be ideally situated in a well-to-do market to carve out a nice arts niche for itself.

      Does that mean it can create another top tier orchestra out of a National Phil startup? Certainly not. But I feel like it should be able to support a medium-sized regional orchestra, or be a strong part of the donor/ticket portfolio of a Group 1 orchestra like Baltimore. Right now, I’m unsure if it’s an issue with Strathmore, or if the National Phil has other issues (that name, for one, feels like a terrible branding move) and the Baltimore Symphony has failed to properly leverage their second home.

  • Anonymous says:

    I lament the sentiment in these articles that youtube is somehow a substitute for a live performance, or that hearing a piece once suffices. This is akin to printing the Mona Lisa on a dot-matrix printer and pronouncing that one has no need to visit the Louvre. Art, particularly performance art, is meant to be experienced live and in person, without interruption. There is an immediacy to a live orchestral performance, and a risk of imperfection. I enjoy a great recording as much as anyone, but hearing an orchestra live, even a mid-level one, offers the potential for a transforming experience. I despair for those who never make this attempt.

    • LEWES BIRD says:

      If you’ve been to the Louvre — and particularly to the room where Gioconda exists — anytime in the past 30 years, if not more… you’ll know all too well that you’d enjoy this painting far more if you printed it at home on a dot matrix printer.

  • Violinist in DC says:

    This is very sad and disappointing. The National Philharmonic consistently sounded excellent, and did a good job filling (expensive) seats at Strathmore. However they never really had a board that was competent enough to manage in a very difficult but wealthy area, despite the tremendous amount of effort and work put in by Gajewski, the music director.

    Part of the problem is that Strathmore insists on incredibly high rent, despite NPO being the orchestra in residence, partly in an attempt to push out NPO and make more room for the Baltimore Symphony.

    As for why the National Symphony isn’t even close to first rate, I don’t think it has to do with the lack of a local music school. The pay is high, but the hall is mediocre, the orchestra has a reputation for being arrogant and difficult for both conductors and member, despite never performing at a level to deserve such arrogance. There are some really excellent players in the NSO, but also some utter dross, including some who were hired very recently, in other words, not just old men in the back of the section.

    • LEWES BIRD says:

      So you’re saying the Strathmore decided to throw the NSO under the bus because they’d rather have the Baltimore Sym… wait… who? Oh. The irony. The karma.

  • David Rohde says:

    The National Philharmonic leaves behind a mostly positive although mixed record of achievement. One of the best things it did was to offer solo opportunities not only to known performers but also to emerging, locally based singers and instrumentalists in advance of what became their broader career achievements. The orchestra also sponsored a decade-long traversal of literally the entire corpus of Chopin’s work by pianist Brian Ganz, which I don’t think had quite finished but hopefully can be completed in some way by another organization.

    The performance quality varied despite the orchestra’s hiring of generally excellent players. Section balance could be off and orchestra cohesion could come and go. I was not a big fan of their choral group that was originally known as the Masterworks Chorus – the segment of the National Philharmonic performing forces to which the letter above is written. It was too large, often “warbly” in the sopranos, and sometimes sketchy in entrances and cutoffs. While I imagine their friends and family would tell chorus members their sound was “impressive,” I was never sure if they realized how the advanced acoustics of the Music Center at Strathmore amplified these problems and could turn the sound into a big blob. Many of us in the Washington area look instead for performances of the same works by the more compact and always superbly well-prepared University of Maryland Concert Choir directed by Edward Maclary, including their appearances with the National Symphony Orchestra and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

    Among Maestro Gajewski’s notable recent achievements was wrestling the early, sprawling Wagner opera Rienzi down into a 2½-hour concert presentation, a memorable experience not easily obtainable elsewhere, at least in America. One of the lesser moments was a concert presentation of Porgy and Bess, which was really quite awful through absolutely no fault of the soloists. The orchestra and chorus basically drowned them out and much of the true Gershwin style was just not there. Thankfully Porgy and Bess is coming to Washington National Opera next year in a production I saw last spring at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, Texas, where the Fort Worth Symphony conducted by Joe Illick was outstanding.

    As with the crisis at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the end of the National Philharmonic demonstrates the limitations of youth outreach programs. The Nat Phil had a practice of admitting kids 7-17 for free when accompanied by an adult and an annual concert for every second-grader in Montgomery County, Maryland. I know this is counterintuitive and even upsetting to a lot of people, but I’ll say again that these programs, while meritorious in their own right, are not the savior of classical music that people imagine them to be, and they even distract from the urgent priority of getting younger working-age adults into the American concert hall. One notable phenomenon you could readily observe at the Nat Phil was how often kids would arrive not with their parents but with their grandparents, something that the chairman of the orchestra’s board once even joked about in a pre-concert speech.

    Some of the information in this comment thread about the Washington area is not accurate. The metropolitan area is not remotely “homogeneous” and the area is less transient than it used to be. In fact, Washington is now one of the major destinations for post-college settling by young adults in various fields of endeavor, including artistic ones, so it should set up very well for performing arts organizations of all kinds. So in crisis situations like this, some of the usual table-pounding protests about declining or missing government and private support masks a more dynamic challenge than people may realize.

