Orchestra Musicians Vow to Keep on Playing

While the Philadelphia Orchestra’s bankruptcy proceedings have caused much grief and consternation among Orchestra members and fans, senior players in the Orchestra have thicker skin than the headlines lead on. Some retiring members, who fear hefty cuts to their pensions—should Judge Eric L. Frank rule in favor of bankruptcy—are resolute to rescind on their retirement agreements and play on.

“They’re not keeping their promise, why should I keep mine?” says trumpet player Roger Blackburn, a 37-year member of the Orchestra. “They don’t care about the people making the music, they only care about the bottom line.”

Last Saturday, the Orchestra’s board of directors voted to file for Chapter 11, despite opposition on the part of the musicians. It is the first major Orchestra to do so.

“It’s disappointing,” Blackburn says. “I never thought this would ever happen.”

Blackburn, who fears his pension will be decreased by 30 percent if the court rules in favor of bankruptcy, may revoke his retirement, which was scheduled for September.

During the first court hearing last Wednesday, the organization’s attorney, Lawrence McMichael, cited the Orchestra’s “enormous” pension obligations as one of the factors in the organization’s fiscal woes. But longtime Orchestra members like 91-year-old violinist Jerome Wigler say the Orchestra’s board is to blame.

The reason the Orchestra is in financial trouble is the board haven’t done their job, which is to raise funds, he says. “We’re the employees of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Our job is to play, and we do a great job.”

Wigler, one of several musicians who were asked to retire early in exchange for a sum of money—in his case, $80,000—is also thinking of rescinding on his retirement contract.

The bankruptcy claim is a ploy, he says, it “has to do with getting rid of pensions.”

The Orchestra also stated that declining ticket sales as one of the leading causes behind the Orchestra’s financial strife. Wigler disagrees with this assessment.

“The Orchestra is a charitable organization,” he says. “It doesn’t really make money on concerts. It makes money by funding. They’re supposed to raise funds.”

Furthermore, Wigler says, “the Orchestra is not bankrupt. They have money.” But the board has “misused the funds. So a great famous orchestra [is] just literally run into the ground.”

Former concertmaster Norman Carol agrees and recalls a statement made by the famous Italian conductor Riccardo Muti while he was the musical director of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1980 to 1992.

“He was the first one to say that the musicians do not work for the administration,” he says. “The board and the administration work for the musicians.”

Though this is the first time the Orchestra has filed for Chapter 11, older members of the Orchestra say this certainly doesn’t mark the first time that the musicians have been in opposition with the board.

As a person who has spent a lifetime playing for the Orchestra, Wigler—who has played in the orchestra for 60 years—is no stranger to friction with the board of directors.

“We’ve had many strikes. This is nothing new with us,” he says, recalling a strike the Orchestra had in 1962, which resulted in its first 52-week season. “We’ve always had conflicts … with the board.”

Wigler was part of the original committee that formed the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, which “changed the lives of musicians everywhere.”

Before 1962, he explained, the Orchestra’s season only lasted a half a year, “and then you’d have to go out and find jobs.”

While Blackburn and Wigler point to the Orchestra’s board as the culpable party in the organization’s current financial debacle, Carol wishes to see Philadelphians step in and support the Orchestra more.

“I would like to see more of a reaction, either pro or con from the Philadelphia people. After all, it is their orchestra,” Carol says. “I just think … everything about [the bankruptcy] shows the negativity on the part of Philadelphia. A city is only as good and as important as what they produce culturally. To me, the Orchestra has always been the No. 1 playboy in the cultural activity.”

Carol emphasizes the shame of such a prestigious organization being the first of its kind to be brought low by bankruptcy. He adds that the Philadelphia Orchestra has had a lot of firsts. “The first to be involved with a movie, the first to be on television, the first to go to China … the first to do an awful lot of things. It’s unfortunate they had to take a negative step and be the first major orchestra to declare bankruptcy.”

Wigler also frets over the Orchestra’s reputation. “I think bankruptcy is just disgraceful,” he says. “What about Europe, what will they think?”

Wigler, who fought in Germany during WWII, recalls listening to broadcasts from the Berlin Philharmonic on the battlefield. “They kept on playing even though they were surrounded on all sides,” he says. “That’s how much music meant to these people.”


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