he board of the 111-year-old Philadelphia Orchestra Saturday voted in favor of Chapter 11, sources say. Papers will be filed within hours or days in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania, asking for reorganization, according to orchestra leaders.
The move makes the Philadelphia Orchestra the first major U.S. ensemble known to file for bankruptcy, according to orchestra industry groups and veteran observers.
The orchestra’s concerts and business operations continue unfettered. In fact, orchestra leaders in the next few days expect to roll out a $214 million fund-raising campaign – their largest and riskiest ever – to save the orchestra from they say is the worse-case scenario of liquidation.
Citing the orchestra’s current “fantastic imbalance” between income and expenses and the scale of the rescue plan, board chairman Richard B. Worley on Friday said:
“It isn’t going to be easy. But I believe we can do it.”
Orchestra management has retained Brian Tierney, former publisher and CEO of now-defunct Philadelphia Media Holdings LLC, former owner of The Inquirer, to handle its public relations; and, as bankruptcy consultant, Tierney’s successor, Joseph Bondi, who was interim CEO of the former media company.
Musicians strongly opposed the filing of any category of bankruptcy, which could jeopardize funding to their pensions, and they staged a showy (if genteel) objection Saturday. As orchestra board members filed into the ground-floor entrances to 1701 Market Street and up to the offices of law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, a string quartet serenaded them with Schubert and Mozart.
Musicians handed them leaflets encouraging a “no” vote.
The crowd of about 60 orchestra members and retirees were repeatedly asked to leave by guards, but the music continued. Security guards told musicians that police were on their way, but the briefly tense climax dissolved. No police arrived, and the play-in ended as the board meeting began.
Management has weighed bankruptcy for more than a year after deciding it no longer wanted to participate in the musicians’ current defined-benefit pension fund. No one was forcing a sudden withdrawal from the plan, which would trigger a payment of about $25 million, but it is an obligation of about $3 million annually which leadership believes it can shed in bankruptcy proceedings, along with other contractual obligations it claims will save it more than $40 million over five years.
Among the relationships likely to be reconsidered under the jurisdiction of bankruptcy court is the orchestra’s lease agreement with the Kimmel Center, which owns the orchestra’s primary venue, Verizon Hall.
Orchestra leaders Friday said they have recently asked for a reduction in rent, which the orchestra pays as part of a deal in which the Kimmel programs and retains income from shows in the Academy of Music.
The orchestra’s cash position has steadily worsened in recent months, management says. Even after applying a special $8 million raised in emergency philanthropy the orchestra believed could get it through this season, the group is now projecting a $5 million deficit, according to chief financial officer Mario Mestichelli.
At least one of several major Philadelphia philanthropies had encouraged the bankruptcy solution for several years, suggesting that support hinged on reorganization.
Another major philanthropist and orchestra board member had opposed the move, but has reconsidered.
“I was not in favor of it, but I don’t see any other solution at this point. We’re running out of money,” said Carole Haas Gravagno (whose husband, Emilio Gravagno, is an orchestra retiree). “There are people in the community who want to help this process, and we’re not not going to let them down.”
Initial listener reaction was less enthusiastic – especially given the suggestion by the musicians’ union that a bankruptcy filing could lead to players taking auditions for other ensembles.
“I am deeply saddened by the current situation,” emailed Terry Champion, who was in the audience Thursday night when musicians leafletted the hall with fliers detailing their position. “If we lose individuals like [oboist Richard] Woodhams, [clarinetist Ricardo] Morales, [cellist Efe Baltacigil] and [violinist] Juliette Kang, I shall think twice about renewing my subscription. I mean, what would be the point? We are not just talking about orchestral morale but audience morale.”
“Let’s face it. There are very few things left in Philadelphia that are still world class. The Philadelphia Orchestra tops the list,” wrote Stuart E. Hirsch in a note to Worley and CEO Allison B. Vulgamore. “In my opinion, the orchestra members, past and present, did their job. They performed music at the highest level and represented the city and country as the Fabulous Philadelphians for well more than a century. We need a board that can do the same. With the resources and endowment, there should be no excuse for bankruptcy. We need creative ideas to preserve this treasure.”
Orchestra leaders say that’s just what they’ve done. But several bankruptcy and charity lawyers said they were puzzled by an organization entering bankruptcy court with assets ($140 million in endowment) more than triple liabilities.
If the players’ union, the American Federation of Musicians, opposes the bankruptcy, they might succeed in blocking it.
“They may have a decent argument that the filing is not in good faith if the orchestra does not seem to be in bankruptcy,” wrote David Skeel, a University of Pennsylvania Law school professor, in an email. “There’s no requirement that a debtor be insolvent, but if the debtor (the orchestra) clearly is solvent, the court might be persuaded that the case should be dismissed as not having been filed in good faith.”