    I’m not close enough to this situation to know whether the change in cost demands by Strathmore and the reduction in the orchestra’s support by Montgomery County, Maryland is due to some kind of frustration with classical music or a rational response to other priorities. What I do know is that many sources of private wealth in the Washington area have ROTATED to different industries, including tech-related ones, and to people who may have little experience of orchestra attendance. Much as I have been advocating in this forum for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra musicians to finally produce a letter of support from a newer, younger, NON-donor ticket-buyer, organizations like the National Philharmonic needed to realize that getting someone into the hall who might just be the ex-college roommate of some new tech gazillionaire around the Capital Beltway might have been every bit as important to their long-term philanthropic backing as flogging their free kids’ programs, badgering every ticket-buyer for extra little donations, and protesting cuts from the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County. It appears to be too late for them now, but hopefully others can learn from the dual orchestra crises here in the mid-Atlantic states. It’s been an interesting few weeks, to say the least.

  • Bruce says:

    I agree with so much that has been written. I am tired of hearing “popular” pieces that are meant to sell tickets. Can’t management see that such pieces are not selling tickets. Programming is an absolute bore.
    However, I wish to state something that I believe is utter common sense. If everyone only earned what they need, our world would be a much simpler place. Look at how little school teachers earn. They work their butts off. As you may know, the concertmaster of the NSO earns about $500,000 each year. The director earns millions. This is true of many orchestras. I believe that most musicians are doing what they love. It seems to me that they should not make more than teachers or secretaries. If this orchestra and the BSO agreed to reasonable salaries, they could survive. Bruce

    • Guest says:

      As a teacher who got out of teaching and went into a job that actually works 12 months a year instead of 9.5, teaching is one of the easiest jobs I can imagine. I thought it was difficult while I was doing it, but after getting out of it and seeing what people do 12 months a year… it was eye-opening

  • Wes says:

    Is it worth going through the rigamarole of traffic, parking, loud patrons, etc to hear a (often) slovenly run-through of Dvorak 9 again? Or does it sound more appealing to find the greatest performances of the piece ever recorded on youtube and sit down in your recliner and relaxing? After all these years, it’s an easy decision for me.

  • Cremona says:

    Dear “Bruce”,
    The CM of the NSO does not make $500,000. Get your facts straight. Other top orchestras in the US have CM’s making in the 5K’s, indeed.

    If these musicians made “what they need” they would all be having to make a lot more, actually. Have you looked at the prices of even DECENT string instruments? While I do agree that teachers are underpaid, no doubt, they also don’t “need” to somehow purchase expensive instruments, not to mention bows, strings, and the cost of maintaining/repairing them.

    How about the partners at law offices who make even more than the highest paid CM or music director when they spend more time on the golf course than actually working? Shouldn’t they only be “making what they need”??

    Musicians spend hours upon hours perfecting a skill and having to perform LIVE with no room for error. It’s both a mental and physical challenge every day on the job.

    • Guest says:

      You obviously don’t know the hours lawyers put in at top law firms to make that statement. My brother is one and he works 50 hours a week minimum on a case. They are fighting for millions of dollars in court a lot of the time. Yes, they deserve a healthy compensation.

      • Bruce Johnston says:

        My argument is that all people in our world should only be making what they need. There is considerable greed in our world. In a more fair world, salaries would be based on need, nothing more. Musicians do not work harder than teachers, trashmen or women, lawyers, construction workers who risk their lives. Many people are stuck in jobs that are horrific. Musicians are doing what they love. Musicians do not have to buy new instruments each year. Virtually all of them have insurance on their instruments. Lawyers make too much, just as many other people do. They fight for millions when those millions are, also, usually not needed.

    • Bruce Johnston says:

      You, my dear, are very mistaken. The concertmaster does, indeed make about $500,000 per year. Your fake news is not appreciated.

      These are the salaries of concertmasters from the year 2015.
      Cleveland Orchestra: $621,510
      San Francisco Symphony: $583,990
      Chicago Symphony: $539,900
      Los Angeles Philharmonic: $529,722
      Boston Symphony: $449,527
      Philadelphia Orchestra: $428,372
      National Symphony: $409,148
      Baltimore Symphony: $322,328
      Dallas Symphony: $293,027
      Cincinnati Symphony: $292,797
      The concertmaster of the NSO is now making considerably more.
      The musicians, in many cases do not own their instruments, but have been loaned their instruments.
      Your argument is specious at best.

    • Bruce Johnston says:

      ( This is a replacement or correction of my original response, please) You, Cremona, are mistaken. The concertmaster of the NSO does, indeed, make about $500,000 per year. Your fake news is not appreciated. The NSO is a highly paid orchestra.

      These are the salaries of concertmasters from the year 2015.
      Cleveland Orchestra: $621,510
      San Francisco Symphony: $583,990
      Chicago Symphony: $539,900
      Los Angeles Philharmonic: $529,722
      Boston Symphony: $449,527
      Philadelphia Orchestra: $428,372
      National Symphony: $409,148
      Baltimore Symphony: $322,328
      Dallas Symphony: $293,027
      Cincinnati Symphony: $292,797
      The concertmaster of the NSO is now making considerably more.
      The musicians, in many cases do not own their instruments, but have been loaned their instruments. Most musicians join orchestras already owning their instruments. They have insurance on their instruments. Many of us have to own equipment for a work. You suggest that musicians are somehow special, not being allowed to make a mistake. That is also very untrue. As Anne Midgette so rightly points out, the NSO is often very sloppy and careless. Yes, some musicians practice quite a lot, so do most people who are conscientious about their work. I am well aware of overpaid lawyers. I was speaking of all people. If everyone made only what they need, our world would be a much better place. We would not have so many people dying of starvation while the NSO and other orchestras keep playing Dvorak’s New World Symphony a billion times each year. Orchestras have become such a bore. No wonder they play so poorly. I am a musician, my dear. I am a pianist. It is a disgrace that so many orchestras are having financial problems. Much of the problem is greed.
      Your argument is specious at best.

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