The Night That Music Died: Philadelphia Orchestra Musicians Go On Strike Right Before Opening Night Performance

There seems to be a general misunderstanding at precisely what is going on here. So, in hopes to better explain the situation, I will unveil myself as a substantial supporter of The Philadelphia Orchestra and its musicians. I also testify to the fact I was in attendance tonight, and knew they were not going to perform as did most.

The written word is often terse, so I beg your pardon if this comes off at all as arrogant in this preamble.

Former Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Eugene Ormandy in 1966. (Photo by Erich Auerbach/Getty Images)

I jest not, when I write that The Philadelphia Orchestra is the greatest composition of musicians in the world. I have originally come from New York City and were season ticket holders along with the rest of my family to the New York Philharmonic under the tutelage of Maestro Kurt Masur. As an adult I have traveled to hear performances both domestically and abroad, most notably were those that took place at Carnegie Hall and Vienna, Berlin, the UK, Russia, Poland and The Czech Republic. And again I emphasize, that no other company (be it philharmonic or orchestra) comes close to the majesty and breadth of performance of The Philadelphia Orchestra. It is easy to see why they are the darlings of Carnegie Hall and one should really attend a concert there to hear them play in an acoustically sound hall.

There is this idea that music, and certain arts, especially fine or “classical” in this context are a pursuit of an idea more noble than other professions and are exempt from politics, positioning, drama, bargaining, and most other meta-financial duplicitous actions that an “everyday” job has or perhaps even one in government. There is corruption, misinformation, and people really do seek to destroy others' careers for financial gain. However, I am not saying this is the case here, but there have been some nagging continuing problems I was made aware of that have continued to haunt the Philadelphia Orchestra for quite some time. Let's start at the beginning. Philadelphia is far from an artist's dream. There is no art market here whatsoever, in fact it would not be at all far from the truth to say the arts simply do not exist within Philadelphia. Bold words — sure! However, the relationship of art and commerce is that of striking paucity in the city of “Brotherly Love.”

The puzzling construction of the 256 Million USD Kimmel Center was the beginning of the orchestra's woes. It was more akin to a vanity project or a tribute to languishing madness born of a desire to be relevant (like those architectural projects of the 1980s in NYC) rather than a building “to raise the soul”. Its construction was either an elaborate dupe or a blue-collar passion play. Everything on the building from its cold riveted girders with cores of pure Selenium, testify that the architect and acoustic consultant (Mr. Russell Johnson and Mr. Rafael Vinoly respectively) was either a certified genius or authentic wacko.

Perhaps, best surmised in the summary suit filed against the architect in November of 2005 accusing Mr. Viñoly of being “an architect who had a grand vision but was unable to convert that vision into reality, causing the owner to incur significant additional expenses to correct and overcome the architect’s errors and delays.”

I would also like to call to attention to two specific portents of things to come, which would not bode well for the Philadelphia Orchestra. Its nearest parallel I can draw is that of Shakespeare's “Julius Caesar” in a scene in which Casca explains to Cicero about a lion he met in front of the Capitol who “strutted but did not attack me”.
“Are not you moved when all the sway of earth
Shakes like a thing unfirm? O Cicero,
I have seen tempests when the scolding winds
Have rived the knotty oaks, and I have seen
Th' ambitious ocean swell and rage and foam
To be exalted with the threatening clouds,
But never till tonight, never till now,
Did I go through a tempest dropping fire.
Either there is a civil strife in heaven,
Or else the world, too saucy with the gods,
Incenses them to send destruction.”
In this aspect The Bard would have wrote: I have seen a concert hall, as a tomb for the world's finest orchestra in the world.

The roof of the Kimmel: “The architect never identified how the roof would be attached to the building. The general contractor had to hire someone to figure it out and they had to be paid.”
The project was completed in the summer of 2002, at a total of $180 million dollars, roughly $23 million over budget.