It is management’s position that the $140 million in orchestra and Academy of Music endowment is donor-restricted, earmarked to remain forever in endowment, and is therefore untouchable.
Others weren’t so sure.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever had a case in which a group with these kinds of assets has come in with anything like these kinds of resources and claimed poverty and gotten away with it,” said one of the musicians’ lawyers, who asked that his name not be used.
But a bankruptcy court has wide latitude in coming up with plans to emerge from reorganization, says Marie T. Reilly, associate dean for Academic Affairs and law professor at Penn State, who grew up listening to Philadelphia Orchestra recordings.
“The beauty of Chapter 11, what makes it so interesting, is that the lawyers and all of the parties custom-make a solution,” she said. “It’s like commissioning a piece of music. You make a symphony that is appropriate for this group of people.”
The stated motivation for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s vote for bankruptcy is that leaders believe reorganization gives them a chance to shed a monetary obligation to the pension fund and other contractual arrangements they cannot afford.
That doesn’t mean short-term finances are not equally challenging.
The orchestra had raised more than $15 million meant to cover deficits for this season and last, but even so it is forecasting a sizable shortfall: a $5 million deficit on a $46 million budget.
“Did I say we need cash? We need cash,” chief executive officer Allison B. Vulgamore said Friday.
“This is not a place any of us wanted to get to,” said Board Chairman Richard B. Worley. But, he said, “this is a chance, an urgent chance, to save this great treasure at a time in its artistic and executive leadership when it has the best chance that it’s had in a long time to really turn around.”
The orchestra figures it needs to raise about $160 million – a good portion of it quickly:
$12 million by November.
About $60 million (including the aforementioned $12 million) by August 2014 for working capital, funding the deficits, the cost of bankruptcy, and new initiatives in the strategic plan.
$100 million in new endowment.
Additionally, the orchestra needs to increase its annual fund-raising about 65 percent by 2016, from $9.3 million to $15.3 million.
The idea is to cover expected deficits over the next several years with special fund-raising while endowment pledges come in (incrementally, as they normally do in such campaigns) and begin to produce income.
Among relationships likely to be reconsidered under the jurisdiction of Bankruptcy Court is the orchestra’s lease with the Kimmel Center, which owns the orchestra’s primary venue, Verizon Hall. Orchestra leaders said Friday that they recently had asked for a reduction in rent, which the orchestra pays as part of a deal in which the Kimmel programs and retains income from shows in the Academy of Music, still owned by the orchestra.
Whatever the terms of a new contract with musicians, Vulgamore said, she wants Philadelphia to remain a destination orchestra for musicians.
But, she said, “I think a destination orchestra isn’t singularly about pay. I think it’s about what happens when you’re here, how you feel about the environment you’re working in, and who is around you and what musically you’re doing. We need to have as much pay as we can, but we need to frankly have a relationship with the art that is rewarding beyond pay.”
Whether the orchestra can succeed in its most ambitious fund-raising effort to date – the previous campaign sought $125 million and ended in 2008 – is uncertain.
The scale of the effort is large at a time when the orchestra would be competing with other groups for many of the same donors. The orchestra also is so far lacking the participation of the city’s largest foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, whose cash and vote of confidence are typically part of large civic efforts such as this.
When Worley talks to almost any potential donor, he said, “somewhere in the conversation . . . you hear the notion that this is a lot of money and it’s too much money unless it is for a plan that will bring this orchestra to financial stability.”
A lot will depend on how much excitement the orchestra can create around the arrival of a new music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, a year from this fall, and the response to details of a new strategic plan the orchestra has yet to make fully public.
The plan is a mix of new ambition and the repackaging of previously tried ideas.
It is, Vulgamore said, an expression of the belief that “orchestral music is alive and well, and we have a tremendous responsibility to keep it a great international orchestra with the finest players. That is what the plan is about. That means that excellence is expensive.”
Among the ideas being developed are the orchestra’s return to the Academy of Music for a certain number of dates, concert operas, virtual program notes that help listeners through concerts in real time, a potential new residency in China, and a series at Longwood Gardens.
The aim is to reverse a disturbing dive in attendance: In 1989 the orchestra played for about 255,000 listeners in its main subscription series. Today the total is about 150,000.
“You can’t support a great orchestra with 150,000 attendees and the kind of contributed revenue that we get,” Worley said. “The only way to save this orchestra is to turn around the trends. We’ve really been eating our seed corn in the last few years, and we’re running out of it.”
Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or email@example.com.
He blogs at www.philly.com/ philly/blogs/artswatch
The world’s greatest orchestrasThe votes are in. Time to celebrate the best of the bestIt’s a classical title showdown! Swapping gloves for glissandi and punches for prestos, players from around the globe square up for the hotly contested spot of World’s Best Symphony Orchestra.
