Wednesday, May 11, 2011

An Orchestra Shoots Itself In The Cello

My first Philadelphia Orchestra concert was at the venerable Academy of Music in 1965. That was in the closing years of maestro Eugene Ormandy's long reign, 65 years after it had arrived on the scene and quickly became one of the U.S.'s big five symphony orchestras.

I vaguely recall tickets for nosebleed level seats for that first concert costing three bucks. Today they are well over $100 and the primary reason we have enjoyed the Philadelphia only sparingly in recent years despite its magnificent sounding newish home, Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center.

Symphony orchestras have struggled in recent years, in part because of increasingly graying audiences, stratospheric ticket prices and a conflict between playing new stuff that older patrons don't want to hear and older stuff than newer patrons are tired of hearing.

And so, alack and alas, the Philadelphia Orchestra has filed for bankruptcy, a smart business move that is dumb in other respects and might spell the end of a fabulous 111-year run. This is because in one fell swoop the orchestra's board has betrayed both its musicians and its public.

You see, the orchestra is not insolvent, far from it with over $129 million in the bank, according to its Chapter 11 filing, a sum representing more than three times its liabilities.

So why did it declare bankruptcy?

According to Richard B. Worley, the chairman of the board, it was to relieve its obligations to the musicians' pension fund and Peter Nero and the Philly Pops, force renegotiation of existing agreements with the Kimmel Center and leverage a new collective bargaining agreement with the musicians. Having achieved those goals, Worley says, the orchestra would then attract $160 million in donations from the public it has betrayed.

One has to wonder if Worley, like some deranged 19th century composer, is hitting the laudanum a little too hard, because the bottom line of the reorganization plan is nothing more than the orchestra welshing on its obligations and debts.

Do we feel violated? You betcha? Will we be ponying up a few hundred bucks to see the orchestra anytime soon? Nah.

Photograph by George Wildman/The Associated Press

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