Global Conversations with: Allison Vulgamore, President & CEO, the Philadelphia Orchestra

Kait Lavinder, for GPA -- Germany, Lebanon, Austria, and Morocco are some of the places President and CEO of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Allison Vulgamore, has called home. When younger, Vulgamore moved quite frequently with her parents, who worked in academia. She says growing up with this lifestyle is part of the reason why she believes connecting with other cultures is vital. Vulgamore also emphasizes the importance of learning multiple languages in order to better understand other peoples’ perspectives. As a trained singer, she speaks English, German, French, and Italian. I visited the Kimmel Center to talk with Vulgamore about how her international-mindedness affects the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Greater Philadelphia area. Having begun her career in Philly 30 years ago, Vulgamore tells me she is happy to be back.

Did you ever think you would be back in Philadelphia?
I’m not sure if I imagined it, but I felt a gratitude and need to come back. The Orchestra reached out to me at a time when it needed to envision an evolving future. Over the years, I have had a wonderful career - from The Philadelphia Orchestra to the National Symphony Orchestra to the New York Philharmonic to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra - but I was honored to be called to come back and see that this orchestra remains a thoughtful business calling card for Philadelphia.

How does being located in Philadelphia, as opposed to any other major city, play a part in the Orchestra’s presence overseas?
That is a fascinating question. Being from Philadelphia, rather than from New York or Washington, allows us to be more easily identified because we stand alone. We don’t have the national government here any longer, but it started here. We don’t have the banking or commerce industries of New York, but we have access to them. While we must be present in those cities, we stand alone in our history and our innovation. In 1973, President Richard Nixon chose The Philadelphia Orchestra to be the cultural connective tissue between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. That is a sign that Philadelphia has a distinguished role in society.

Can you describe the Orchestra’s history with the People’s Republic of China and also the recent tour there?
In 1973, President Nixon, who was a friend of Eugene Ormandy, invited The Philadelphia Orchestra to open the cultural boundaries between China and the United States. Since then, The Orchestra has returned to China seven times, four in the last five years. The trips are about more than performing great music; they are about people to people exchanges. Long-time China specialist Ambassador Nicholas Platt and I met three years ago when The Philadelphia Orchestra played for the 2010 World Expo in China. We discussed The Orchestra’s history with China and decided we should continue this commitment to a cultural people to people exchange.

Explain The Philadelphia Orchestra’s partnership with China’s National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA).
So if 2010 was when I met Ambassador Platt and we said we should dream big, then 2012 was a remarkable time for The Philadelphia Orchestra. President of the NCPA Chen Ping was in conversations with the United States to create Chinese-American partnerships, and The Orchestra engaged in this. In the fall of 2011, the NCPA and The Philadelphia Orchestra signed an agreement in D.C. for a pilot combining performance and residency activities to determine whether or not the people to people exchange could be reignited; and by May 2012, we were back in China. We were blown away by the publicity. Before we left, we signed a five-year partnership contract with the NCPA agreeing to make five return trips to China. We now have been to Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Philadelphia’s sister city Tianjin. During this latest trip, the 2013 Residency & Fortieth Anniversary Tour of China, we got to know Hangzhou. We expand our footprint with an additional city and province every time we go.

How do you think the Orchestra’s relationship with China reflects on Philadelphia?
At the time The Philadelphia Orchestra first went to China in 1973, Mao Zedong’s last wife Madame Mao suddenly stepped out of her austere existence and wanted to be the cultural ambassador. She opened the Chinese communist broadcasting system, and The Orchestra became a Western influence that was broadcast all over China. I think it is very important for Philadelphia that we have been consistently going back and engaging with the people of China. Increasingly, more and more corporations are coming to The Orchestra and wanting to go with us into China. Our relationship with China is good for the economy, good for internationalism, and good for showing that Philadelphia can make a commitment to a foreign relationship. Relationship building is the essence of any good exchange.

Do you have plans in the future for The Philadelphia Orchestra to have a partnerships, like the China one, with other countries?
The Philadelphia Orchestra has been a first amongst other American orchestras in many international categories: first across the Atlantic Ocean, first across the country, first into Vietnam, and first to have this partnership with China. We’re going to always come up with another first. I do think the model that we’re creating in China is important because it is built on residency concepts, as well as performance. Sharing the joy of music with communities, amateurs, semi-professionals, professionals, and audiences is possible in any country in the world. I look to Brazil, where the commonwealth has interest. I look to Europe. I don’t know, maybe Dubai!

