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In a world of hurt

0 Robert Levine

A recent recent blog post by Philadelphia Inquirer critic Peter Dobrin contains the kind of analysis I wouldn’t want to read about any orchestra, much less one of our flagship bands:

It’s a year today since Philadelphia Orchestra president James Undercofler announced his decision to not seek the renewal of his contract, and it’s been an queasy year, both for the economy generally and for the world of orchestras.

Undercofler intended to finish out his contract, which would have had him leaving July 31 - a mere six weeks ago - but months ago the orchestra put an interim leader in place instead.

You can’t run a music director search without a real professional who can speak the confusing code of conductors and agents. You wouldn’t know how to deal with an attendance rate that’s dropped to 80 of capacity unless you’re immersed in the kind of audience research lifelong orchestra CEOs are. You certainly can’t turn ticket sales around without a marketing director - the orchestra currently has none - and you can’t hire a marketing director until you have a president.

In short, a tremendous amount of institutional ambition has been held in abeyance since Undercofler’s announcement a year ago. This at a time when the economy has been in free-fall and audiences are clutching their purse-strings tighter than any other time since the Great Depression.

…it’s a pathetic sight to see this great orchestra struggling the way it is. This is a moment that deserves our pity and outrage, but our action, too. Hear the orchestra this season. Hear it a lot. A new music director will likely be chosen this season, so think about what’s best for the orchestra’s musical future and express your opinion to the board. This is perhaps the most important time for orchestra lovers to be fully engaged.

And this on top of the financial news he reported on Sunday:

Faced with a dire financial crisis, the leadership of the Philadelphia Orchestra plans to pass the hat among fellow board members for an emergency bridge fund to help carry it through the next two seasons. The proposed goal is $15 million.

The orchestra is running a string of large deficits - $3.3 million for the fiscal year ended Aug. 31, and a projected $7.5 million for the current year - and has maxed out its line of credit.

“Unless we, individually and collectively, provide critical financial support in the next several weeks, there is danger that our effort to fix and transform the orchestra will falter,” incoming board chairman Richard B. Worley wrote in a four-page memo to the board. “Without financial stability, we will continually be forced to devote our energy to triaging short-term financial crises, making long-term sustainable change more difficult. We cannot shrink our way to a better future.”

Those are big numbers, even on a Big Five budget. Of course it’s extremely encouraging to hear that the new board chairman believes that Philly “cannot shrink [its] way to a better future” and is willing to back up his belief with a $2 million gift to the bridge fund campaign. But it begs the question, which at some point really should be answered, of just how one of the world’s greatest orchestras found itself in such a swamp.

I have suspected for a while that Philly has been crippled by the same kind of “luck” that caused the Spanish Empire to collapse. For decades, Spain was funded by silver from its colonies, leading to a kind of generalized societal atrophy that, once the infusion of silver stopped, led to a society that simply became comatose for several centuries.

…it was not until the opening of the silver mines in Mexico’s Zacatecas and Peru’s PotosĂ­ in 1546 that the large shipments of silver became the fabled source of wealth. During the sixteenth century, Spain held the equivalent of US$1.5 trillion (1990 terms) in gold and silver received from New Spain. Ultimately, however, these imports diverted investment away from other forms of industry and contributed to inflation in Spain in the last decades of the 16th century.

Philly’s silver mine was electronic media. No orchestra did more. It’s likely that no orchestral institution made more money from media than did Philly either (including the settlement of a $60 million lawsuit against Disney in 1992 for royalties on Fantasia.)

But nothing comes for free. Was the price that Philly paid for its media riches an atrophy of governance?

In his letter to the board, Worley said the orchestra’s annual fund-raising ranked 12th among U.S. orchestras and was “less than one-half the average for the five largest orchestras.”

In the past decade, the Philadelphia Orchestra built a very expensive hall with very flawed acoustics, hired a music director who was unpopular with the musicians from the start, hired an executive director with no experience running orchestras, fired the music director with no apparent plans for replacing him, and left the CEO position open for a year after the executive director left (or was pushed).

No doubt there’s all kinds of blame to go around, some on the part of people for whom I have a great deal of respect. But this is not a record that suggests good governance by the board of directors. (Drew McManus comes to a similar conclusion on his Adaptistration blog.)

And why should one be surprised? Musicians go to school for years and years to become good enough to be one of hundreds of people auditioning for a spot in the Philadelphia Orchestra. Senior staffers of major orchestras invariably have long resumes and records of success in their previous positions. But putting together a good board is not a skill taught anywhere. And how to be a good board member is a skill that new board members are apparently expected to learn by osmosis - there seems to be precious little formal (or even informal) guidance on the subject on most boards.

If, as all good orchestra managers know and preach, it’s the board that runs the orchestra, shouldn’t we all see that a better job is done of making sure the board knows what it’s doing?

Update: the New York Times is reporting that Allison Vulgamore, the current president of the Atlanta Symphony, is stepping down and is in discussions with Philly to become their new CEO.


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