Ranking the heavy hitters is by no means an easy task, but Gramophone has manfully taken the job in hand. Our panel of leading music critics comprised: Rob Cowan, James Inverne, James Jolly (all from Gramophone, UK), Alex Ross (the New Yorker, US), Mark Swed (Los Angeles Times, US), Wilhelm Sinkovicz (Die Presse, Austria), Renaud Machart (Le Monde, France), Manuel Brug (Die Welt, Germany), Thiemo Wind (De Telegraaf, the Netherlands), Zhou Yingjuan (editor, Gramophone China) and Soyeon Nam (editor, Gramophone Korea).
To compare like with like, we have limited ourselves to comparing modern romantic orchestras rather than period bands, but apart from that distinction it’s a completely open field. The panel have considered the question from all angles – judging concert performances as well as recording output, contributions to local and national communities and the ability to maintain iconic status in an increasingly competitive contemporary climate.
The results have proven fascinating and will no doubt be as controversial as the question itself. But if nothing else, the task gives us all a chance to celebrate the forerunners of exciting, cutting-edge music-making. And that can’t be a bad thing…
The best of the rest…
We start our countdown from 20th to 11th place
20 Czech Philharmonic
Under current chief conductor Zdenek Mácal, one of the most characterful of orchestras has embarked upon recording projects that include the complete symphonies of Dvorák, Mahler, Tchaikovsky and Brahms. Eliahu Inbal is to take over as chief conductor from 2009.
19 Saito Kinen Orchestra
Formed by Seiji Ozawa in 1984 in honour of Hideo Saito (founder of the Toho Gakuen School of Music), this exciting orchestra is resident ensemble of the annual Saito Kinen Festival Matsumoto in the Japanese Alps, and has made a number of acclaimed recordings for Philips and Sony.
18 Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Since Peter Gelb took over as its general manager in 2006, the Met has rarely been out of the spotlight. But the roster of crowd-pleasing opera stars is apt to eclipse the great work done by the orchestra. Under James Levine, the players have toured in concert since 1991 and each year perform a subscription series at Carnegie Hall.
17 Leipzig Gewandhaus
Boasting a roster of former music directors including Felix Mendelssohn and Wilhelm Furtwängler, the Gewandhaus orchestra has been presided over by Riccardo Chailly since 2005, and under his leadership has released recordings of Mendelssohn, Brahms and Schumann symphonies. They carry their sense of heritage in everything they play.
16 St Petersburg Philharmonic
Russia’s oldest symphony orchestra celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2007. Under the direction of Yuri Temirkanov, who has been at the helm since 1988, this incredibly active orchestra toured Japan, Korea, Taiwan and China in October and November.
15 Russian National Orchestra
Since its founding in 1990 by music director Mikhail Pletnev, the orchestra has achieved considerable and consistent critical acclaim for its concerts and more than 60 recordings for DG and Pentatone. The RNO will launch its own annual festival in 2009.
14 Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra
Thanks to the vision of artistic director Valery Gergiev, the orchestra of the Mariinsky (formally Kirov) in St Petersburg has gone from strength to strength, with recordings on Philips covering much of the core Russian ballet and opera repertoire.
13 San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
Under the precise direction of Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony has developed a beautifully polished, often theatrical sound. The orchestra’s own SFS Media label, launched in 2001, has thus far focused on a lauded Mahler symphony set and orchestral song-cycles.
12 New York Philharmonic
The USA’s oldest active orchestra is still going strong, and earlier this year, in an effort to form artistic ties with one of the world’s most politically isolated nations, made history by performing in Pyongyang, North Korea. Young and dynamic conductor Alan Gilbert should ensure the orchestra’s continued vibrancy when he takes over as music director in 2009.
11 Boston Symphony Orchestra
A classy and sophisticated orchestra, which each year provides the backbone for one of the world’s best summer festivals – Tanglewood. Its recording of Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs under current music director James Levine won the 2008 Grammy Award for Best Classical Vocal Recording.
10 Dresden Staatskapelle
This is one of the very few orchestras with its own distinctive sound. By which I mean a sound that is, perhaps more than with any other orchestra, immediately recognisable. This has to do with the orchestra’s heritage, somewhat with the fact that it was isolated during the Cold War, and also with the players’ awareness of this sound and their own wish to preserve it. And so the players pass on the knowledge of how to produce it to their pupils, who often succeed them in the orchestra.
I admit, my name is Nikolaj Znaider and I’m an addict. I’m addicted to this orchestra, and to the intoxicating, central European sound it creates today and that can be heard even on those old recordings under Wilhelm Furtwängler from the 1940s and ’50s. It’s an orchestral sound that almost no longer exists elsewhere. It’s hard to describe, because to do that one must become subjective, but I would aesthetically define it as a dark, wooden quality.
