Is the Philadelphia Orchestra Suffering from Hysterical Blindness?

Email a Friend

In a college theater history course, my professor—a notable playwright and director in his own right—informed us of a flaw in Sophocles’s flawless tragedy, Oedipus Rex: Jocasta tells her husband-son Oedipus that the news of Laius’s death came from a servant who escaped the murder of the king and his four guards.

However, she also notes that the same servant who delivers this news sees Oedipus “in his late master’s place” and begs to be sent away. “Oedipus could not have been crowned king if the city was not certain Laius was dead,” wrote my professor in an e-mail to me. “The city could not know Laius was dead unless the only survivor of the murders, the servant, returned and told them. Therefore, the servant cannot return and see Oedipus already on the throne.”

I was reminded of this minor discrepancy when, earlier last month, the Philadelphia Orchestra filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Though other orchestras and opera companies have gone the routes of both Chapter 11 (rehabilitation) and Chapter 7 (liquidation), the Philadelphia Orchestra is the first major ensemble to do so. True, Chapter 11 is not the end of the world—outside of the classical sphere, Continental went through it and now owns other airlines, and Planet Hollywood filed Chapter 11 twice. It may not be great for publicity, but it is a good means of reorganizing debts.

The problem is, the Philadelphia Orchestra doesn’t have any debt. Yes, it does have a structural deficit of $14.5 million (and such a deficit could, to be fair, lead to debt). However, it’s taking a considerable amount of assets into Chapter 11, including a $140 million endowment. "I don’t know that I’ve ever had a case in which a group with these kinds of assets has come in with anything like these kinds of resources and claimed poverty and gotten away with it,” an anonymous lawyer told the Philadelphia Inquirer on April 16.

The same day, John Koen, a cellist in the orchestra, told WQXR that a proposal on the musicians' parts to sustain the orchestra with $14 million in concessions was rejected. Equally disconcerting was Marie T. Reilly’s take on the situation, also reported by the Inquirer. While Reilly, the associate dean for Academic Affairs and law professor at Penn State, has no connection with the company (save for growing up with their recordings), her chirpy quote that bankruptcy “is like commissioning a piece of music” seems to represent a cavalier and half-baked attitude on the part of the orchestra’s board. Oedipus could not be crowned king until Laius was confirmed dead; it seems suspect that the Philadelphia Orchestra would declare bankruptcy without its finances declared the same. How much time passed between Laius’s death and Oedipus’s coronation? How much careful consideration went into this process?

Appropriately enough, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Carnegie Hall appearance this week is a Stravinsky double bill that features the composer’s own account of Oedipus Rex. Along with the three concerts that the orchestra has slated with Carnegie in the 2011-12 season, it will also be one of the final times that New Yorkers hear the principal clarinettist Ricardo Morales with the Fabulous Philadelphians. We’ll get much more of him in September of 2012 when he joins the New York Philharmonic as its principal clarinet, a shrewd move on New York’s part in the wake of the Philadelphia turmoil, albeit one indicative of the concern that many Philadelphia audiences have had with Chapter 11—the lost of the orchestra’s most important asset in its musicians.

With the talent onstage Tuesday night, however, there’s hope. Promising new talent Matthew Plenk sings the role of that unreliable Shepherd next to the stalwart and omnipresent baritone David Wilson Johnson as Tiresias. Chief conductor Charles Dutoit is once again reunited with tenor Paul Groves as Oedipus, mezzo Petra Lang as Jocaste and bass-baritone Robert Gierlach as Creon and the Messenger (you can see them below in a 2008 performance with the NHK Symphony Orchestra). Bills may accrue and deficits can be unforgiving, but you can’t put a price on music like this.

What do you think: What should the Philadelphia Orchestra do to ensure its future? Will declaring bankruptcy help in the long run?