Credit: Don Lassell/Strathmore, photo illustration by Emma Sarappo

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On July 16, an abrupt press release went out: The National Philharmonic at Strathmore, Montgomery County’s classical orchestra, would cease operations.

Ultimately, wrote National Philharmonic President Leanne Ferfolia, the organization had “been unable to cover its annual operating expenses” and without $150,000 from the Montgomery County government, “the Philharmonic did not have sufficient reserves or an adequate endowment to continue.”

For its musicians, the sudden closure wasn’t a surprise. During contract negotiations in June between management and the orchestra committee, management called off bargaining abruptly, saying there was no money to sign a contract—even though they’d been discussing a three-year plan, says Leslie Silverfine, president of the committee.

Finances had been dire in the months before negotiations ended. In March, Ferfolia wrote to Montgomery County Councilmember Craig Rice with an urgent request. Her two-page memo, submitted during the county’s 2020 budget negotiations, began with a warning: “Without immediate strategic funding and on-going residency assistance, NP will not be able to continue in its present form.” Council funding had decreased from $350,000 in 2007 to just $107,000 in 2019. For 2020, Ferfolia asked the county for $200,000 in direct funding each year through 2022 and $200,000 in “residency assistance” to pay the bills at the Music Center at Strathmore, the North Bethesda concert hall where the orchestra plays and resides. The county refused—and the orchestra went under.

In a statement, county council president Nancy Navarro said the orchestra had been given $2.5 million over multiple years. “It’s disappointing that the organization wasn’t able to leverage these investments into a financially sustainable model,” Navarro wrote. 

But according to Philharmonic officials, the costs of operating at Strathmore grew quickly and outpaced the money they saved by reducing performances. This year was especially hard, as the government shutdown and construction at Strathmore led to a decline in ticket sales, they say. Tickets accounted for about half of the Philharmonic’s annual revenue, according to Todd Eskelsen, chair of the Philharmonic’s board.

“We’ve been working on pushing this string up a hill for a number of years,” Eskelsen says. “We didn’t feel it was right to spend down to the last dollar before calling it quits. It would be irresponsible to continue.”

But two weeks after that proclamation, the tide is turning: The orchestra says its season will start in September as planned. Shortly after the Philharmonic’s announcement, a violinist named Jim Kelly—formerly a principal musician with the orchestra—contacted the board of directors, inviting them to a meeting at his music shop on July 29 to propose “a possible National Philharmonic rescue effort” that would not rely on any county government funding. Kelly declined to speak further about his plan, urging reporters—and the Philharmonic’s board—to come to his meeting on Monday.

Five days before that meeting, on July 24, Ferfolia announced a separate campaign to save the Philharmonic: a crowdfunding effort to raise $150,000 by July 31. The two plans were not related, Silverfine and others emphasized, and Kelly would not elaborate on his proposal until Monday night.

Kelly’s Monday meeting represented a clash of the two plans—each representing a different future for the National Philharmonic—though he only presented his own. About 80 people sat in folding chairs at Potter Violins, the music store in Takoma Park that Kelly co-owns, to hear Kelly and three others—board members Harris Miller and Michele Farquhar and Philharmonic supporter and subscriber Julie Pangelinan—speak.

Kelly raised $275,000 in donations from 12 donors, including himself and Potter Violins, in about three weeks, he said. The donations come with a catch: They’ll only go to the National Philharmonic if Kelly is appointed interim president. Kelly’s proposed plan would install Miller as interim chair of the board, while founder and music director Piotr Gajewski and chorale artistic director Stan Engebretson would continue in their roles. Kelly, Miller, Gajewski, and Engebretson would each forgo a salary for a year, saving the orchestra $240,000. Those savings plus the $275,000 cash contributions represent a $515,000 package for the Philharmonic, Kelly said, giving the orchestra a surplus of $446,000 to pay down its debts. The board’s crowdfunding was admirable, he said, but even $150,000 is “not enough to provide a path forward” for the Philharmonic.

Kelly’s plan has three major components: building a solid financial base, re-establishing partnerships with Strathmore and the county government, and building new partnerships to pursue more diverse audiences.

