Like every industry, the arts have been hit hard by the COVID-19 outbreak. Musical organizations like The Philadelphia Orchestra are quickly learning how to adapt to a new normal during and after the virus.

Amid the coronavirus outbreak, artists around the world are learning how to perform without live audiences. But for The Philadelphia Orchestra, public gathering limitations are also an obstacle for nearly 100 musicians who have to play in the same room at once.

Matías Tarnopolsky is the President and CEO of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He joined host Dan Loney on Wharton Business Daily to discuss how the Orchestra has been affected by the outbreak and what they’re doing to adjust to a new normal.

Interview Highlights

1. The Philadelphia Orchestra will lose half their season as a result of the outbreak…

“The last time we appeared on stage as an ensemble was Thursday, March 12. We were to play a concert of two Beethoven symphonies and a brand new piece of music by a great young composer called Iman Habibi. It was going to be a world premiere. And that concert was performed in front of an empty concert hall. It ended up being one of the most momentous musical experiences of my life. I was one of the small handful of people in the house. We put that concert on the radio and on Facebook Live and on TV. WHYY-TV 12 helped us with that. We haven’t appeared (on stage) since then. We should have performed 16 further concerts since March 12, and right now we’re canceled through May 10. So it’s about 30 concerts (in total.) It’s been absolutely heartbreaking.”

2. As an organization, the Orchestra does more than musical performances.

“By the end of the season we’ll have lost up to 50 to 60 main-stage performances (as well as) dozens and dozens of education and community programs, and concerts, not only in Philadelphia but in New York City. We are principally a performing arts organization of classical music performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra and our Music Director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and guest artists. But, we also have an incredibly large and important footprint in the community as education partners and as a civic partner to community organizations. This is a vital part of what we do. Those programs have gone silent in person, but we are very active online through the Virtual Philadelphia Orchestra, which has been our answer to this situation.”

3. This is a difficult time for the Orchestra financially.

“The most important thing is everyone’s health and safety. As far as I know, nobody has been personally affected by the virus, but that’s as far as I know, but this is a very difficult moment for us allmusicians of the orchestra, staff, and the board…Obviously we rely heavily on both earned revenues through ticket sales and philanthropic revenues. We had to take immediate steps both to protect revenues as best we could and find new lines of revenues, and to ease the flow of expenses. There have been many measures but the two most significant ones are:

  • The musicians of the orchestra have volunteered a 20-percent cut in salary effective today through the end of the season. 
  • And the staff of the orchestra have taken graduated reductions in salary from 25 percent to zero, so that impacts everybody in the orchestrathe music director, me, every staff member, and every musician in the orchestra.”

4. The impact will likely be felt long after the virus has subsided.

“No question that this is a defining moment for the organization. We have three priorities: We need to take care of our people. We need to preserve the integrity of the business and the ensemble, and we need to ensure that we come out of this as an organization able to thrive. This is a defining moment.”

“It will be felt well beyond now and the next few months. It will impact next season and the season beyond. It’s our job to ensure that we come out of this in a position able to thrive, and that means that we are not out of cash, that we’re not carrying too large a deficit, and that we are able to maneuver.”

5. To help ease the financial blow, the Orchestra has begun a ticket donation program.

“The response to our ticket donation campaign has been just extraordinary. When we stopped playing, there were $3.4 million worth of tickets sold in the marketplace for people expecting to come to concerts, and they have options. Among them are that they can ask for a refund and or exchange into another concert. Obviously we’re not giving other concerts right now that you can exchange into, so you can donate. We immediately went out with a donation campaign, big red button in the email saying, ‘Donate your tickets now.’”

“The response has been just fantastic. We just went out with that last Friday. About $400,000 worth of tickets have already been refunded and that’s just great news for the orchestra. It helps us sustain the organization. This is money that we can use for current use to take care of the musicians of the orchestra, the staff, and the programming that we’re putting on Virtual Philadelphia Orchestra.”

6. The Orchestra has begun to plan for the future.

“Now, and coming out of this, the arts have become ever more important. We very assertively launched our new season in the middle of this, and we did that because we wanted to have in the community a beacon for the future. We will be back. We’re going to be playing wonderful music, and providing transformative, joyful moments for our audiences.”

“And that new season has a theme: Our World Now. And we think this is really about how the programming of the Philadelphia Orchestra can change the way we think about the world. For us, it’s about having those beacons to the future that give us some hope, something to look forward to, and connect us ever more deeply with our audiences.”

— Emily O’Donnell

Posted: April 6, 2020

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