And a related blurb on a website:  At The Kimmel Center’s highest elevation sits the Dorrance H. Hamilton Garden Terrace. Named for the American heiress to the Campbell Soup empire, the terrace offers stunning views of the city and overlooks the entire Kimmel Center complex. However, the space that was intended to serve as an event space as well as a place for visitors to relax and take in Philadelphia’s views was actually uninhabitable. The barrel-vaulted roof created two problems that limited its appeal. First, the space had significant solar-control challenges. The roof made the Terrace space too hot to occupy during the day — with indoor temperatures often climbing to 100 F or more in the summer. Secondly, the roof deflected noise from events housed in the Terrace, interrupting other guests below. These issues were cause for concern for the building owner.

And lastly, a direct quote from Kimmel Center Vice President David Thiele, “Last year, we set the record up here — it was 125 degrees,” recalls Kimmel Center vice president of operations David Thiele. Thiele says the garden, before it got its climate-controlled enclosure, was not usable from May through October due to the heat in the upper reaches of the atrium, and could only be used at times when the orchestra was not performing since crowd noise from the garden could be heard in both the Perelman Theatre and Verizon Hall.

The audience size:  Other longtime supporters of the orchestra were also slow to support the project, though not necessarily for the same reasons. ''Our concern from Day 1 was never about whether we needed a new hall,'' said Rebecca W. Rimel, the president of the Pew Charitable Trusts in Philadelphia. ''Everybody agrees we do. The issue, and I'm sure I became boring on the subject, was what we could afford: if we build it, will they come, and can they pay for it?''

Indeed, despite turning responsibility for the project over to the center, the orchestra has had its financial ups and downs in recent years. It is running a $4 million deficit for the current fiscal year — caused partly by expenses involved in the move — on a budget of $35 million. But it has an endowment of $75 million and expects a net increase in revenue of $2 million a year with the new hall. This is to be accomplished, despite a drop of 400 in seating capacity, largely by raising ticket prices for the best seats.

The idea of The Kimmel Center being anything but the premiere stage of The Philadelphia Orchestra is pure balderdash! Every quote and every article put forth by either PR or intrepid journalists evince there was an ancillary vague apparition of a business plan outside that of the Philadelphia Orchestra. From personal experience I can tell you, it is one of the most uncomfortable theaters I have sat in (aside from those old Broadway theaters and perhaps Fenway Park — but at least they had a charm about them). The heat and poor air circulation, the dull and uninviting entranceway, the uncomfortable seats, the bad art in the coat check, and the cockroaches (one of which crawled into a lady's bag and made a nice home for itself. While another one of its compeers scouted out more of a terrestrial milieu under my seat, and ensuingly under my shoe whilst serenaded by jovial holiday melodies) all serve as at best distractions to the muted sound of a grandiose orchestra.

I recall it being touted primarily constructed for pop and rock music to generate positive cash flow, while it could also serve for an orchestra's performance. And yet the research says otherwise. One cannot have it both ways, and traditionally this idea of a “dynamic concert hall” is a recipe for disaster. Aesthetically it looks like a gray slab — A mausoleum is more inviting! In fact, the Annenbergs themselves were against its construction.

Here is one of my first reactions to the Kimmel Center. Before I had become overly familiar with the problems. Skip ahead to 6:28 if you are curious.

To further emphasize my statement about the utter lack of an artistic or cultural tableau in Philadelphia, two of America's (and verily Philadelphia's) artistic organizations have left around 2009, that being The Annenberg Foundation (moved from PA to CA) and the Pew Charitable Trusts have moved from Philadelphia to Washington DC. This year they have increased their donation to Philadelphia to 10 Million USD, but between 12 Pew Fellows, 36 projects and five cultural institutions isn't that much. In contrast in 2005, the Neubauer Family Foundation (administered by the Pew) alone endowed the orchestra 10 Million USD after its contract renegotiation and it was supposed to put that money towards artistic programs and to commission new works.$10-million-challenge-grant-to-the-philadelphia-orchestra

