National Philharmonic to Fold After Montgomery County Budget Cuts

After providing classical music in the D.C. area for more than 40 years, the National Philharmonic is preparing to close. 

The closure follows budget cuts by the Montgomery County government. The county's Arts and Humanities Council decreased funding for the orchestra from $270,000 to $107,000 over the past eight years, the Philharmonic said in a statement. 

When combined with a near doubling of the organization's operating and performing costs, the cuts "hamstrung National Philharmonic's ability to operate," the statement said.

Philharmonic President Leanne Ferfolia said she made the announcement with "great sadness." She also said she was disappointed in the county's leaders.

"We are disappointed that the County Council doesn’t value the Philharmonic as its own professional community orchestra and chorale for the citizens of Montgomery County," Ferfolia said. "It is also disappointing and sad that the County with an annual budget of nearly $6 billion has been unwilling to allocate the $150,000 requested by the National Philharmonic to preserve the upcoming season."

The Arts and Humanities Council also was "saddened" by the Philharmonic's closure, but the decision not to provide additional funding was one made in the name of equitable treatment, Arts and Humanities Council CEO Suzan Jenkins told News4. 

The council has a "formula" for how each supported organization receives funding, she said. 

"We don't have the means to provide funding outside of that in an equitable manner. The only way we would be able to do that is to not fund someone else," Jenkins said.

The funding formulas are made publicly available online so that organizations can know in advance how the grants work and roughly how much money they can expect, according to Jenkins.

The end of the Philharmonic means job losses for more than 130 union instrumental musicians, the statement said. 

The facility that houses the Philharmonic, the Music Center at Strathmore, offered to reduce its facility fees for the 2019-20 season, but those reductions weren't enough, the Philharmonic said. The orchestra cut their performances by 30 percent to try to cope. 

Ticket sales declined during the 2018-19 season in part because of construction at Strathmore and the connected WMATA parking garage. The government shutdown in January and changes in tax laws for charitable contributions also played a part, the organization said. 

The Philharmonic was created in 2003, when the National Chamber Orchestra and the Masterworks Chorus combined, the organization's website says. It aimed to make classical music accessible through low ticket costs and free admission to children and teens. 

The Philharmonic partnered with Montgomery County Public Schools to perform for second-graders. The program provides music to more than 12,000 children. 

The County Council voted down County Executive Marc Elrich's request for $20,000 to help fund the All Kids Free program, which kept tickets free for 7- to 17-year-olds.

In a comment to NBC Washington, Elrich said in part, "The Philharmonic has entertained, educated and inspired so many people through its tremendous performances and programs. I greatly appreciate all they have done to promote the arts over the years but unfortunately, despite our collective efforts, we were not able to find a solution that would enable National Philharmonic to continue to keep the music playing."

Elrich said he hopes supporters of the Philharmonic will continue to promote the arts and symphonic music in Montgomery County.

"There is no doubt that the National Philharmonic will be a loss, and I would like to extend my appreciation to the board, staff and artists who all played a role in bringing joy to our community for so many years," he said.

The County Council also rejected the orchestra's request for $150,000 in additional funding. 

In a March 25 memo from the Philharmonic to Montgomery Councilmember Craig Rice, the Philharmonic specifically stated that without the $200,000 budget they requested in the document, they would not be able to function.

"Without immediate strategic funding and on-going residency assistance, NP will not be able to continue in its present form," the Philharmonic said.

Rice did not immediately respond to an inquiry. 

The Philharmonic is not the only orchestra to face difficulties because of budget restrictions. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra locked out its musicians in June after contract and salary negotiations stalled. The lockout came after the musicians played without a contract for eight months and coped with 12 weeks without pay due to the cancellation of summer concerts.

The funding issues may lead the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to close as well.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra have also all faced recent labor disputes.

The announcement of the Philharmonic's closure comes less than a year after construction finished at the Music Center at Strathmore.

Jenkins, the Arts and Humanities Council CEO, said the construction was funded by the county because Strathmore is a county-owned building and considered a public asset.

Still, the timing didn't sit well with Leslie Silverfine, president of the Philharmonic committee and a violinist with the orchestra for 32 years. 

"The county and state, along with private funding, have invested more than ten million dollars in an expansion of Strathmore with a beautiful new restaurant and an escalator," she said in the statement. "Why support the building and not the musicians?"

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