BETHESDA—On July 16, the National Philharmonic, who hold residency in Montgomery County’s The Music Center at Strathmore, announced that it will be closing its doors after years of financial decline.
The National Philharmonic has been performing for more than 40 years with many local musicians from Montgomery County. The Philharmonic’s closure will affect the jobs of 130 union instrumental musicians and staff along with more than 150 chorale members who sing with philharmonic as a hobby, according to the organization’s statement.
Part of the National Philharmonic’s funding came from the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County (AHCMC), which supports the arts through grant programs and services. According to the council, their grants support more than 450 cultural organizations and 1,500 artists and scholars.
But over the last eight years, support from AHCMC has dwindled, according to the National Philharmonic.
“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 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,” they wrote in their statement.
In budget discussions for the upcoming fiscal year, the Montgomery County Council did not meet the National Philharmonic’s request for $150,000 in additional funding and voted against funding for the Philharmonic’s All Kids, All Free, All the Time program. The program allows young people ages seven to 17 to attend National Philharmonic concerts for free and meant to make it easier for families to expose children to classical music.
In recent years, the National Philharmonic had to report quarterly to the county council on major improvements to the organization’s operations, specifically covering a reorganization and new strategic plan.
“But the combination of the eliminated county reorganization funding and reduced ticket revenues and donations in 2018 and 2019 crippled the organization,” the National Philharmonic wrote.
To make matters worse, the National Philharmonic suffered from declining ticket sales over the past year due to construction at The Music Center at Strathmore and the parking garage across the street. Without these last sources of revenue and inadequate reserves, they write, the orchestra does not have enough money to continue.
“It is with great sadness that I must report that the National Philharmonic has to shut its doors,” said Leanne Ferfolia, who serves as president of the National Philharmonic. “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. 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.”
According to the county council, Montgomery County has provided more than $2.5 million in gap funding and general operating funds.
“It’s disappointing that the (National Philharmonic) wasn’t able to leverage these investments into a financially sustainable model,” said Council President Nancy Navarro. “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.”
Councilmember Craig Rice also noted that the council had supported the National Philharmonic monetarily and through the development of a new strategic plan in recent years as the organization began to falter.
“While we are disappointed that the National Philharmonic has decided to close, we understand the financial pressures behind the decision,” Rice said in a statement.
He also noted that other orchestras have been struggling alongside the National Philharmonic to stay profitable.
“National Philharmonic, like orchestras across the nation, are facing difficult financial times and rethinking their business models. 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,” Rice said.
Leslie Silverfine, president of the National Philharmonic Orchestra Committee, noted just how much money local and state officials have allocated for the music hall itself.
“The county and state, along with private funding, have invested more than ten million dollars in an expansion of (The Music Center) at Strathmore with a beautiful new restaurant and an escalator. Why support the building but not the musicians?” She asked.
According to the National Philharmonic, the orchestra’s presence has led to considerable development in the area including apartment buildings and offices that want to be near the concert hall. They note that the accessibility of the orchestra was a selling point to entice Amazon HQ2 and other large corporations to move to the area.
The loss of the National Philharmonic is expected to put extra strain on the music hall, according to Todd R. Eskelson, chair of the National Philharmonic board of directors.
“Losing National Philharmonic means that the county’s substantial investment in the hall is not being realized by county residents,” he said. “Even more concerning, the loss of National Philharmonic, combined with the difficulties faced by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) will really stress (The Music Center at) Strathmore’s operations because BSO and National Philharmonic provide more than 40 percent of the musical performance(s) in the building.”
Amy Killion, a public relations specialist with The Music Center at Strathmore, said in an interview that the music hall will be looking to its musical partners to fill the programming gaps that the National Philharmonic left behind. But for the time being, she said. The Music Center at Strathmore is focused on the present transition.