‘Hope for a path forward’: Philly POPS may not be over after all

The Philly Pops played the Harry Potter theme music at the announcement of Harry Potter: The Exhibition, an exhibit coming to the Franklin Institute in February, 2022, on November 3, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The Philly Pops played the Harry Potter theme music at the announcement of Harry Potter: The Exhibition, an exhibit coming to the Franklin Institute in February, 2022, on November 3, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Call it a Christmas miracle: after leaders of the Philly POPS announced in November that the orchestra could not stay financially solvent and would dissolve in July at the end of the current season, its holiday season was a success.

“Christmas as usual is very good, except this year it was fantastic,” said president Frank Giordano. “We sold every single ticket that we had.”

Giordano attended the opening holiday concert and witnessed the audience chant in unison: “Save the POPS.” Eventually, he found himself joining the chant.

“At first I thought they were sending me a message,” he recalled. “I wanted to hide under the seats. But then I realized it was about the Philly POPS. It’s always been about the Philly POPS.”

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December’s sold-out concerts drew so much enthusiasm from audiences and donors that Giordano and the board members decided the organization should live on.

On Wednesday the POPS announced a campaign to raise $2 million by July in order to cover its obligations and plan what a future POPS organization would look like.

“We are not out of the woods yet,” said Giordano. “This fundraising effort is ambitious and there are no guarantees, but the holiday season delivered us something we didn’t have before: hope for a path forward.”

Once the POPS announced in November its decision to dissolve, hints emerged that the POPS might continue to exist, including a commitment of a future holiday concert in 2023 and a contract with the musicians union that suggested the orchestra could still perform under a different organization.

Since it started in 1979 the POPS has almost entirely relied on ticket sales for revenue, which worked well for four decades. Giordano said the organization spent little effort going after contributed income because it did not need to. It did not have an endowment or a robust donor base.

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“We have to eat what we kill,” he said. “So we sell tickets and we put on programs.”

The pandemic pulled the rug out from under the organization: with no concerts, there was no revenue, and the POPS fell into debt.

Giordano did not see a way out until Christmas, when people came out of the woodwork to help. He said donors who had never contributed before began approaching the organization, that the staff redoubled their efforts after he made the announcement to fold, and the musicians union signed a two-year contract in anticipation of future seasons.

A revived POPS would have to look different. Giordano said he is approaching the city of Philadelphia for support, soliciting donors, and looking at ways to adjust programming to cut expenses.

“We have to put a laser focus on our expenses,” he said. “It might be nice to have this program, but if people aren’t buying tickets maybe I get that record and listen to it in my den.”

The POPS will finish out its already programmed 2022-2023 season, concluding in July, and has committed to a holiday concert program in 2023. Giordano described the fundraising campaign as “ambitious,” and that it’s too soon to start planning a possible 2023-2024 season.

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