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It's Hail to the New (Philly Orchestra) Chief!

December 28, 2006 By:
Cantor David F. Tilman, JE Feature
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James Undercofler's new position as president/CEO of the Philadelphia Orchestra Association is a homecoming of sorts.

Born in Ardmore, he attended Philadelphia Orchestra young people's concerts and studied the French horn with Clarence Mayer, a member of the ensemble's horn section. He is the only CEO of the Philadelphia Orchestra -- and probably one of very few orchestra administrators throughout the world -- to have earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees as a horn performance major.

His work at the Eastman School in Rochester, N.Y., attracted the attention of the Philadelphia Orchestra search committee. Beginning in 1995 as dean of academic affairs, two years later he was promoted to director and dean of this world-class conservatory, building on an already impressive résumé.

Now that he's come back home, what are his goals for the orchestra? Of course, he must first find a superior music director. His CEO colleagues at major U.S. symphony orchestras have told him that "nothing is more important for the success of the orchestra than the guy on the podium."

"We must put in place a process to find artistic leadership," said Undercofler. Although not too eager to comment on the departing Christoph Eschenbach's stormy tenure in the top spot, he would only say that "matters are of a complicated and private nature, and I came into this in the middle of a process."

Faced with the task of both growing his subscription base and increasing the orchestra's audience, Undercofler remains encouraged by a number of factors: "There are more people attending orchestra concerts than there were in 1955, which was considered to be a great year for attendance."

He is also especially happy that during October, more than 250 college students attended, using "rush" tickets. "There are more college students in Verizon Hall than ever before, and they are blogging about the orchestra and classical concerts; this is wonderful," he gushed.

And as part of the orchestra's growing outreach to a younger audience, Undercofler and his staff are exploring a variety of electronic initiatives. He talked about the orchestra's role in using Internet2, a high-speed research network, to connect musicians and fans throughout the country. Other electronic initiatives include downloading concerts for use on mp3 players, and streaming of broadcasts over the Internet.

"We are confronting tough decisions on electronic media. Where do you market musical downloads?" posed the new director, who will continue to develop the orchestra's relationship with Ondine Records.

Undercofler also comes here as an educator: "We have in place a fair amount of community outreach. I want to know how we can reach every single child to share the power of music."

In Rochester, for example, he instituted a Jazz Fantasy Camp enabling students to play together with superb musicians.

While he remains in awe of his players' musical ability, Undercofler admitted that the orchestra has not yet settled into Verizon Hall, saying that "there are some spots where the sound is phenomenal. The biggest problem is on stage."

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