In April 2011, one year later, the organization files for bankruptcy for 116 Million USD, and they cannot use endowment money (specifically allocated for things like musician salaries) on operating expenses (paying staff and bills). It was the first (if memory serves me correct) Orchestra with such renown and size to file for bankruptcy — not in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania — but within the entirety of The United States. To call this worrying would be an understatement. As, there is a particular function that can be applied when a large arts organization with similar hierarchy to that of the Philadelphia Orchestra (and its subsidiary the Academy of Music) and that is to either suspend and/or reconcile/reappropriate otherwise restricted stipends, donations, and endowments, as well as suspend a pension plan. Hence, one can see why I take umbrage and tread carefully over the future outlook of the orchestra and its subsidiary and side with its corpus of musicians and not with President and CEO Allison Vulgamore (what some of the company [allegedly and] colloquially refer to as “Lord Voldermort”.) Of course I jest, the company is too professional to make petty nicknames for others, even though they may or may not be at odds with her, and surely I would not be possibly privy to such information. (There, that sounds like I am covered legally from defamation or libel). ;)

The motion for the filing for bankruptcy was one staunchly opposed and voted against by the musicians on the board, “The Philadelphia Orchestra musicians are mainly opposed to bankruptcy. Reportedly, all five of the musician board members voted against it, worrying about the orchestra's reputation, the potential loss of musicians and their pension funds.”

While a source on the board tells me that the vote came from a push by some on team Voldermort and an abstention to lead the board into the final vote for bankruptcy. A filing that took 15 months longer and 10 Million USD in legal and administrative fees associated with the filing.

There is little doubt that CEO and President Allison Vulgamore is a divisive figure. She is actually one of the few CEOs of an Orchestra that makes more than the Conductor and music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin . And her effort to push a particular narrative are not in vain; to avoid bad press during the infamous 2011 bankruptcy, Voldermort passed on a raise to mirror the 20% cuts the musicians had accepted.

However, given a 2013 990 filing for The Philadelphia Orchestra Association, we can see that she has been kind to herself. Now making closer to 1 Million USD per year and still out earning Maestro Nézet-Séguin.

"After a Nov. 22 Inquirer article about the orchestra's finances, the Philadelphia Orchestra Association reported that in addition to paying $519,319 in 2013 to Yannick Nézet-Séguin, it paid the IRS $227,950 on his behalf for taxes, plus $12,564 for primarily travel-related expenses."

Yet, I see readers already eagerly swallowing and blindly quoting “Cost of Living” calculators from, my hometown, New York City to Boston often vehemently and with the same oafish ineptitude and utter lack of understanding of the little science (if any) there is behind an arbitrary “Cost of Living” calculator selected from the first few search results Google yields. This same saddened mediocrity in the audience's anemic academic search, is made painfully clear by blanket statements which illustrate a complete lack of understanding of both The Philadelphia Orchestra Association's funding, revenue, income, and expenditure. And last, but certainly not least, the audience's failure to grasp an amalgam of ambiguous morphing narratives put forth by the organization and how it connects to the larger panorama of Philadelphia-en-masse.

The reason for the stated declaration of bankruptcy was stated quite clearly in the beginning as the high cost of rent for its home: The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. Combined with a few minor losses, it was never paid in full for a South Korea gig (or two) and it had lost money on Peter Nero's pops.  To which Mr. Nero lovingly referred to The Philadelphia Orchestra Association and its consultants (cronies) as "crooks" which landed him in the middle of a slander suit.

Truth be told I have never been a fan of any “pops” orchestra, until I had seen Philadelphia's this past summer: 

The aforementioned reasons for bankruptcy: Kimmel Center rent, and negative subscriber growth, are nothing more than bold faced lies! — The only reason the Philadelphia Orchestra Association filed for bankruptcy was it wanted to stop paying pensions. “When it came down to it shedding pension obligations was a main reason for filing for bankruptcy protection, the orchestra eventually acknowledge.” The unspoken conclusion after the premise of bankruptcy would allow the Philadelphia Orchestra to raid the endowment fund and revise the pension plan. To put it frankly: It's the oldest reason in existence — GREED!

