The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

National Philharmonic bows out abruptly

Maestro Piotr Gajewski leads the National Philharmonic at the Music Center at Strathmore. (Joshua Cogan)

The National Philharmonic, a year-round regional orchestra based at Strathmore in Montgomery County, Md., is planning to close after 36 years — because it has run out of money.

The announcement was made on Tuesday afternoon in a press statement from the orchestra’s president, Leanne Ferfolia.

“Decreases in funding from the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County for each of the past eight years (from $270,000 per year to $107,000) combined with a near doubling of National Philharmonic’s operating and performing fees in the Montgomery County-owned facilities at Strathmore over the same period has hamstrung National Philharmonic’s ability to operate,” the statement said. A decrease in ticket revenue and donations in the 2018-2019 season was also to blame.

The amount that would have been needed to save the 2019-2020 season, according to the statement, is $150,000. Though it’s not a small sum, it’s peanuts in the budget of a larger orchestra. The National Symphony Orchestra’s operating budget is around $36 million. By contrast, the ­National Philharmonic’s entire operating budget in 2010 was $2 million.

Washington’s small orchestras are striking a key note.

The National Philharmonic began life in 1983 as the Montgomery County Chamber Orchestra, founded by Piotr Gajewski, a workmanlike conductor who remains the National Philharmonic’s artistic director. The orchestra changed its name in 2003 as it merged with the Masterworks Chorus and prepared to become a partner orchestra of Strathmore.

Gajewski, a native of Poland, has been active in the Montgomery County community, making a point of such outreach activities as bringing in every
second-grader in Montgomery County to see the orchestra every year. The National Philharmonic, composed like most smaller orchestras of top freelance players from around the D.C. area, has offered as many as 36 concerts a year, though it has been cutting programming recently in an effort to balance its budget.

Reached by email on Tuesday, Ferfolia said the orchestra did not have a firm date for its closure, though it will presumably take place before the fall season, which was to have opened Sept. 21 and 22 with an all-Beethoven concert featuring the Eroica Trio.

According to Ferfolia’s statement, the closure will leave 130 administrators and musicians out of work, though it should be noted that no musicians were employed by the orchestra full time. The group’s exit will have a marked effect on the arts and music education in Montgomery County.

“The National Phil would be delighted if a donor would come forward or funding were to come through for its operations,” ­Ferfolia said.

The departure will leave Strathmore without one of its two resident orchestras. The other one, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Strathmore’s principal tenant, has locked out its musicians for the summer. Negotiations between the symphony and the players’ union are ­ongoing.

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra musicians officially locked out.

American orchestras: revamping the model, or embracing the obvious?

Rienzi, a Wagner work rarely performed, pleases at Strathmore.