Philly at risk?

An article in the Guardian (UK) last Wednesday raised the possibility that one of the Big Five might not survive the current economic crisis:

The [Philadelphia Orchestra]- best known for the soundtrack to Disney’s Fantasia – has lost $2m (£1.4m) in public funding. Though it has an interim music director in Charles Dutoit, it has no permanent holder of that post, nor a chair of trustees, nor an executive director. It has just announced staff and pay cuts, and cancelled a tour to Europe this summer. Music lovers in the US could start to think the unthinkable: that one of their “big five” orchestras may not survive the economic crisis. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s temporary executive director, Frank Slattery, told the New York Times last week that he “can see catastrophe for American orchestras” if the markets do not recover.

I can’t really see Philly folding, regardless of how long it takes for the markets to recover. That’s not to say that major changes wouldn’t be required to keep it going, though.

There are two points to make about the current crisis. The first is that orchestras – even American orchestras – have survived worse. The second is that the current iteration of the American orchestra – full-time, underwritten by large dollops of donated cash, and with a solid underpinning of 10s of millions in endowments – has never been tested as severely as it appears is about to happen. I suspect that our industry is going to look somewhat different when this crisis ends, especially if (as appears likely) it doesn’t end soon.

But the article’s identification of Philly as the Big Five orchestra least likely to survive will not surprise most industry insiders. Philly has been rightly regarded for a long time as the weakest of the Big Five institutionally (not musically), and I suspect that most informed observers would even rank many of the next five or ten orchestras above it in terms of institutional strength.

I have no explanation for that. But I do wonder if the orchestra’s unique relationship to electronic media over the decades helped them avoid the kind of institutional development that other orchestras found essential to survive and grow. Philly is, after all, the only orchestra that was ever able to sue a major movie studio over royalties. A large external source of ongoing revenue makes life a lot easier for boards and managements – at least until it ends. And it ended, for Philly as for everyone else, around 10-15 years ago. Philly appears to have struggled as an institution ever since.

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