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At the Philadelphia Orchestra, a record-breaking $55 million gift raises the bar for local philanthropy — and that’s not all

The huge gift also hits the re-set button for a new era of momentum and civic meaning.

Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the ensemble in his Mann Center debut June 24.
Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the ensemble in his Mann Center debut June 24.Read moreJordan August Photography (custom credit)

If you want to put your finger on the last time things were as upbeat as they now are for the Philadelphia Orchestra, you have to go back three decades. In 1989 or so, the orchestra and charismatic music director Riccardo Muti were playing to full houses, and the group had its sights set on building an ambitious new concert hall.

Life soon got tough financially and organizationally, and by 1996 the orchestra had lost its longtime recording contract and the ensemble went out on strike for 64 days. In the years that followed, audiences dwindled, financial pressures mounted, and in 2011 the organization filed for bankruptcy.

What the orchestra has desperately needed since then is positive momentum, and now, with a recent $55 million gift, it’s got it. Post-bankruptcy, the orchestra has sent out mixed signals on its prospects for success. Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin has proven popular, but then came another strike, this one brief, on opening night in 2016. Ticket sales, while holding, aren’t great. The orchestra’s 2018-19 season at Verizon Hall, which ended in June, filled just 74 percent of seats.

But it’s hard to overstate the significance of this recent $50 million infusion to the endowment plus an additional $5 million toward operations from an anonymous couple. In real financial terms as well as symbolic ones, it promises to be a turning point for the long-troubled organization.

Dollar-wise, it is the single-largest gift in the orchestra’s history (adjusted for inflation, the $50 million Annenberg donation in 2003 would be considered larger). While chatter in the cultural community has focused on who these anonymous donors might be, what’s actually more interesting is who they are not. The gift does not appear to be from some of the usual suspects — a Neubauer Family Foundation spokesperson said it’s not from that group — which means that a mighty handful of orchestra loyalists and civic mothers and fathers capable of making donations on a similar scale are still out there.

Success begets success. The cruel irony of fund-raising is that some philanthropies shy away from giving toward organizations when the need is most dire, and the situation at the orchestra is clearly no longer dire. This gift puts a period on a disturbing adventure in bankruptcy that had previously trailed off in ellipses.

There is another, even larger potential benefit to this bold gesture. It grows the yardstick by which a meaningful gift in the cultural community is measured. When the Kimmel Center named the Perelman Theater in consideration of a $5 million donation, many felt the arts center had squandered some of its naming capital. Now there is a shining new example of what constitutes a leadership gift, not to mention leadership.

It’s understandable that the size of this new donation made headlines, but the reasons for giving it are also worth pausing over. The donors didn’t give because they loved Beethoven, but because “they value very highly what I would call the civilizing influence of art and culture on our society,” as orchestra board chairman Richard B. Worley put it.

It’s hard to know exactly what that means. But taken broadly, it’s hard to argue with. We’re living through an era of reckoning, a resorting of human values. Art probably can’t change minds and hearts about what it means to be an American. A little more Mozart isn’t going to melt away cruelty or greed or make anyone grow a conscience.

But art is absolutely critical in reminding ourselves of the power of creation and the principle that big things can only happen around a set of shared ideals. Art is a direct rebuttal to destructive impulses.

The donors’ definition of art as a “civilizing influence” highlights a shift in the orchestra’s raison d’etre, and suggests that this shift is resonating with some big money. It was unquestionably true that for the last few decades in this country orchestras played to aficionados. The definition of success centered on whether an ensemble had a signature sound, its virtuosity, and questions of interpretation open mostly to ears trained in the subtle ways of ensemble playing.

Now orchestras must exist to meet a larger audience. The message today is around the liveliness of atmosphere and presentation, including a lot of visuals (the orchestra’s recent frenetic production approach to Bernstein’s Candide maybe took the idea too far); the social welfare value of music, as in educational initiatives; and serving all kinds of listeners, including those who are traditionally under=served.

Philanthropists, especially younger ones, are moving in the direction of supporting causes that solve problems in society rather than projects that justify themselves on purely artistic terms.

This season the orchestra can declare some huge wins on several such initiatives, while laying the groundwork for more. It’s not quite a year since Matías Tarnopolsky’s arrival as the orchestra’s new president and CEO, and the model of inclusiveness that has emerged in recent years is deepening.

Women will be playing a bigger part in programming and on the podium next season. The ensemble this season did another full-orchestra concert, this one in South Philadelphia, aimed at a listenership with sensory-friendly needs. It has joined the Mann Center and School District in a new training institute for children getting started this summer as the ensemble itself settles in for a string of six concerts in Fairmount Park starting Tuesday.

Even cat lovers felt the warm glow of inclusion in April when Nézet-Séguin visited a Philadelphia animal shelter and left residents with a playlist to relieve stress. The gesture broke through to a demographic slice well beyond the usual orchestra crowd.

Wading beyond pure music into the social and political realms comes with the danger that music is promising more than it can deliver. But the March premiere of Hannibal Lokumbe’s Healing Tones in Verizon Hall was the whole package, furnishing stirring music while saying quite a bit on the subjects of hope and reconciliation.

On inclusion, the orchestra still has a ways to go before the demographic of the ensemble more closely resembles the city in which it lives. The small handful of African American players on stage makes it hard to imagine that #YourPhilOrch really is more than just a hashtag.

This $50 million doesn’t mean the end of the orchestra’s challenges. The group still needs to add to its endowment, and is in the midst of calculating a specific endowment-drive number both ambitious and achievable. In my estimation, at least an additional $75 million would be ideal. And there is a risk that some donors might think that this big new anonymous donation means they can let up on some of their generosity.

But investing in the future of the orchestra is also a validation of a larger idea very much under duress: the value of institutions, which have been rocked in recent years by scandals in government, the Catholic Church, the justice system, the electoral process, and various schools and universities.

Institutions, though, are simply a vehicle for collective action, and as a metaphor for what society can be, nothing is better than an orchestra. Within its sound there may be multitudes, but what emerges can be a powerful fanfare to the common good.

Coming up, the Philadelphia Orchestra performs six concerts at the Mann Center: July 16 in a program of Berlioz; July 18 in Broadway tunes; July 20 playing live to screen in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”; July 23 in an all-Rachmaninoff program; July 24 in a space-themed program to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon voyage; and July 26 playing live to screen in “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.” Ticket are $20-$95., 800-982-2787.