Doubting Thomas

Before coming to the Seattle Symphony, Philion was the president of the Eastern Music Festival in North Carolina. When Philion came to the orchestra, he was widely regarded as an ally of Gerard Schwarz, who had come under increasing scrutiny by the orchestra and the national media because of turmoil within the orchestra. according to people close to the orchestra, Schwarz and Philion no longer share a close relationship.

Philion is not the first president to have a bumpy relationship with Schwarz. Deborah Card, who now leads the world-class Chicago Symphony and Paul Meecham, who went to Baltimore and presides over an orchestra with a renewed artistic vision because of conductor Marin Alsop, both led the SSO during the last ten years. Philion’s replacement will become the fourth person in less than seven years to manage the SSO as president.

While the presidential shuffling at the SSO has become routine, the mainstream press have avoided asking what the uncertainty at the top levels of management means for the orchestra’s fiscal and artistic health. Without the steady presence of a president, board development suffers, donor relationships become consolidated in the hands of too few people, and indirectly, artistic decisions end up being made by volunteers with dubious qualifications.

While Philion’s departure is likely to be good for the SSO in the long-run, in the short-term his decision might impact contract negotiations with musicians and hinder the search for a new music director to replace Schwarz when his contract ends next season.  The SSO board is now tasked with replacing Schwarz AND Philion, a scenario that could mean a rougher path for the orchestra over the next year. I also don’t share Bernard Jacobsen’s sunny view, who claims short tenures are common.

Meecham and Card have both spent more time at their new orchestra’s than Philion has with the SSO. In New York, Zarin Mehta has been the president of the New York Philharmonic since 2000. Alison Vulgamore, was president of the Atlanta Symphony for 13 years before taking the same position with the Philadelphia Orchestra. On the West Coast, Brent Assink has been the executive director of the San Francisco Symphony for eleven years and in Los Angeles, Deborah Borda has presided over the LA Phil for 10 years. In each of these examples, a good case is made that stability has helped keep these orchestras artistically vibrant and on the cutting edge of the orchestra world. In the case of Borda, LA is the hottest orchestra in the world because she snagged Gustavo Dudamel and the NY Philharmonic, because Mehta surprised the world by enlisting Alan Gilbert to replace Lorin Maazel, is finally becoming an orchestra with an identity that stands out among New York’s cacophony of classical music and parade of visiting orchestras.

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