Hence the only conclusion as to why The Pew Charitable Trusts, who has come to the rallying cry of the Philadelphia Orchestra in the past, has passed on giving money to the orchestra's “rehabilitation” plan.

Ironically these musicians are no different than the blue-collar workforce of Philadelphia itself. They have toiled away at a job for a long time, giving them very limited work experience in a variety of fields and a high area of expertise in a very select field. Almost identical to the story of “The Sinking Of Bethlehem Steel A hundred years ago one of the 500's legendary names was born. Its decline and ultimate death took nearly half that long. A FORTUNE autopsy.” by Carol J. Loomis, reporter associates Patricia Neering and Christopher Tkaczyk.

The musicians have taken pay cuts, forsaken concessions, worked despite initially being promised an unheard of one-year contract and a meager 3% raise, all so the Philadelphia Orchestra Association could deny them what is owed to them: a fruitful pension plan.

Financial expenditure towards unwarranted legal resources is never considered a wise move. This is basic lawyering 101: Settle — even if they're lying — it will cost more money to fight it. And yet this is not how the Philadelphia Orchestra chose to proceed. It, in this author's opinion, squandered money on consultants and bankruptcy proceedings.

“The yearly operating deficit had reached $14.5 million before the bankruptcy court filing. Financial figures in the reorganization plan project smaller shortfalls, still amounting to $9.5 million after the 2013-14 season. Even that depends on optimistic predictions of ticket sales, annual fund-raising and cost containment. More marketers and fund-raisers will be hired, orchestra officials said. A fiscal plan developed last year called for a balanced budget by 2018, but Allison Vulgamore, the orchestra’s president and chief executive, said unexpected extra spending meant that even more money would have to be raised to meet that target. As it is, a short-term fund-raising campaign to deal with the red ink has a goal of $60 million, with $36 million raised so far. Beyond that, the orchestra now needs to add $100 million to its relatively anemic endowment of $112 million over the next five years, Ms. Vulgamore said. The extra endowment money would produce the additional income needed.”

Here is another tip. In the business world, consultants are only there so your boss can pay you less, they get a one time percentage, and your boss can point to why you are earning less this year. “Sorry Todd, the consultant said your job is only worth a 2% pay increase. I cannot do anything about it. He actually said you were being paid too much. But I refused to cut your salary.”

The Philadelphia Orchestra and its musicians are in a precarious position. One that is going to alienate musicians from applying their trade within the halls of the Kimmel Center's crestfallen environs. One that sounds upon the once bottomless depths of the arts — the orchestra relies on a few generous donors to continue its operation, while the rest is shored up with trusts and grants. Either I be a pessimist or a realist, but it is only a matter of time before these funds too, are siphoned off by Voldermort and company, in its ineffective management style. It is no longer the 1980s.  Greed can only get an organization so far before it begins cannibalizing itself. The orchestra hangs wistfully so by mere casual relationships as thin as a spider's web, to its most important donors. I can evoke the striking similarity to Mr. Jonathan Edwards's spider dangling on a string. What little is left of the arts in Philadelphia is held by the Philadelphia Orchestra Association over the Pit of Hell. And Philadelphia's citizens look on in Eagles jerseys as they would a spider or some loathsome insect and abhors it. Their blue-collar wrath towards artists burns like fire.

The musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra went on strike over pay issues on Friday just before their season-opening gala concert. Credit Mark Makela for The New York Times
And as time goes on more and more of the substantial patrons and beneficent benefactors of the arts leave Philadelphia in droves. And while catastrophes allow more of the endowment to be siphoned off to operating costs and staff salaries, it is this callow author's fear it will eventually succumb to the same fate as that of the New York City Opera. Pressing F to pay respects.


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