The Philadelphia Orchestra Story

My own blogging will be light for the next couple of days (Passover, you know) but I wanted to call music fans’ attention to a sad piece of news: The Philadelphia Orchestra is filing for bankruptcy, the first major U.S. orchestra to do so.

The reason for the bankruptcy filing is that “leaders believe reorganization gives them a chance to shed a monetary obligation to the pension fund and other contractual arrangements they cannot afford.” Depending on how cynically you look at this, you could see this as the board trying to make the musicians bear the brunt of the financial problems. But there’s no doubt, as the article explains, that the financial problems are very real. The orchestra’s attendance has fallen by 100,000 in the last 20 years.

And the decline seems particularly sad because isn’t just any old major U.S. orchestra; it is, or was, one of the most important musical institutions on the continent. Thanks to Leopold Stokowski, the orchestra introduced a lot of contemporary music to North America, was one of the major figures in orchestral recording back when classical music was the backbone of the record industry, and cemented its status as the U.S.’s leading orchestra by playing all the music in Fantasia (though only Stokowski appeared onscreen as himself; the orchestra was played by studio musicians).


Under its subsequent music directors – mostly Eugene Ormandy, who stayed there for almost 40 years and made hundreds of successful recordings – it was less adventurous and got something of a reputation for stolidity, both in repertoire and performance, but it maintained its reputation as having the most beautiful, plush string sound in the musical world, and gave several important premieres, including the first North American performance of Mahler’s 10th symphony.

As to the future of the orchestra and its still-unrevealed plan to fix things: the chief executive officer’s statement about why the orchestra can still remain a “destination orchestra” for great musicians is not very encouraging.

I think a destination orchestra isn’t singularly about pay. I think it’s about what happens when you’re here, how you feel about the environment you’re working in, and who is around you and what musically you’re doing. We need to have as much pay as we can, but we need to frankly have a relationship with the art that is rewarding beyond pay.

The reality tends to be that the great orchestras pay well (when Georg Solti was asked what the secret of the Chicago Symphony’s success was, he replied simply “we pay very well”). Not just because of the musicians they attract, but because without good pay and benefits, the players will spend a lot of their time moonlighting. That “art for art’s sake” environment is hard to create when everybody is running around picking up extra work.

The Canadian connection is that last year, Yannick Nézet-Séguin was appointed the next music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He is now expected to be not only the music director but almost the saviour – the guy who will come in next year and bring in the thousands of concert-goers they’ve lost. That’s a lot of pressure to put on one conductor, though I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s up to it. One advantage he has over previous Philadelphia conductors is that he is young, and an exciting personality. Philly did very well in the ’80s under another young, exciting conductor, the Italian Riccardo Muti. After Muti left he was replaced by older, less exciting German kappellmeisters (Wolfgang Sawallisch, Christoph Eschenbach), who also couldn’t give it the gigantic recording contracts it had under Stokowski and Ormandy. Nézet-Séguin won’t be able to make as many recordings either, but he might sweep aside some of the cobwebs, so to speak.

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