The Philadelphia Sound is in Trouble

     The below the fold news of the day is in the musical world. The Philadelphia Orchestra, one one of the greatest vehicles in the world for the transmission of organized sound is considering a declaration of bankruptcy. Music performance has always been a precarious business, and in the mode of symphony orchestras, often a money loser. Orchestras have to fund large groups of musicians in such a way that they can maintain continuity and performance discipline, an achievement that creates a specific sound character. This takes hundreds of hours of shaping rehearsal and costs loads of money through salary and benefits. Additionally, the performance halls, conductors, score rental, concert artists, supporting personnel, concert performances, and tours to highlight that sound character to the recognition of the rest of the world is constant drain on endowments and charitable giving to maintain the whole enterprise. For lesser orchestras, the battle of the budget has always been a dicey affair.
     America has been blessed for most of the past 100 years with the presence of five universally recognized world class orchestras, known as the Big Five, that due to their prestige, recording capacity, loyal listeners, and huge endowments to be beyond the potential threats to an orchestra’s existence. The Five, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Boston Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, And Chicago Symphony Orchestra have each created a very unique character of sound that is recognizable through the generations and makes each an unmatched champion of symphonic excellence recognized the world over. Of special note has been what has been referred to as the Philadelphia Sound, a special warmth and vibrancy created from what has been a tradition of virtuoso talent at every position in the orchestra. The recognition of the sound was first developed under the baton of the legendary Leopold Stokowski, who pioneered with the Philadelphia Orchestra classical recording, establishing the sound with both record and radio performances that the public hungrily devoured. The face of classical music was locked in by Stowkowski as the Philadelphia sound, when the orchestra was selected to perform the musical score for Walt Disney’s Fantasia, and the great conductor even made an animated role in the film itself. As television progressively took over as a means of delivering performance to mass audiences, an equally legendary and public savvy conductor in Eugene Ormandy took over, and led the orchestra to unrivaled fame for the next 40 years. The orchestra was America’s cultural jewel that was selected in 1973 to be the first American cultural exchange with the People’s Republic of China, initiating the return of that great nation to global interaction after years in self imposed isolation.
     The recent course of the orchestra, however, has been considerably more dysfunctional, with a succession of poorly matched muscical directors following Ricardo Muti, Ormandy’s successor, and the ballooning costs of maintaining a huge musical organization with outsized expensive talent. The final blow has been the recent recession, with significant reductions in attendance of concerts as people in harsher times finding it more difficult to pay out the 40 to 125 dollar seat per performance required by the orchestra’s budget. The endowment, at 125 million dollars, barely half of what is felt to be required to secure orchestral economic independence, is not available for budgetary shortcomings, and the donors are not lining up to fill in the gap.
     The result is the heretofore unmentionable, bankruptcy, that threatens to take one of the great icons of American classical music performance, and make it just another band of musicians. The times are painful, that’s for sure, and that which is iconic in today’s world, must compete for the entertainment dollar with considerably less iconic figures. The answer lies were it always has, in both the musicians and the public determining the appropriate economic value of securing a unique musical sound for the eternal enjoyment of the performer and those who listen to the brilliant display of humanity’s creative genius. Here’s hoping that Philadelphia, and other cities supporting great vehicles for western civilization’s most evolved invention of the marriage of organized intellect and emotive expression, find a way out of the threatening waters.
     As a tip of the hat, Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, displaying the Philadelphia Sound:

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