The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Struggling National Philharmonic gets two lifelines, but the way forward isn’t clear-cut

Piotr Gajewski leads the National Philharmonic in a concert last season at Strathmore. (Joshua Cogan)

Two weeks ago, the Maryland-based National Philharmonic announced that it was planning to close because it had run out of money. Now, the group has an embarrassment of riches. On Tuesday, the orchestra administration said that it had raised the funds needed to stay open, while on Monday night, a local musician and businessman presented to the board a concrete proposal to save the year-round regional orchestra, which performs at Strathmore in Montgomery County.

“We certainly are thrilled beyond belief that the community has come together to support this organization with its hard-earned dollars for the organization to move forward,” said Leanne Ferfolia, the orchestra’s president, who has been working overtime on an emergency fundraising campaign to raise the $150,000 needed by Wednesday.

Meanwhile, James Kelly, a violist who is co-owner of Potter Violins in Silver Spring, said he had pledges from 12 donors, including himself, amounting to $275,000. The only contingency: that the orchestra boot its leadership and allow him to take over as interim president.

Now the orchestra’s board has to decide what to do with all of this bounty — and with the two competing plans — so its season can start as announced Sept. 21.

Kelly’s plan is not as far-fetched as it may sound. He has played with the orchestra for six seasons and worked as its personnel manager for the past two. Before Kelly’s meeting with the board Monday, the orchestra’s musicians — whose contract expired June 30 — voted unanimously to support him. Also on his bandwagon are the National Philharmonic’s founder and music director, Piotr Gajewski; the artistic director of the National Philharmonic Chorale, Stan Engebretson; and some board members who worked with him on the plan. Kelly also said he wants the president’s job only for a year, without pay. (Gajewski and Engebretson have agreed to work without pay for a year as well, amounting, Kelly said, to an additional savings of $140,000.)

“This is not a power trip for me at all,” Kelly, 42, said Tuesday. “I feel an obligation to do this because no one else is rising up. I know I can do this, and I know I can surround myself with the right team. I will work with consultants to do a full audit and pass the torch to someone much more qualified.

“I am not throwing management under the bus. Executive management has worked really, really hard, and tirelessly. But direction from the board has not been great guidance.” The extreme fundraising efforts, Kelly added, “should have been done months ago.”

Ferfolia, also a trained musician who has spent the past 17 years working in orchestral administration, also believes in the benefits of a strategic plan. When she took over in 2016, she brought in consultants to guide the orchestra through an extensive self-evaluation and planning process. Some of the underlying problems, she said, are the large debt the orchestra had accumulated before she took charge and a small endowment. Having made a number of changes stipulated by the Montgomery County Council — including diversifying repertoire, ostensibly to reach a broader audience — she reported to the council last fall that the orchestra had no cushion should a season underperform — as last season did.

One thing is certain: The $150,000 shortfall does not represent much of the orchestra’s annual $2 million operating budget.

People are upset when an orchestra closes. If only they went to the concerts.

The National Philharmonic, founded 36 years ago as the Montgomery County Chamber Orchestra, is the only professional orchestra based in Montgomery County and is among the largest regional orchestras in the DMV area. It draws its players from a pool of 300 freelance musicians, who typically piece their livelihoods together by working for a range of orchestras.

“I go every year to different orchestras,” said Leslie Silverfine, a violinist and the chairwoman of the orchestra’s union, the National Philharmonic Players’ Committee. “I’m playing every weekend.”

But nothing, Silverfine said, is as regular as the National Philharmonic. “I’ve played there for 32 years,” she said. “We really care about this orchestra. We’re kind of like a family, because we’ve been together for so long. We don’t want to see it go away.”

If the board doesn’t support Kelly’s plan, it may face a challenge in getting the support of the musicians, who voted to play for another year under the same terms if Kelly takes over.

“The orchestra will not play under the current management,” Silverfine said. “Even if the board decides to stay with the current management, they’d have to hire all new people.”

After Kelly’s meeting on Monday, board members said they would convene an emergency session to discuss the proposal, but the timing of that was not announced.

“For me, as president of the organization, that’s not my charge,” Ferfolia said. “It’s the board’s responsibility to take that into consideration. I would have preferred and certainly the community would have preferred that we all be united and work toward a common goal as an organization.”