Less subjectively, the Dresden players play music the way I believe it should be played – with what is invariably called “a chamber-music quality”. That of course simply means actively listening to what goes on around you and relating what you do to that. With certain orchestras, definitely this one, you sense that every musician takes responsibility not just for their own part but for the music as a whole.
As I grow and develop, increasingly I have a need for that act of creating something that does not yet exist – something that must be brought into the physical world from the metaphysical. To do that it’s not enough to play my solo violin part; it is vital to play with a great conductor and a great orchestra, with people who have musical vision and share that need to express collectively something in the music.
So I play with the Staatskapelle whenever I can. Recently I have started sitting in the orchestra for a concert’s second half. Last year we played some dates in Dresden and each time after the interval I sat with them to play Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. To be in the midst of this group of people thinking and breathing as one, while still acting as individuals taking responsibility for their part in the whole, is the ideal. I can’t imagine any list of the world’s great orchestras without the Dresden Staatskapelle at or near the top.
Violinist Nikolaj Znaider returns to conduct and play with the Staatskapelle in January 2009, for concerts marking Mendelssohn’s 200th anniversary
9 Budapest Festival Orchestra
For an orchestra that is only celebrating its 25th birthday this year, the BFO has risen to the top with extraordinary speed. But then it’s an extraordinary set-up – a group of superb musicians who play with a passion and commitment that beggars belief. The combination of Iván Fischer, the orchestra’s founder and music director ever since, and these fine players has elevated music-making to a level that astonishes and delights with equal measure. This is not an ensemble in which the players fall into an easy routine – they know that their reputation relies on their continuing to deliver at white heat at every performance. Watching the BFO rehearse or record is like glimpsing chamber-music-making on a big scale, each player deeply concerned about his or her contribution to the whole. And in Fischer they have not a dominant ego, but a facilitator of remarkable sensitivity.
James Jolly is editor-in-chief of Gramophone
8 Los Angeles Philharmonic
I tend to think of a great orchestra as either one that has such a distinctive sonic personality that it sets itself apart, or one that is defined as special by the repertoire it plays. With Los Angeles, it’s probably the latter that you think about. In his years at the helm, Esa-Pekka Salonen has vastly broadened the scope of what the orchestra plays. You are almost as likely to hear them play a work by Steven Stucky as one by Beethoven.
So by now the LA Philharmonic is famous for its excursions into contemporary music. That gives them the ability to handle the technical demands of the repertoire in an important way. It also means that they’re very open to new thoughts and ideas.
So each conductor coming to that orchestra can place his or her individual stamp on the music, as opposed to a default interpretation that the orchestra provides. If, for instance, you go to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in a Brahms symphony, it’s more than likely that you’ll get the Vienna Philharmonic’s performance of that Brahms symphony. It’s not like that with LA.
Their new hall is also a vital factor in their success. You can’t be a truly great orchestra unless you have a hall that gives you an environment in which to be unique, either in the repertoire that you choose to play or through the kind of sound you create. That hall may not be to everyone’s taste, but in point of fact Disney Hall has given this orchestra a real chance to bloom. They can do things they couldn’t do before because they were limited in terms of stage space – and they can do new things sonically because the hall is much more conducive to a wider sonic palette.
I expect Gustavo Dudamel’s arrival as chief conductor to continue the good times, and his upbringing in Venezuela will help him. He’ll probably introduce concepts he’s grown up with, trying to make music ever more a part of the community. And he can help the orchestra make a connection with Los Angeles’ large Hispanic population, a new audience that maybe hasn’t yet been fully reached out to.
Leonard Slatkin was principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra between 2005 and 2007
7 Cleveland Orchestra
In refinement of tone, impeccable intonation, ensemble tautness and the sheer warmth of sound, the Cleveland Orchestra is the Concertgebouw and Vienna Philharmonic practically rolled into one.America’s so-called European orchestra, it was made great by George Szell, an Old World autocrat, in the years following Second World War. No American-born music director before or after Szell moved to Cleveland. Most of the major commissions these days come from overseas. At the moment, Cleveland is a better place to find out what Oliver Knussen, Matthias Pintscher or the young Austrian Johannes Maria Staud are up to than is New York.
But nothing, in fact, could be more American than Cleveland’s orchestra. That it remains one of the world’s best in an economically struggling Midwestern city is the American can-do spirit in operation. Franz Welser-Möst, who is in his fifth season as music director, has his detractors. They call for a return to 20th-century predictability. Welser-Möst, instead, is moving Cleveland into the 21st century through his questing interpretations and inventive programmes. Nearly every week brings something current or a novelty from the past to the elegant and intimate Severance Hall. Though an Austrian, Welser-Möst has demonstrated a restless curiosity about American music, including the maverick tradition in the west, which is mostly ignored east of the Mississippi.
