Philadelphia orchestra escapes bankruptcy

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Philadelphia's renowned orchestra has officially emerged from bankruptcy, in part thanks to a visit to China, and now looks forward to an unexpectedly bright future, the CEO said Tuesday.

"If we can be a model of the perseverance it takes to keep a great institution alive, bring it on. The wind is at our back," Allison Vulgamore, the orchestra's CEO, told AFP.

The Philadelphia Orchestra shocked the arts world in April 2011 when it filed for bankruptcy, demonstrating the depth and extent of the US recession.

One of the so-called "Big Five" US orchestras -- long the most prestigious, wealthy ensembles in the country -- it had fallen on hard times.

Although there was no long-term debt, ticket sales had declined 40 percent from earlier years and it owed its musicians' pension $35 million. A move into a new performing arts center left it with rent payments it couldn't afford.

Bankruptcy allowed the orchestra to discharge $100 million of such liabilities, including reduction in musicians' salaries and a severance of some pension liabilities.

While in bankruptcy, the orchestra raised nearly $30 million in new donations to pay for its restructuring.

More importantly, a feared mass exodus of musicians to other orchestras did not materialize, although a handful of players did move on.

Perhaps the biggest move was a whirlwind trip through China, planned after the ensemble entered bankruptcy and undertaken as part of a US State Department exchange program. The trip featured five full concerts and also appearances by players at hospitals and schools for migrants.

China has historical significance for the orchestra. Its 1973 trip there was made to showcase American cultural power and help president Richard Nixon build on his opening of relations with the communist state.

Today, China is seen more as a salvation for this US institution.

Vulgamore said the trip has paved the way for a five-year residency in the country.

"During bankruptcy, we grew our audiences, did an international tour (to Europe) and signed, designed and delivered the first China pilot," Vulgamore said.

Challenges remain for the ensemble.

"Bankruptcy cannot grow revenues. It cannot address undercapitalization," Vulgamore says. Also, the average age of classical music audiences across the country is 55, according to Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras.

"Growing the audience is a challenge," Rosen added. "That's one of the factors that all producers of live events are facing. And there's been an explosion of choice and opportunities."

The orchestra has developed a program to woo the university crowd, including a ticket scheme that gives students access to unsold seats for $25 per year subscription. It has also begun exploring more multimedia presentations.

The orchestra also holds out hope that its new music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin can generate the buzz needed re-energize interest in live concerts.

But Rosen says bankruptcy has not damaged the orchestra's abilities.

"I've heard the Philadelphia orchestra on a number of occasions before," said Rosen. "The one thing that has been completely clear is that the orchestra has been playing better than ever."

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