How to save the Philadelphia Orchestra

To save the Orchestra, learn from General Motors

Another asset squandered: Ormandy vanishes down the memory hole.
Another asset squandered: Ormandy vanishes down the memory hole.

Just how many classical music lovers live in the Delaware Valley? Enough to make a difference for the survival of the genre, not to mention the Philadelphia Orchestra?

Equally important, are the necessary tools available?

I would answer yes on both counts— if the Orchestra's bean counters would get out of the way.

Some 21,000 supporters participate in the regular fund-raisers for WRTI, Temple University's radio station. These listeners are an eclectic bunch: They listen to classical music 24 hours a day, or they listen to jazz 24 hours a day, or they have classical on during the day, followed by jazz at night, or vice versa.

At no other time has the greater Philadelphia community been more needed to play a critical role in the survival of its orchestra, the region's classical soul. Today that communal role can transcend traditional support functions like buying tickets, spreading word of mouth and raising funds. But as the League of American Orchestras has emphasized, the key to mustering public support for orchestras these days is transparency— which the Philadelphia orchestra has steadfastly resisted.

What others think

"Orchestras must develop a transparent culture on issues ranging from employee and volunteer human resource policies to financial record-keeping," the League observed in a report published in its Symphony magazine in 2006. The League, an umbrella organization for more than 950 professional, community and youth orchestras, practices what it preaches: It places its research efforts concerning best practice on the Internet for all to see.

The League's website is a potpourri of news, research, statistics and practical information for anyone concerned about the health of orchestras. It offers the basic tools through which a community of music lovers could fashion themselves into an effective support group— called, say, Delaware Valley Classic Music Lovers.

The General Motors lesson

Such a group might well draw its inspiration from beyond the world of music. The Philadelphia Orchestra, for example, might have something to learn from Bob Lutz, who as former vice chairman and now senior adviser to General Motors has survived bankruptcy and helped restore his company to profitability. Lutz has remarked that GM and the American automobile industry in general used to cope with losses by cutting back on items like innovation and customer service— a formula for "dying by a thousand cuts," as he put it. (Any American who owns a Japanese car will tell you that customer service is critical to customer loyalty.)

On the PBS "Charlie Rose Show" recently, Lutz said that GM has learned a hard lesson: "You always streamline to modernize and grow, but you never make the customer suffer."

At the same time, GM has negotiated contracts with its unions with the goal of uniting management and labor as a team whose players strive toward a common goal— in GM's case, to compete with any car company on the planet.

With GM's experience in mind, let's look at two Philadelphia Orchestra cutbacks that have devastated its audience development.

Cutting Temple's choir adrift

Soon after Verizon Hall became its home in 2001, the Orchestra decided to terminate its long-run relationship with the world-famous Temple University Choir and create its own professional choir. The Temple choir, lest we forget, won a Grammy award in 1972 for its performance of Carl Orff's Catulli Carmina with the Philadelphia Orchestra. When the United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold was killed in an airplane crash in 1961, the Temple University Choir was asked to sing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in a memorial service at the UN that was telecast across the globe.

Some European orchestras have successfully operated choirs, but only with generous government support, since many choral works require 100 singers or more. But whatever the professional or economic merits of forming a proprietary choir, the act of cutting the Temple Choir adrift instantly shocked and alienated Temple's 30,000-plus student body, not to mention its 245,000 living alumni. Many wealthy alumni dropped their subscriptions (not to mention their donations) to the orchestra. In this case, bean-counting cost the Orchestra much more than it gained.

As a consultant for Westminster Choir College, I can attest to the continuing relationship between that choir, its students, faculty, and alumni and the New York Philharmonic. In Atlanta, Robert Shaw involved the choruses of the local black colleges, Morehouse and Spelman, in the Atlanta Symphony's recording of Boito's Mephistofele— even though that orchestra had its own chorus. In the process of making beautiful music, Shaw strengthened his orchestra's ties with its community.

Closing the archives

The Philadelphia Orchestra's second tragic mistake occurred when it closed its archives. This move effectively denies two of the Orchestra's valued constituencies— scholars and music students— access to the Orchestra's history and sounds that they might spread to the rest of the world.

With the archives closed, WRTI is the only way the public can hear the historic sounds produced by that ensemble under the pioneering batons of maestros Leopold Stokowski (1912-36) and Eugene Ormandy (1936-80).

In contrast, the New York Philharmonic, despite a 16% loss in endowment, successfully applied for a $2.4 million grant from the Leon Levy Foundation to digitize 1.3 million documents in its archives from 1943 to 1970. Its great recordings and performances from the past will be streamed on the Internet, thus enhancing the New York Philharmonic's international reputation. Access will be available to anyone, anywhere, at any time by 2012.

The New York Philharmonic respects the wise saying that "you cannot know where you are going until you know where you have been."

We're not talking about rocket science here. The tools for saving the Philadelphia Orchestra are readily at hand. So are the music lovers who would readily pitch in if given the opportunity instead of being shunted aside. All that's necessary, really, is the willingness to aply a little common sense.♦


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To read a reply by Victoria Skelly, click here.







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