Even Welser-Möst’s detractors usually admit that his orchestra continues regularly to produce its trademark sound that’s hard not to love. The orchestra tours extensively and plays several weeks
a season in Miami, helping out in Florida’s orchestra-deficient capital. And Welser-Möst now has a contract running through to 2018, which allows him the luxury of making long-term plans, assuring a stability not to be found elsewhere in the orchestral world.
Mark Swed is chief music critic for the LA Times
6 Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Here is an orchestra that is not only very brilliant – it doesn’t have any weaknesses at all. They are enormously spontaneous and emotional performers, playing every concert like it could be their last. They give everything, more than a hundred per cent.
But the orchestra has a secret to its success.
As a radio orchestra, all of its concerts are recorded. Therefore all the players are at once accustomed to the idea that they must be technically perfect and unfazed by the presence of microphones – so, with the playing quality almost a given, they also concentrate on interesting and involved interpretation. They are trained to do both, which yields enormous results. In addition, they play a lot of contemporary music. That keeps them sharp; their sight-reading, for instance, is phenomenal. For me, as a conductor, it’s like driving a Rolls Royce. The orchestra can cope with everything.
Mariss Jansons is chief conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
5 Chicago Symphony Orchestra
I have been playing with the Chicago Symphony for such a long time that I feel like a member of the family. When I performed with them for the first time I was 26 years old and they couldn’t have been nicer – they are just adorable people. As a student I had often heard them at Carnegie Hall under Solti, so playing a Liszt concerto with him conducting was like a fantasy come true.
But I have to say that each time I play with them it’s special. Last year I did a Brahms concerto under Haitink, and that was amazing. I am still at the point where I have a kind of thrill when I get to go on stage with a great orchestra, and they are incredibly talented, a very exciting group of players. I don’t think I have ever heard more brilliant Strauss and Mahler than I have heard in Chicago.
As an orchestra they have this gleaming brass sound that I think they are justly famous for. Some people criticise them for failing to balance that incredible brilliance, but I believe they are an orchestra that responds to what you ask them to do. When Solti was conducting them, he encouraged that brilliant sound, whereas when I heard them under Barenboim they sounded like a fantastically rich and deep European orchestra, so I think they are capable of pretty much anything. Chicago, like all great orchestras, have a kind of pride in themselves, regardless of who is on the podium, and this is an important element in maintaining a high standard.
Pianist Emanuel Ax will next play with the Chicago Symphony in April 2010
4 London Symphony Orchestra
The LSO stands out from all the orchestras I’ve worked with because of its totally unique work ethic. The players are always “on”, whether it’s 9am or 9pm, whether they’ve been working flat-out all week or whether they’ve just come back from their holiday. You start work and they’ll immediately light up in a way I’ve never experienced anywhere else.
The LSO style is well known – there’s snappiness and vitality, a precision and a drive, and they give their all, especially when it comes to volume. Where does it come from? Well, they certainly have extraordinary versatility: they can play anything! But there’s an attitude that goes with that – they have the same openness to every project that comes their way. They have the vocabulary to be true to every style of sound that’s required. They’re constantly adapting.
They also benefit from great management, people who share with the musicians a curiosity about new things, and don’t shy away from new challenges. And as the players are involved in many of the decision-making processes, they choose to work with people who share their philosophy. They’re scrappers too – they love putting things together and the range of music-making they tackle is colossal! You always get the sense that they’re there because they want to be – there’s never any sense of grind. And that contributes to the immediacy of the experience.
Marin Alsop regularly guest-conducts the LSO
3 Vienna Philharmonic
It must be admitted that the Vienna Philharmonic, for all its deserved fame, does not always sound like the best orchestra in the world. It plays too many concerts, for one thing, and too many of those are with conductors unable or unwilling to bring the best out of the players. Sometimes, as when Valery Gergiev comes to visit, they can even sound brutal, like a second-rate symphony band. Sometimes the playing sounds boring, as long as maestri such as Daniel Harding address the orchestra’s possibilities without any apparent artistic concept.
But – and it’s a very big but – when the right conductor is before those players, it is a different matter entirely. When cultivated and inspiring interpreters such as Christian Thielemann, Franz Welser-Möst or the fabulous Bertrand de Billy (in opera as well as in concert) work with a sense of its deep well of musicality, the Vienna Philharmonic can sound like no other orchestra.
As it benefits from its daily activities in the opera house, the orchestra is able to form the smoothest transitions, the finest modulations of sound. That makes it incomparable, at least from time to time – whenever it exercises its option to be so.
