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Philadelphia Orchestra Votes for Bankruptcy

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Against the ostinato of a still-fragile economy, the board of the 111-year-old Philadelphia Orchestra voted to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Saturday.

The nearly unanimous vote made the orchestra, whose budget for its 2010-11 season was $46 million, the biggest and arguably most prestigious in the U.S. to file for bankruptcy reorganization.

Concerts and business operations will continue during the bankruptcy proceedings and the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that orchestra leaders are rolling out a $214 million fundraising campaign, their largest and riskiest ever. The orchestra is currently projecting a $5 million deficit.

Musicians were quick to condemn the bankruptcy, which could jeopardize funding to their pensions, among other contract provisions. "This is an entirely unnecessary step because we had given them enough to solve the problem,” said John Koen, a cellist in the orchestra and the head of the players' union. He noted that the musicians had proposed $14 million in concessions that would have sustained the orchestra but which were rejected.

Saturday's voting session lasted nearly three hours and was attended by approximately 40 to 50 board members and five musicians, said Koen. In a show of protest, an orchestra string quartet serenaded board members as they entered the Philadelphia law firm where the vote took place. On Thursday night, the musicians leafleted the hall at the Kimmel Center, the orchestra's primary venue, to express their opposition.

Management has considered bankruptcy since early 2010 after deciding that musicians' current pension fund presents an unsustainable burden. Bankruptcy would give the orchestra "a better chance of raising the investment funds that are needed to revitalize this orchestra over the next five years," board chairman Richard Worley told the New York Times today. It would also allow the orchestra to renegotiate the terms of their lease agreement with the Kimmel Center.

Koen called the orchestra's prediction that bankruptcy will be wrapped up by the end of 2011 "rosy" and said that a more realistic timetable is 12-18 months. During that time, he said that Philadelphia risks losing musicians to other orchestras or academic posts.

The orchestra management was unavailable for comment as of Saturday afternoon.

Last year, the Louisville Symphony filed for Chapter 11, and the symphonies of Honolulu and Syracuse went out of business in recent months. The Detroit Symphony recently emerged from a bruising, six-month strike from which musicians saw their salaries decline by 22 percent.