Explain why you think spreading American culture to other countries and bringing foreign cultural entities here is just as important as spreading business enterprises.
The two go hand in hand. Business isn’t successful if there isn’t a humanizing of the relationships between countries. One cannot bring business to a foreign country and bring a positive return back, unless one is also giving back. The Philadelphia Orchestra brings an authentic human connection to the presence of our sponsoring companies and of our governments in China.

When managing an institution with people of varying cultures, backgrounds, and languages, what do you always have to keep in mind?
That diversity is an advantage. For instance, in an orchestra we are male and female, old and young, Asian, European, African-American, Puerto Rican, and we have roots in other people’s cultures. We are professional musicians, but we work with students and amateurs and semi-professionals. Like a kaleidoscope, having different viewpoints makes for stronger ownership of decision making; you usually have to live through a lot of debate, but then there’s a profound owning of direction. I have the honor of working with people from anywhere and everywhere every day, whether they’re audience members, musicians, or partners. That’s a very vibrant way to be alive in this world.

What can Philadelphia do to become more internationally aware? Maybe restructure its educational system so that learning a second language is required?
I think our whole country could be more internationally aware. I see this happening with the offering of Asian language courses in the U.S., but we can’t forget the Romance languages. We all need to speak, or at least learn, two languages; a more shared experience is created when you can speak someone else’s language.

Do you think that Philadelphia will ever reach the level of internationality of say New York or Washington? Or do you think that is not what Philadelphia should strive for because, like you mentioned earlier, Philly is very unique compared to other major American cities?
Well I haven’t seen the numbers, but are we really behind those two cities?

The perception is that we are. 
But perception isn’t always reality, and Philadelphia has to rise up against that. Philadelphia has to be inspired by its legacy and history and take pride in its own current value. Internationalism is important for any major city; it’s the business calling card. And Philadelphia has great higher education institutions and a very vibrant cultural scene. Maybe what we really need to change is how we talk about it. 

In interviews that I’ve conducted since I have been working with Global Philadelphia, that theme seems to come up often - that Philadelphia has these great resources but we’re not necessarily proud of them. Why do you think that is?
Well there’s a lot of history here that has roots in our Quaker foundation, which is about not being boastful and prideful. But in the present day, you can’t be missing on a world agenda. And Philadelphia doesn’t have to be missing; we have the right calling cards going forward. The commonwealth has been making more and more economic trade visits to Europe, The Orchestra is creating a second market in China, cultural organizations are bringing to life the envisioned boulevard where The Barnes Foundation recently relocated, and higher education and medicine are flourishing in Philadelphia. If we have a more shared conversation, perhaps we can put together a stronger communication about the assets of the city.

Do you consume international news media? And if so, where do you get this news from?
Working in Atlanta for 16 years and knowing many of the CNN broadcasters gave me the chance to bring visiting artists to the CNN studios – incredibly exciting for them! Around the world, CNN is a calling card of significance for the United States, and I passionately watch it. I watch Al Jazeera if I’m in Europe or the Middle East because I’m interested in the perspective of the story telling. I read, by cultural necessity, Le Monde and Die Welt. And I am still a subscriber to Saudi Aramco World, which I began reading when I lived with my family in Beirut.

Do you have a favorite cultural spot in Philadelphia?
I just took a young family member to the Italian Market because I’m addicted to three stores down there. I love Zama and Cuba Libre. I’m very interested in Chinatown, with too many good restaurants for me to identify only one as a favorite. And I am always learning more about the great culture and artistry of the African-American community here.

What is your hope for Philadelphia in the next ten years?
I hope that ten years from now we are flooded with a unique sense of what it takes to truly share research data and exchange programs. I can see it already. I see it with the pharmaceutical industry and sharing between Europe and the commonwealth, The Philadelphia Orchestra’s Chinese program, and the Drexel-SARI Center in Shanghai. I think the way of the world will be about shared partnerships, shared investment, and shared return.

So you foresee this trend of embracing global culture continuing long-term into the future? 
I think history does repeat itself. There will always be this role of exploration that then maybe takes a hiatus and comes back. What we can’t give up on is curiosity. I hope we maintain our curiosity, as a country and as a city. Curiosity opens doors of potential and engagement.

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