Wilhelm Sinkovicz is the classical music critic for Die Presse
2 Berlin Philharmonic
Contrary to popular mythology, I don’t think there is any such thing as a recognisable orchestral sound. However, you can recognise an orchestra by its way of playing. I have surprised myself on a number of occasions, turning on the radio in the car or in the kitchen, hearing an orchestra mid-flight and immediately knowing that it’s us. It has to do with the priorities of the players – we Berlin Phil musicians play passionately and emotionally, throwing ourselves gung-ho into the music – and that is evident even across the airwaves.
I have been a member of the orchestra for 23 years under three music directors (Herbert von Karajan, Claudio Abbado and Simon Rattle), and during that time we have changed and developed. Indeed, it would be a sad case if we had failed to do so. I think any institution that wears its traditions proudly on its chest must necessarily be aware that tradition is a living process. A performing tradition is not to be mummified, like a fly in a piece of amber or an exhibit behind glass in a museum, but instead is something that lives. By definition, it must evolve and adapt.
One of the principal points we addressed when considering where to take the orchestra after Abbado was whether we wanted to move forward into the 21st century, or back into the past. Abbado had already done the pioneering work. When he took on the job after Karajan he was stepping into immensely big shoes, but he managed to achieve a pretty radical revolution, which influenced orchestras throughout the world. He would take a fairly traditional programme and present it in a certain way, causing the audience to sit up, take notice and really clean out their ears. And within a fairly short space of time other orchestras were attempting more daring programmes, too – as if they had simply been waiting for someone to take the lead. Now that we have Simon Rattle, we do perform a greater number of contemporary works. Many musicians around the world haven’t quite come to terms even with the 20th century yet, but Simon is a conductor for the 21st century.
As a musician, if I had been reduced to playing nothing but Brahms and Beethoven – magnificent works as they are – that would be a very thin diet. I have enjoyed the journey and adventure with this orchestra immensely because my musical education has benefited consistently year on year by pushing the envelope. It’s a tremendously rewarding and uplifting working environment – not the kind of high-pressure situation where you worry every day whether you will be good enough. I certainly don’t feel there is a Damoclean sword over my head, but it’s none the less a challenging environment. In meeting these challenges we orchestral musicians experience greater satisfaction and are able to raise the bar again – but it does require total commitment from every single player.
Fergus McWilliam is a horn player for the Berlin Philharmonic
1 Royal Concertgebouw
Of course I knew the Royal Concertgebouw from records long before I ever conducted them. I loved the early Mengelberg recordings and later those with Bernard Haitink. Standing on the podium before the musicians, I always appreciate just how special they are. Their approach to music-making goes far beyond questions of sound; it is so profound, so deep, so noble. They create with you a unique atmosphere, they make you feel that you have entered a very special world.
They have an understanding of each composer like an actor understands his roles – they interpret, and shift into the appropriate character. It comes from a hunger to comprehend what is behind the notes. Notes are after all only signs, and if you only follow the signs they won’t get you there. Yet very few orchestras in the world have that quality of knowing the depth and the character of the music. We have many technically good orchestras these days. But this musicial intelligence, allied to the orchestra’s very personal sound, makes the Concertgebouw stand out.
In rehearsals the players talk with you on a fascinating level about interpretation. So often rehearsals can be simply about organisation: you are expected to come in and say only, “Here a little louder, here a little softer,” which is all very primitive. The Concertgebouw players expect something extra from you, an interesting interpretation, illuminating ideas, a fantasy. If you offer them that, they play with a passion as though for a new piece rather than a work they have played a million times before. This is what the players want – that higher level, when you forget about the notes and play the image, the idea.
All the truly great orchestras boast an individual sound, which is far from the norm today. When I took over the Concertgebouw, journalists asked me what I would change. I said, “Nothing for the moment. It’s my task to find out their special qualities and preserve them. Then, if through a natural process my own individuality adds something – and theirs to me – that will be fine.” I would never set out to change the Concertgebouw. We continue to learn together.
Mariss Jansons is chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw
Five out of five
Five great recent recordings to best experience Gramophone’s top five orchestras
Royal Concertgebouw Orch / Mariss Jansons
R Strauss An Alpine Symphony. Don Juan
RCO Live RCO08006 (A/08)
Elegant and beautifully controlled playing from the great Dutch ensemble: this is a journey that shows off Jansons’s unrivalled ear for orchestral colour
BPO / Simon Rattle
Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem
EMI 365393-2 (5/07)
A recording in great Berlin Brahms tradition – recognisably BPO, and also very Simon Rattle!
