Normally a rumor-free zone, Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia is the focal point of speculation about its future existence amid the announcement of a dramatically curtailed season and questions about the continued presence of music director Ignat Solzhenitsyn.
The surprisingly well-circulated Solzhenitsyn rumor appears, at this point, to be unfounded: Under contract to the orchestra until June 2011, he is actively involved in fund-raising and is committed to three of the subscription concerts next season with a hearty written recommendation for guest conductor Dirk Brosse for the fourth concert, according to a press announcement that will be released later this week. Only weeks ago, the orchestra issued a disc of Brahms solo piano music by Solzhenitsyn, who pursues a parallel career as pianist. He could not be reached for comment.
"He has a huge sense of responsibility [toward the orchestra]," executive director Peter H. Gistelinck said. However, the Chamber Orchestra's regular Kimmel Center season is dramatically cut from 10 subscription pairs in the just-ended 2008-09 season to four pairs next season, scheduled in September, October, January and March with mid-level guest artists such as cellist Wendy Warner and violinist Soovin Kim. Yesterday, Gistelinck's explanation was simple: "Do we want to survive or not survive?"
In the face of diminishing corporate donations that are affecting most performing arts groups, the orchestra, which had a $2.2 million budget last season, has cut its administrative work week to four days. Management is now negotiating a collective bargaining agreement with the musicians; obviously, said Gistelinck, with a shorter season of self-presented concerts, remuneration will be lower.
Nonetheless, he said the "abbreviated" season is temporary and that he has a three-year plan to bring the orchestra back up to something close to last season's 10-program Kimmel Center schedule.
Did the Chamber Orchestra grow too much too quickly in the pre-Gistelinck move from the Convention Center to the Kimmel Center? Becoming a founding Kimmel resident company, he says, was "a huge opportunity" and also came with a break on Perelman Theater rental. But doubling the number of concerts, in retrospect, "was a little over-positive."
The big picture that emerged over an hour's interview with Gistelinck was of an organization that admirably earns half its budget (in contrast to the standard 30 percent in the industry), doesn't have deficits, and is making pre-emptive moves to stay that way - especially since there's no endowment to fall back on.
Subscriber renewal rate of 79.8 percent is quite high. Even with the diminished season, renewal rates are ahead of last year - though within a subscriber base of 750, small by big-orchestra or opera standards.
Though the 2009-10 budget has to be finalized and approved, Gistelinck says it might not be much below the previous years: As much as the orchestra has cut back in presenting itself at the Perelman Theater, other organizations will present it, which translates into guaranteed fees.
Today, for example, the orchestra records the Eric Sessler Organ Concerto for the Atlanta-based ACA Digital Recording in Verizon Hall. Next February, the orchestra is to play with the Westminster Choir and Temple University Concert Choir in a concert featuring Bach specialist Helmut Rilling.
The orchestra also has a new residency with the under-construction Lansdale Center for the Performing Arts with chamber-scale concerts featuring Solzhenitsyn and concertmaster Gloria Justen. The total is likely to be 15 to 16 concerts, in contrast to the 21 in the 2008-09 season.
In effect, Gistelinck - who came to Philadelphia in 2006 from the Flemish Radio Symphony Orchestra - is pursuing a business model common among the big London orchestras, which beef up their budgets with lucrative film-score recordings and projects that are tangential to their regular seasons. Gistelinck believes such opportunities could happen here - and some already have, like the Tom & Jerry cartoon score the orchestra recorded in the early months of his tenure.
He said the orchestra will continue having an annual high-profile special event, though perhaps not as extravagantly staged as February's Placido Domingo gala benefit concert and dinner at Verizon Hall.
Gistelinck said that gala didn't lose money - the concert sold out - but declined to offer specifics, saying not all factors are fully settled. He did say, however, that the 200 high-ticket dinners were half what the orchestra had projected. "And the dinner," he added, "is where you make your money."
Money aside, he said, the Domingo concert raised the orchestra's profile in the community. He notes that the four final concerts in the spring sold out. A correlation? "I have no positive proof, but . . .."