New York Philharmonic Seeks Leader as Mehta Announces Departure

Wanted: Experienced arts administrator to run high-profile New York orchestra. Must be familiar with classical music and be able to raise tens of millions of dollars. Working knowledge of Korean and Georgian are a plus.

Zarin Mehta, president and executive director of the New York Philharmonic, said yesterday he will step down in August 2012, when his contract expires.

The announcement came days after the Republic of Georgia canceled performances by the orchestra, citing financial difficulties. In an interview, Mehta said the decision to leave was not related to the loss of the Georgia bookings.

The Philharmonic, which just opened its fall season in New York, had planned the concerts on Oct. 21 and 22 at the start of a European tour. The lost shows could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in terms of penalties on unused airline and hotel reservations.

How much precisely?

“I don’t know yet,” Mehta said. “Recourse is something we will obviously consider. We’re not sure how one sues a country. I assume they’re extremely embarrassed.”

Since taking over in 2000, Mehta increased attendance and raised the Philharmonic’s profile, according to a press release. The release also cited the orchestra’s “historic” visit to North Korea in 2008. Critics complained at the time that the Philharmonic entertained the elite of a country that abused and starved its citizens. Bloomberg’s Warwick Thompson wrote that the orchestra was “used as a propaganda pawn by North Korea.”

Berlin Wall

Mehta said “it’s too early” to know the positive effects of the trip. He said anti-American billboards that he saw on his first visit were removed by the time the Philharmonic arrived.

He noted that the Berlin Wall fell 30 years after the Philharmonic, led by Leonard Bernstein, played Moscow in 1959.

“Things don’t happen overnight,” he said.

Mehta, 71, ran into trouble with a proposed excursion to Cuba last year. The orchestra was forced to cancel after patrons financing the trip were denied entry by the U.S. government.

“This is the New York Philharmonic and we get invitations,” he said of its world travels.

Born in Mumbai and the brother of conductor Zubin Mehta, Zarin earned $1 million in 2008, according to a tax return. Last season, his pay was $807,000, according to a spokeswoman, as the company ran a deficit of about $4.6 million.

Mehta oversaw the appointment of Alan Gilbert, 43, who joined as music director last September. The Philharmonic was founded in 1842 and is the oldest symphony orchestra in the U.S.

The departing leader said he gave the Philharmonic ample notice of his departure to smooth a transition.

Falling Endowment

“Things take time when you have a volunteer board,” he said.

The endowment today stands at about $170 million, down from a peak of over $200 million. Based on the orchestra’s annual budget of about $60 million, he said he’s seeking to increase the endowment to about $260 million.

“We have to raise more money,” he said.

The full orchestra doesn’t play concerts on Sunday. He declined to say whether he would push to change that when the musicians’ union contract expires in a year.

“There’s been a clause in their contract against that for 40 to 50 years,” he said. “We haven’t played Sundays for so long I can’t even tell you if there’s a public for Sunday concerts.”

As for his successor’s biggest challenge?

“My sense is we’ll continue to fight for audiences,” he said. “We’ll see where the economy is.”

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