As the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra negotiate a new trade agreement, we reflect both on its legendary history, and its present and future importance as cultural ambassador and economic engine for the city, the country, and the world.
Although the Philadelphia Orchestra performed its first concert in 1900, it truly emerged as an international cultural icon in 1912, when Leopold Stokowski became its music director. Under Stokowski, the Orchestra made musical history, with the American Premiere of Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand in 1916, the first electrical recording by a Symphony Orchestra in 1925, the American Premiere of Berg's opera Wozzeck in 1930, and the first long-playing recording in 1931, among other major accomplishments.
It was with the Orchestra's recording of the soundtrack for the Walt Disney movie Fantasia in 1939 that Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra truly became an indelible presence on the national and international arena.
When Stokowski shook hands with Mickey Mouse at the beginning of Fantasia, it was a signal that the Philadelphia Orchestra was an institution dedicated to bringing the best of orchestral music to the largest audience possible, utilizing whatever methods could convey its musical message outside the confines of the concert hall, all the time maintaining its identity as a major symphony orchestra with the highest artistic standards. This important part of its mission was exemplified by Eugene Ormandy, who, during his remarkable 44-year tenure as Music Director, made hundreds of recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra, including The Glorious Sounds of Christmas and Handel's Messiah, both with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and both Gold Recordings, meaning that each sold over 100,000 copies. While the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy brought great symphonic music to the world through recordings such as these, the Orchestra was also recording a vast repertoire, including such American composers as Aaron Copland, Vincent Persichetti, Roy Harris, and George Rochberg. The Philadelphia Orchestra was renowned for Beethoven Symphonies and Strauss Waltzes.
The Orchestra's worldwide reputation was further strengthened by its international touring. The Orchestra played all over the world – Europe, South America, and Japan, for example – but its importance as cultural ambassador for the entire country was confirmed in 1973, when it became the first American orchestra to perform in the People's Republic of China.
Although the Orchestra maintains a special relationship with China, it continues to tour all over the world, earning rave reviews wherever it performs. “Philadelphia Orchestra in Hong Kong – non-stop magic under Nézet-Séguin” exulted the South China Post on May 20, 2016. “Yannick Nézet-Séguin became music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2012, and it’s proving a remarkable partnership if this thrilling concert – the orchestra’s first in London since his appointment – is anything to go by”, wrote The Guardian on June 9, 2015.
As these reviews attest, our current Music Director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, is one of the most charismatic and sought-after conductors in the world today. He recently announced a commitment to remain with Philadelphia Orchestra through at least 2025, while simultaneously becoming the newest Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera. Performing with Yannick gives us an opportunity to build on our long tradition of artistic excellence, achieving new heights of performance under his leadership.
It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the Philadelphia Orchestra to the city, the country, and the world. Former Mayor Michael A. Nutter, at a reception in London prior to the Orchestra's 2015 European Tour, said, “The Philadelphia Orchestra is not just one of the most artistically-acclaimed Orchestras in the world, but it is also a vital Cultural Ambassador for the city, and one that brings tremendous economic development to the city by making the case for doing business in Philadelphia.” The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance highlights on its website the importance of culture as an economic driving force: “The Cultural Alliance leads, strengthens, and gives voice to more than 400 member organizations who generate over $3.3 billion in economic impact for the region.” Surely, the Philadelphia Orchestra is one of the most important cultural institutions in the City.
This chart shows the decline in the Philadelphia Orchestra members' position relative to musicians in other major American Orchestras.
As recently as 2009, the Philadelphia Orchestra base salary was 2% above that of the New York Philharmonic. By last season, Philadelphia Orchestra musicians were earning 12% less.
As a result of wage cuts, wage freezes, and concessions made during the bankrupty of 2011, we have fallen significantly behind other major American orchestras.
The musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra deserve a contract which will restore us to our proper place among the world's great orchestras.