VPO / Georges Prêtre
“New Year’s Day Concert 2008”
Decca 478 0034
No orchestra plays this music like the VPO – and shows it such respect. This year Prêtre brought a little Gallic sheen as well
LSO / Valery Gergiev
Mahler Symphony No 6
LSO Live LSO0661 (6/08)
A staggering memento of the new LSO/Gergiev partnership and a vivid reminder of the orchestra that always gives 100 per cent
Chicago SO / Bernard Haitink
Shostakovich Symphony No 4
CSO Resound CSOR901 814 (11/08)
The great Chicago orchestra responds to Haitink with playing of frightening commitment and power
São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra
The orchestra performs more than 130 concerts each season, bringing to Brazil around 60 guest musicians of the calibre of Kurt Masur, Krzysztof Penderecki and Emmanuel Pahud. Directed by John Neschling since 1997, the orchestra has undergone something of a transformation in the last 10 years – under his leadership its subscription series and educational programmes have flourished, as has a fruitful recording partnership with BIS.
China Philharmonic Orchestra
In some ways, the China Philharmonic is something of a baby, in others, a wise old sage – it was established only in May 2000, but from the ashes of the old China Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra. Its artistic director, Long Yu, is one of the country’s foremost conductors and a very fine technician who arguably brought new standards of orchestral playing to China. As the country’s interest in classical music surges, so does the China Phil.
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic
When Vasily Petrenko became the orchestra’s principal conductor in 2006, he became the youngest person to hold the position in its 165-year history. With his appointment, an ensemble with a distinguished pedigree of principal conductors – including Sir Charles Hallé, Sir Henry Wood and Sir Malcolm Sargent – cemented its commitment to promoting classical music as a valid art form for contemporary audiences.
A vehicle for Arturo Toscanini, the NBC radio network’s house orchestra was established in 1937 by recruiting prominent musicians from around the country. Its weekly concert broadcasts, which continued until 1954, were supplemented by tours of South America in 1940 and the USA in 1950. A comprehensive recorded legacy – on both CD and DVD – is available from RCA. Many of the orchestra’s musicians went on to form Symphony of the Air under Leopold Stokowski.
Stokowski also succeeded in propelling the Philadelphia Orchestra to international eminence as its principal conductor from 1912 to 1938. But it was under the orchestra’s next principal, Eugene Ormandy, that many of its most celebrated recordings were made. Ormandy remained as music director for 44 years, and in a diplomatic coup he conducted the orchestra in Beijing in 1973 – the first time an American orchestra had toured China.
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
Under its founder Ernest Ansermet, this orchestra achieved special prominence for almost 50 years. After the Second World War it achieved particular acclaim through a long-term association with Decca, issuing a number of memorable recordings, including much 20th-century repertoire. During the ‘60s, in his final years at the orchestra’s helm, Ansermet concentrated on recording the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms.
Since the 1950s, the concept of the “Big Five” American orchestras has held sway and influenced ticket buyers to attend what are ostensibly the most reliably consistent performances. Here in New York, the grouping is especially significant: Each of these orchestras appears in town every year. The time is right for a radical realignment — and a revamped “Big Five” is in order.
IN: THE PITTSBURGH SYMPHONY
Mariss Jansons accomplished miracles as an orchestra builder. The group was very good under William Steinberg in the 1950s and even survived the Lorin Maazel years, but Mr. Jansons, son of the Latvian conductor Arvid Jansons, brought with him a solid sense of discipline and an incredibly detailed approach to the maximizing of inner voices. Right now, it is the cleanest, crispest ensemble in America. The wind section alone is worth the price of admission. Tonight the Pittsburgh Symphony appears at Carnegie Hall, so you can judge for yourself.
But music director Mr. Jansons recently announced his intention to move back to Europe permanently, taking over not one, but two of the world’s finest ensembles, and leaving Heinz Hall forever.
Now the powers that be have spent their money not on a new music director but rather on spin doctors. The new paradigm is for the orchestra to be led by Sir Andrew Davis, Yan Pascal Tortelier, and Marek Janowski. And apparently, the twain shall never meet. The plan is for each conductor to instill his own ethnicity into the mix and for the public to swoon with delight at the innovation. The board had better be prepared to authorize a lot of expensive rehearsal time.
OUT: THE PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA
Despite having been so good for so long, the Philadelphia Orchestra has quite recently lost its edge. After enjoying the heralded reigns of Stokowski, Ormandy, Muti and Sawallisch, all of whom preserved that patented “fabulous Philadelphians” sound, the players were extremely upset by management’s decision, taken unilaterally and without consultation, to hire Christoph Eschenbach. That signature sound is now unraveling at the seams.
In 2004 at Carnegie Hall, Mr. Eschenbach milked the last movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 shamelessly — he had undoubtedly practiced each preening gesture in front of a mirror. The “I’ll Be Seeing You” theme was drawn out into an almost unrecognizable length of pulled taffy: Even Liberace performed it less histrionically. He does look good up there — like Yul Brynner in “Once More With Feeling” — but, isn’t it the sound that counts? Give me the dumpy Mr. Ormandy any day.
