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April 19, 2011

Philadelphia is my favorite city, hands down. Despite the rough edges, it’s a vibrant place that’s been home to some great personal memories. I was in the city for a rehearsal when I first heard news that the orchestra’s bankruptcy filing was all but certain. I’m a little surprised that the announcement hasn’t put the classical world into a full panic. Perhaps the weekend announcement kept the buzz to a minimum. Maybe some people are too scared to talk about it, seeing it as a dying canary in the mine.

So, the orchestra administration filed for bankruptcy, apparently so it can restructure contracts with the musicians and its home venue, the Kimmel Center. Stated more dramatically, the orchestra of Fantasia, of Ormandy and Stokowski, (not incidentally, of one of my favorite albums of all time), has found itself in a situation where it can’t pay everyone it promised money to.

How did the orchestra arrive at this weekend’s announcement? Well, there were regrettable marketing campaigns. There are the standard critiques about programming and the age of the audience. I get the impression that institutional support is a bigger culprit than ticket sales (realizing lagging ticket sales may scare off donors). Anyone not familiar with the general issue of orchestra finances would do well to read createquity, and at the very least read up on Baumol’s cost disease.

I’m not an economist, and I’m not going to pretend to be one. This article from has a quote that is sort of buried that, personally, I think indicates the biggest problem the Philadelphia Orchestra is facing. A gentleman named Stuart Hirsch said “Let’s face it. There are very few things left in Philadelphia that are still world-class. The Philadelphia Orchestra tops the list.”  I have no idea what Stuart Hirsch’s relationship to the orchestra is, or why he is writing to potential donors. I do know he is an eye doctor, thanks to the Internet. I also know that this story would be better if he was an ear doctor, but now I’ve stumbled off into Tangentville.

Back to that quote! “Let’s face it. There are very few things left in Philadelphia that are still world-class. The Philadelphia Orchestra tops the list.” I think the Orchestra, at this moment in time, shouldn’t be concerned with the world. Right now, it needs to think about how it fits into the ecology of Philadelphia’s music world and the many neighborhoods of its vibrant city that has a rich musical past in many styles. World wide success is nice and may help with financial stability, but that should never be the raison d’etre for an ensemble. Take care of your neighbors and they will take care of you back.

I believe that if the Orchestra management doesn’t realize this it is going to continue to look like a fool jumping out of airplane while patching up his parachute.

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