MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
Today, the world-famous Philadelphia Orchestra began a tour of Korea, Japan and China. For the musicians, it may be a welcome vacation from problems at home. As Joel Rose reports from Philadelphia, sagging attendance and ballooning deficits could push the orchestra into bankruptcy.
JOEL ROSE: Philadelphia was the first American orchestra to perform in communist China back in 1973. The orchestra is still considered one of the top ensembles in the country.
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ROSE: But lately, the Philadelphia Orchestra is having a tough time filling seats. At some recent concerts, like this one, the hall has been just two-thirds full. Peter Dobrin is a classical music critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Mr. PETER DOBRIN (Classical Music Critic, Philadelphia Inquirer): You can't believe things are going well when, as a musician, you walk out onto stage and you see a hall that's that empty.
ROSE: An orchestra that was selling close to 90 percent of its tickets three years ago is only selling 70 percent now. Philadelphia is hardly the only orchestra that's seeing a drop-off in ticket sales during the recession. But the decline here has been unusually steep says Jesse Rosen at the League of American Orchestras.
Mr. JESSE ROSEN (President and CEO, League of American Orchestras): That's a greater-than-average decline. I think that's a significant falloff in a relatively short amount of time.
ROSE: Rosen, whose father ran the orchestra in the 1980s, says part of the problem in Philadelphia has been a lack of leadership. The orchestra has been without a full-time music director for two years. And it was without a CEO for 10 months. Allison Vulgamore took that job in January and quickly turned her attention to the orchestra's budget deficit.
Ms. ALLISON VULGAMORE (President and CEO, Philadelphia Orchestra): It's very serious. It's extraordinarily serious.
ROSE: So serious that Vulgamore was talking at one point about bankruptcy. That talk has subsided as this year's budget gap has shrunk from a projected $8 million to $3 million, mostly thanks to emergency donations from its board of trustees. Still, Vulgamore says it's time for the orchestra to take a fresh look at what it does.
Ms. VULGAMORE: We don't want to throw away a hard-earned, phenomenal legacy given to us truly by our audiences. But we do know our audiences are clearly voting in some way with our revenues and donors that says we need to pay attention, ask questions. Nothing's off the table.
ROSE: Including more educational concerts, performances in the suburbs and possibly a bigger emphasis on lighter, more popular fare. That last item makes John Koen nervous. He's a cellist and chair of the Orchestra Musicians Committee.
Mr. JOHN KOEN (Cellist, Chairman, Orchestra Musicians Committee): Some people enjoy playing pops. I'm not one of them, personally. But a certain amount of that is okay, but there's a point - and I don't know how you define that point - what is too much. How much will run the risk of damaging the great music that we play?
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ROSE: The Philadelphia Orchestra recorded dozens of albums under the baton of longtime music director Eugene Ormandy. It was the first orchestra to make electrical recordings back in the 1920s and the first to play on national TV. The orchestra honed its sound at the Academy of Music, where it performed for over a century until eight years ago when the orchestra moved down the street to its current venue, the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. Music critic Peter Dobrin says something may have been lost in the move.
Mr. DOBRIN: Somehow, the orchestra isn't meeting face to face with this audience the way it used to. People used to be free to come backstage or to the greenroom and get autographs and that kind of thing, and they can't do that anymore.
ROSE: Some audience members say they prefer the overstuffed charm of the academy to the austere modernism of the Kimmel Center. Juris Bulodis was waiting for his wife before a recent concert.
Mr. JURIS BULODIS: This place is so cold and it's so uninviting that it's almost painful, you know? They should blow up the place and start from scratch.
ROSE: Orchestra managers say they're open to performing more concerts at the academy, but for now they seem to be focused on finding a conductor who can lead the organization through one of the most difficult passages in its history.
For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.