But there is hope: Mr. Eschenbach recently announced that he will not seek a contract extension after 2008.
IN: THE CINCINNATI SYMPHONY
The demographic of James Levine’s hometown is largely Germanic and they are the proud boosters of the oldest symphony hall in America. A fine ensemble under Schippers, Gielen, and Lopez-Cobos, the orchestra has truly blossomed under the son of another world-class conductor. Paavo Jarvi has proven to be the finest of his generation, a sensitive and result-oriented maestro. Nurtured in a great tradition since birth but still independent enough to challenge it, Mr. Jarvi has made his mark decisively and with great panache. The orchestra has never sounded better and presents interesting and varied programming on a regular basis.
OUT: THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA
The finest orchestra in America in the 1960s, with the sainted George Szell on the podium, occupied Severance Hall. The group also had a pretty good assistant conductor named Jimmy Levine. It later survived Maestro Maazel’s rather sloppy legacy and tightened up once again under the iron hand of Christoph von Dohnanyi. Everything seemed to be going its way, until its board made a decision that can only be described as screwy.
Austrian Franz Welser-Moest had a terrible reputation when chosen to take over. Crucified by the British press — they quickly dubbed him “Frankly Worst Than Most” — he was hunted down in London as relentlessly as Bill Sykes. His tenure at the head of their Philharmonic was not just stormy but deeply unsatisfying for audiences at the Royal Festival Hall.
In Cleveland, performances have been uniformly poor, unpopular with both patrons and critics alike. For four years now, Maestro has brought his charges to Carnegie and my critical reaction has been somewhat subdued as I have been forced to concentrate on physically controlling my impulses to shudder on a regular basis.
IN: THE LOS ANGELES PHILHARMONIC
Nobody in this part of the world seems to know how good this ensemble really is, but this, I believe, is strictly a matter of East Coast superciliousness. Esa-Pekka Salonen is a dynamic, exciting presence, and a first-rate composer to boot. His ability to prod his forces into extraordinary bursts of color while still keeping proper balance allows the left coast Phil to dance on winds positively fairy-blown. The strings are lush but nimble, the woodwinds precise and poetic, the brass warm and accurate, the percussion bright and crisp. All are allowed to let loose in a rather elastic manner. Perhaps Mr. Salonen’s secret is a palpable confidence that allows his players to breathe freely while still under his strict control. Whatever the formula, he has applied it exceptionally well. For 20th century music, this is the band of choice.
OUT: THE NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC
Not even the best orchestra on the plaza.
Limiting our discussion to the modern era, the local Phil has been deficient for a long time. A pedestrian string sound, a tendency to lose intonation as a piece drags along, an inconsistent trumpet section, and a sometimes frightful set of French horns are just background for an ensemble that often seems to have little investment in its own performances. Add to the ensemble’s frustrating nonchalance a conductor in Lorin Maazel who simply cannot leave a piece alone and the net result is often blaring, leadfooted, and embarrassing. The worst part may be that, on certain evenings, they can still conjure a decent performance. At Avery Fisher, it often seems that attitude is more critical than aptitude.
ON THE BUBBLE: THE CHICAGO SYMPHONY
No change in status, but the future is key. The annoyingly inconsistent reign of Daniel Barenboim is finally over. Who will shepherd this great group going forward? Rumor has it that the very talented Kent Nagano will leave troubled Montreal and settle on Michigan Avenue. Under steward Pierre Boulez, the group appears in town later this week.
HANGING ON: THE BOSTON SYMPHONY
In the late 1990s, Seiji Ozawa became the most infamous victim in Massachusetts since Sacco and Vanzetti. His troubles began with The Great Nutcracker War, when he took his orchestra to Asia in November and December 1996, leaving the city without a season of Christmas music performances. Then he dared to assert his leadership at the Tanglewood festival, replacing certain key personnel who were beloved by the press. The crushing blow came from New York critics, who wrote articles claiming the BSO had lost all professionalism and that its sound was devoid of proper intonation and balance. This avalanche of disrespect eventually led to Mr. Ozawa abandoning his lifelong artistic project and signing on with the Vienna State Opera, where, I am happy to report, everyone loves him.
Now James Levine is in charge and this should save the day. But some of his performances have been blowsy and imbalanced, as witness the recent sour Brahms First at Carnegie Hall.
Without question, Mr. Boulez is correct when he states, “Music is not the Olympics.” Yet it is natural for critics and audience members to rank performing groups based on their overall abilities. With today’s high ticket prices, don’t we want to have some assurances that the concert will be worth it?