Philadelphia Orchestra is most prominent to seek bankruptcy

Over the weekend the Philadelphia Orchestra decided to file for bankruptcy. Considered one of the best orchestras in the world, the organization has been facing declining ticket sales and rising operating costs for years.

Musicians are finding the decision hard to take.

On Saturday morning, outside the meeting where orchestra board members were expected to vote for bankruptcy, about 40 players gathered to express their opposition by performing in the lobby.

The Wister Quartet played Samuel Barber’s mournful “Adagio for Strings.”

“We feel this is a somber occasion, and we wanted pieces that were somber and emotional,” said orchestra violinst Davyd Booth.

The chairman of the board, Richard B. Worley, said that inside the meeting the tone was also emotional.

“This is a group of people who care deeply about the orchestra, making a decision they hoped they would never have to make,” Worley said.

In spite of last year’s emergency fundraising campaign that brought in $15 million — mostly from board members — the orchestra still projects a $14 million deficit, with no relief in sight. Citing the burden of pension and contractual payments for the players and an eroding endowment, the board decided it needs bankruptcy protection to restructure.

The decision did not surprise the board, the players, or even fans.

“We haven’t renewed for next year yet because we heard rumors about that. I don’t want them sitting on my money,” said Nora Schwartz, who has been a subscriber, along with her husband, for 30 years. “I mean, I’ll subscribe. I’m just waiting to hear what they do.”

What the orchestra has done is offer advance ticket sales with a guaranteed refund. Subscription money will be held in escrow. So far there are no canceled performances.

“The players association have been cooperative,” said persident Allison Vulgamore. “We’re going to continue our contract negotiations. We’re one family, one institution, one for Philadelphia.”

However, the players don’t quite see it that way.

“Bankruptcy is inherently an adversarial procedure,” said John Koen, chair of the player’s committee. “We have seen nothing that makes us comfortable to date about the prospect of being able to go in cooperatively with the association.”

The musicians had already offered a players’ contract that would reduce the orchestra’s costs by $25 million over the next three and a half years. It was not accepted. Koen says that offer, coupled with deferred liabilities, would be been enough to avoid bankruptcy.

He says the musicians have no immediate plans to strike.

In the past several years, many smaller and mid-sized orchestras have declared bankruptcy. According to the president of the American League of Orchestras, Jesse Rosen, two-thirds of them come back. The bankruptcy proceedings of the Philadelphia Orchestra are unprecedented for an organization of the Fabulous Philadelphians’ size and reputation.

“We’re confronting a culture and a time and technology that is shifting, priorities are changing,” said Rosen. “How to get ahead of that? How to adapt to that? If there’s a message to the rest of the field: it’s not enough to be really, really good.”

The Philadelphia Orchestra is being proactive. It created a website (www.philorchtoday.org) explaining the conditions and progress of the bankruptcy proceedings, and soon will be launching a major fundraising campaign. The new music director — Yannick Nezet-Sequin — is set to arrive next year.

For the players, they continue to do what they do best. As a plea for understanding from the audience, on Saturday night they struck a somber tone with an unscheduled excerpt from the Enigma Variations.

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