A Hoot! For Outlining Systemic Issues Facing the Philadelphia Orchestra.

I found Peter Dobrin’s commentary on the Philadelphia Orchestra in the Sunday, February 21 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer to be extremely informative. The piece examines some of the reasons that Dobrin believes the Orchestra has been losing audience members, and gives historical context for the Orchestra’s artistic successes and financial failures.

Dobrin positioned the Orchestra and its audience as experiencing a growing divide. He cited at least four Orchestra listeners, past and present, and uses them as the entry point to examine problems that audiences—and Dobrin—have with the Orchestra. And there’s a goodly litany: expensive tickets, less access to musicians, the unfriendliness of the Kimmel Center space, and more.

Dobrin also relies on official sources who admit the issue. Board chairman Richard B. Worley is quoted as saying, “We have to find ways to reengage the audience in Philadelphia.” Allison Vulgamore, the Orchestra’s president, is cited as seeing the need to build a “global brand” for the organization.

But the Orchestra already has a global brand. Notably absent from this piece are the voices of any artists, whose work creates that brand, although Dobrin recognizes the orchestra’s need for a music director—a public face—which it has lacked for some time.

While Dobrin acknowledges that musicians can’t offer encores and take ten weeks of vacation due to their union contract, he lays blame where it should be laid: at the feet of the board, which “has taken up the cry to slash the musicians’ contract.” For nonprofits, the board of directors is, ultimately, in charge. They determine strategic direction, they approve major hires, and they raise money. That is, if they’re doing their jobs well.

The Philadelphia Orchestra doesn’t appear to have an absentee board, according to this article. But they do appear administratively ineffectual and fiscally irresponsible. The Orchestra has a structural deficit of about $7 million, due in no small part to its move to the Kimmel Center. And these deficits can only exist with the approval of the board, digging a hole that, through fundraising, the board must climb back out of.

Largely, Dobrin concludes that the Orchestra—both its players and its board—has been inflexible and inadaptable, and that in addition to lacking a musical leader, it lacks leadership and direction overall.

Dobrin—who wears the classical music critic hat at the Inquirer while reporting on the Orchestra and writing commentaries such as these—does an excellent job of outlining systemic issues facing the organization while integrating the audience perspective, one not often seen in these type of articles.

– Nick Gilewicz

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