The National Philharmonic, the regional orchestra based in Maryland’s Montgomery County, has successfully walked itself back from the precipice of closure. On Saturday afternoon, the orchestra’s board voted unanimously for a transition plan that will allow it to complete its 2019-20 season and stay open for the coming years, the organization said in a news release.
The plan, which calls for the exit of the orchestra’s top leadership, also brings a temporary close to weeks of tension between the orchestra’s musicians and senior administration.
Jim Kelly, a violinist with the orchestra who is also the co-owner of Potter Violins in Silver Spring, will work unpaid for a year as president of the orchestra, replacing outgoing president Leanne Ferfolia, who will serve as a senior consultant to Kelly through the end of the calendar year. Former board member Harris Miller will ascend to board chair, replacing Todd Eskelsen.
“I am grateful for the opportunity and honor of serving National Philharmonic as a Director, Vice Chair, Chair Emeritus and Chair over the last 16 years,” Eskelsen said in a statement Sunday. “I wish National Philharmonic and its new leadership well.”
Established 36 years ago, the National Philharmonic announced in July that it had run out of money, prompting an outcry from both musicians and audience members. Ferfolia undertook an emergency fundraising campaign, successfully crowdsourcing $210,000 — enough to cover the shortfall needed for the new season.
By the time the campaign was completed, however, the orchestra’s musicians, many of whom said they were blindsided by the news of its impending bankruptcy, no longer wanted to play under existing leadership.
“They didn’t give us any advance notice whatsoever,” said Leslie Silverfine, a violinist and the chairwoman of the orchestra’s union, the National Philharmonic Players’ Committee. “They should have been more transparent. . . . We became very unified in not going forward with the old management.”
After discussions with other musicians, Kelly launched an independent fundraising campaign, garnering more than $300,000 in donations that would go to the National Philharmonic on the condition that the orchestra’s top leadership was changed. He received backing from the union as well as the National Philharmonic’s founder and music director, Piotr Gajewski; the artistic director of the National Philharmonic Chorale, Stanley Engebretson; and several board members.
Two weeks ago, Kelly presented this plan to Ferfolia and Eskelsen, who later recommended it to the board, Ferfolia said.
“We recommended this outcome to the board for National Philharmonic to have an opportunity to succeed,” said Ferfolia, a trained musician who took over the National Philharmonic in 2016.
Silverfine said she was “ecstatic” to learn that the board had approved Kelly’s plan.
“He’s a musician, he’s one of us. So he knows what’s important to us,” she added.
Ferfolia said that with regard to the musicians, there was “a precarious and fine balance” that administrators had to manage to ensure that the orchestra was operating well through its last performance, and that she stands by the decisions that she, Eskelsen and the board made in the past few months.
Under the new transition plan, Kelly, 42, will serve as president for only one year, during which the orchestra’s leaders will look for a permanent replacement and work on ways to buttress its base of donors.
Orchestras typically rely on donations from several large contributors — people who are donating $10,000 or more — but in recent years, the National Philharmonic has only received around 30 percent of its funding from large donors, Miller said.
“The goal, really, is not to have to face the kind of precipice that we did a few weeks ago,” he added.
In the shorter term, Kelly said he is focused on preparations for the upcoming fall season, which have been delayed by about a week because of the uncertainties around funding.
Gajewski, who founded the National Philharmonic as the Montgomery County Chamber Orchestra in 1983, said he anticipates the coming season to be one of the most celebratory in its history.
“It’s a rebirth,” he said.