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National Philharmonic Closes Its Curtains Due To Financial Woes

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National Philharmonic Closes Its Curtains Due To Financial Woes

Due to financial problems in recent years, the Strathmore-based National Philharmonic is closing.

By Alessia Grunberger

Due to financial problems in recent years, the Strathmore-based National Philharmonic is closing. (Shutterstock)

BETHESDA, MD — The National Philharmonic, an esteemed orchestra based out of North Bethesda's Music Center at Strathmore, is closing its curtains. The impending — and rather abrupt — closure is estimated to cost more than 130 union musicians and staff their jobs.

"It is with great sadness that I must report that the National Philharmonic has to shut its doors," National Philharmonic President Leanne Ferfolia said in a media release Tuesday. "We have been an important and integral part of the community and a service to Montgomery County residents, especially the thousands of young people who were able to attend our concerts with their families for free."

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The Philharmonic is the largest and most active professional orchestra based in Montgomery County, according to the company's website. Since 2005, the group has performed more than 100 classical music events at the Music Center at Strathmore.

But with less money from the Montgomery County Council, and sluggish ticket sales and donations during the 2018-19 season, the National Philharmonic struggled financially.

In Tuesday's media release, Ferfolia expressed frustration with the County Council, which rejected the National Philharmonic's request for an additional $150,000 in the fiscal year 2020 budget.

She said it was "disappointing and sad that the county with an annual budget of nearly $6 billion has been unwilling to allocate the $150,000" needed to preserve the 2019-20 season.

On Tuesday, council president Nancy Navarro also put out a statement about the closure, saying the county has given the National Philharmonic more than $2.5 million in the last decade.

"Over the years, Montgomery County has provided more than $2.5 million to support the operations of the National Philharmonic, and it's disappointing that the organization wasn't able to leverage these investments into a financially sustainable model," Navarro wrote. "As the county begins to look at equity across all our investments, this level of investment isn't sustainable for one organization over the long term. My hope is that these artists will reach out to our Arts and Humanities Council to help cultivate new artistic endeavors that will continue to enrich our community."

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Council member Craig Rice, chair of the council's Education and Culture Committee, said he and his colleagues believe the arts and humanities are important — and that they have financially supported the National Philharmonic, even when it had to revamp its business model in recent years.

But he acknowledged that times are tough for orchestras across the nation.

"National Philharmonic, like orchestras across the nation, are facing difficult financial times and rethinking their business models," Rice said. "Despite heavy investments by the state and Montgomery County, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra recently canceled its summer season and earlier this year, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra revamped its pension plan to secure the orchestra's long-term financial stability."

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The orchestra's upcoming season at Strathmore was packed with choral and symphonic masterpieces, including Beethoven's "Eroica Symphony," "The Music of ABBA," and "Hallelujah! Handel's Messiah."

Strathmore's president and CEO also released a statement about the closure, saying it's unfortunate that the National Philharmonic could not overcome years of financial troubles.

"It is unfortunate that the National Philharmonic's efforts to transform its model could not overcome the challenges it faced. We are saddened that they have decided to close," said Monica Jeffries Hazangeles. "We know that many orchestras are reimagining traditional paradigms and searching for ways to improve sustainability and that despite Strathmore's financial and strategic support, the Philharmonic was unable to overcome several years of financial distress."


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Strathmore CEO Hopes To Fill Performance Vacancies Left Amid National Philharmonic Closure

Philharmonic accounts for about 4% of Strathmore revenue


Monica Jeffries Hazangeles | PHOTO VIA STRATHMORE

Strathmore’s chief executive officer says there will be a noticeable but not substantial impact on the concert hall’s budget after the National Philharmonic closes, and she hopes to fill performance vacancies left by the orchestra’s closure.

National Philharmonic, the largest Montgomery County-based presenter of classical music concerts, has been a resident at Strathmore since 2005, performing more than 250 times. After more than five years of financial woes, the orchestra announced this week it will cease operations, leaving 130 musicians and staff without jobs.

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Revenue from the group accounts for about 4% of Strathmore’s earned revenue, Strathmore President and CEO Monica Jeffries Hazangeles told Bethesda Beat Wednesday. She declined to disclose how much money, if any, National Philharmonic owes Strathmore.

National Philharmonic made payments to Strathmore for use of the concert hall, office space and rehearsal space, Jeffries Hazangeles said.

“We’ve had a philosophy since the beginning of the Music Center that we wanted to be a multi-legged stool, and that’s why we have multiple partners here,” Jeffries Hazangeles said. “So, for Strathmore’s operating model, if any of those partners were to falter in any way or, God forbid, have to close, there are other stable partners here. We’re not solely reliant on any one source of income.”

The concert hall hosts about 160 performances each year.


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Jeffries Hazangeles said National Philharmonic’s closure was “not a surprise,” as Strathmore has been “doing all it can” to help ease the orchestra’s financial burden for several years, but that Strathmore officials are sad Philharmonic is unable to continue operations.

“Our little ecosystem here at Strathmore will certainly miss them, and to the extent we can we’ll assist the musicians who are impacted by this,” Jeffries Hazangeles said.

In a statement Tuesday, National Philharmonic President Leanne Ferfolia attributed much of the orchestra’s budget issues to construction at Strathmore and the 35-day federal government shutdown earlier this year. Both events led to a decline in ticket sales, she said.

She also chastised the county government for not supporting National Philharmonic’s request for $150,000 in additional funding. Ferfolia said she was “disappointed that the County Council doesn’t value the Philharmonic as its own professional community orchestra and chorale for the citizens of Montgomery County.”

County Council President Nancy Navarro pushed back in a separate statement, saying the local government has given National Philharmonic more than $2.5 million in recent years, an effort that “isn’t sustainable … over the long term.”

County Executive Marc Elrich said in a statement Wednesday “despite our collective efforts, we were not able to find a solution that would enable National Philharmonic to continue,” but did not respond to questions asking for clarification about why a resolution could not be reached.

National Philharmonic had 14 performances scheduled at Strathmore for its upcoming concert season, most on Saturday nights.

Strathmore does not have any groups “waiting in the wings” to fill those now-vacant performance slots, but Jeffries Hazangeles said she is confident replacement performances will be booked.

“We’ve got other partners and potential users that might be interested,” Jeffries Hazangeles said. “I think it will take some time to fully replace all of them, but it’s not as if we have folks lined up … We’ve been very devoted partners and didn’t want to act prematurely in any way.”

While National Philharmonic’s closure has reignited conversations in the community that classical music is “dying,” Jeffries Hazangeles said she “emphatically disagrees.

“I think that we’re required as arts organizations to respond to our environments and our communities in really dynamic ways,” Jeffries Hazangeles said. “If we’re doing that, we can hopefully be here for the long haul.”

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