“Jim has our unanimous vote behind him,” Silverfine told the crowd, speaking for the orchestra committee. 

“I think it’s time for a new optimism in the whole organization,” said Engebretson, the chorale director. Kelly wants to repair relationships between the chorale and the orchestra, he told the group. “That’s why I said yes to this plan.”

Eskelsen was also in attendance. “To be honest with you, I would have loved to have seen you here two years ago,” he told the group. According to Eskelsen, everything Kelly proposed was something the board had been attempting to execute in recent years, and that people who “have put in a lot of time and work” shouldn’t be “denigrated” or “questioned.” 

“I won’t take a backseat to anybody with what has been done,” he said. “Jim, we will invite you to a board meeting,” one where the board could ask him and his donors questions, he said. “Give us time to consider this fully,” Eskelsen concluded.

When Kelly and Miller opened the floor to questions from the crowd, many pressed for details. “What is to prevent us from being in the same situation a year from now?” asked Ron Cappelletti, a chorale member. Kelly said his first act as leader would be to audit all of the orchestra’s processes and implement swift fixes. He promised to seek funding sources outside of current donors and the county council, saying the current board had not effectively tapped the wealth present in Montgomery County.

“Jim, we have less than two months,” one woman said, referring to the upcoming season’s planned Sept. 21 start date. “Can we do it?”

“Yes, we can,” Kelly replied. 

The Philharmonic’s fundraising campaign met its $150,000 goal on Tuesday, a day ahead of the deadline, and by Wednesday morning, the pledges exceeded $200,000. Now, Eskelsen says, the board needs to hold a special session to consider Kelly’s proposal and communicate with Strathmore before making an announcement. It would be “a shame” for the two fundraising efforts not to combine, he says. If the board does not make Kelly president, none of the $275,000 he’s raised will go to the orchestra, Kelly says.

In the weeks after the announcement, many musicians told City Paper they were “heartbroken” and “disappointed” by the impending closure. “It’s sad for the community to lose something which contributes something intangible yet vital to culture,” says Henry Flory, a former Philharmonic violinist. 

“It is difficult to understand the reasoning behind the county spending the funds to build a first-class facility such as Strathmore but pulling a continuing base of support for the county’s premier symphony orchestra that resides and performs in that hall. I believe this community will be much the poorer with the loss of this orchestra,” says Mark Hill, a principal oboe player.

The Music Center, completed in 2005, was widely praised. Erich Heckscher, a principal bassoonist, called it “one of the best halls on the East Coast, easily.” It was built specifically for symphony orchestras, but its quality contributed to the Philharmonic’s expenses. Eskelsen explains that keeping the “world-class acoustic hall” in running shape is an expensive endeavor. Now, one of the hall’s two resident orchestras faces an uncertain long-term future, and the other—the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra—is currently locked out; when the lockout ends, the musicians are widely expected to go on strike. Losing the Philharmonic would “mean Strathmore is going to have to work harder to fill up those days,” Eskelsen says. “This is not a loss that goes away for the county, because it is a county-owned facility.”

In a statement, Strathmore President and CEO Monica Jeffries Hazangeles said “that despite Strathmore’s financial and strategic support, the Philharmonic was unable to overcome several years of financial distress” and that Strathmore had “provided them with significant assistance ranging from rental subsidy to marketing support to ticket sales processing.”

The Philharmonic also has an educational role in the community. Each year, the orchestra played for every second grader in Montgomery County Public Schools. “There’s this memory I have of the first time we did this current round of second grade concerts. It was a piece by a Brazilian composer about a train going through the countryside, and the kids sing along with the piece and they have this dance that they do,” says Heckscher. “So you’ve got 1,800 kids in there all singing along with the orchestra, and it’s just this kind of chilling feeling.”

That chilling feeling is the point, Silverfine says. “It’s the inspiration of it. It’s different when you sit at home listening to CDs. In these divisive times, music is so important—you bring together people in a concert hall and there’s such a feeling there of people coming together and bonding. There’s a community feeling of people appreciating something really wonderful in life.”

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