"I care deeply about how we teach, perform, and live with music in America." With those words, James Undercofler was off and running after the April 2006 announcement that he had been appointed president and CEO of The Philadelphia Orchestra Association. At the time dean and director of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, Undercofler traveled to Philadelphia for the press conference and attendant interviews and then jumped immediately into the Association's three-hour organization-wide forum about exploring electronic means of distributing The Philadelphia Orchestra's music.
The next day, observing Undercofler at 30th Street Station waiting for the train to take the Orchestra entourage to New York for the evening's Carnegie Hall concert, it was hard to tell that the appointment had been made only one day prior. At 6 feet, 5 inches, he stood out above the crowd, moving among groups of musicians and donors, and chatting as if he'd known these members of the Philadelphia Orchestra "family" forever.
In some ways, perhaps, he has. A native of Ardmore, Undercofler grew up attending Philadelphia Orchestra education concerts at the Academy of Music, getting free tickets as a high school student. He studied horn under Orchestra musician Clarence Mayer and remembers with fondness attending the world premiere of Shostakovich's Cello Concerto with Mstislav Rostropovich and the Orchestra in 1959. Undercofler's brother, Clayton, was a long time Board member of the Association and his wife, Wendy, grew up in Swarthmore (although they did not meet until college) and also studied with Orchestra musicians.
So even though Undercofler already knew the rhythm of the Orchestra's environment, there was still work to be done in getting reacquainted with Philadelphia and the Orchestra. With his start date in Philadelphia still three months away, he returned to Rochester to wrap up his affairs at Eastman, while at the same time he jumped into his Philadelphia Orchestra duties with both feet.
During those three months Undercofler spent time with Music Director Christoph Eschenbach. He attended the inaugural concerts of the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ and the Volunteer Committees' Perfect Harmony event in May. He went to donor receptions and luncheons, the Opening Night Ribbon Cutting Ceremony at the Mann Center, and spoke at a Neighborhood Concert Kick-Off Reception at Villanova University.
And in May Undercofler met with the Board for the first time since they formally voted to appoint him and articulated his vision and goals for his presidency: maintain a consistent focus on the artistry of The Philadelphia Orchestra; continue to build audiences by going deeper into the Greater Philadelphia community; build and expand the use of technology to develop alternative revenue sources; and successfully complete the Endowment Campaign and move on to the next phase of endowment fund-raising.
"I'm keenly interested in the challenges for orchestras and symphonic music in the 21st century, as I believe they are both as central to people's lives as ever before," says Undercofler. "As we tackle these challenges, we will, of course, always focus on our artistic core, as we will continue to empower our musicians in participatory governance, create wider and wider circles of community involvement, and provide leadership and a willing partner to the education community to insure the richness of music in our children's lives."
The choice of James Undercofler as president of The Philadelphia Orchestra Association was somewhat unconventional in the American orchestra industry. Observers noted that he came to this role from a different background than many orchestra leaders and some wondered whether he would have the requisite skills to manage a major American orchestra. The Association's search committee, which included Board members, staff, and musicians, expressed a commitment to hiring someone with "an informed passion for symphonic music, creative visions, and a record of accomplishment in managing complex organizations to build upon the Orchestra's extraordinary past and guide the Orchestra toward a future in which it can achieve its greatest potential." Their decision to offer the position to Undercofler was unanimous. "He is a visionary leader with a proven track record of success at Eastman," notes Association Chairman Harold A. Sorgenti on Undercofler's appointment. "He has a deep and powerful connection to symphonic music and believes passionately in the future of the classical music art form. He has raised significant financial and community support for Eastman, and his work in the area of technology and electronic media positions The Philadelphia Orchestra Association well for the future."
Undercofler's background has outfitted him well to meet the opportunities and challenges before him. He returns to Philadelphia by way of a long career in music and arts education. He began at Eastman in 1995 as dean of academic affairs and was promoted to director and dean in 1997. During his tenure, Eastman's endowment grew by nearly $100 million, and the school consistently has been recognized as one of the top undergraduate and graduate schools for music in the United States.
Undercofler's commitment to the orchestra field is demonstrated by his work as a Board member of the American Symphony Orchestra League, as current president of the Board of the American Music Center, and as an active participant in the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's Orchestra Forum, a long-term program that examines orchestra leadership and provides models of new practice for the orchestra field.
Known as an innovator and dedicated to the professional development of orchestral musicians, Undercofler created the acclaimed Institute for Music Leadership at Eastman, a unique program that prepares students for traditional and nontraditional careers while working to ensure the vitality and relevance of music in the 21st century. He established a state-of-the-art Music Technology and Production Department at Eastman that maximizes educational use of Web-based innovations, and was one of the founding forces behind Polyphonic.org, a new, interactive Web site designed to be a rich resource for orchestral musicians.
A passion for arts education also informs Undercofler's work. Prior to Eastman he spent nearly ten years in Minnesota as executive and founding director of the Minnesota Center for Arts Education, a state agency devoted to the enhancement of arts education. Early in his career he directed the Educational Center for the Arts in New Haven, Connecticut, and served on the faculty of the Neighborhood Music School in New Haven. Undercofler was also conductor of the Greater New Haven Youth Orchestra and a horn player in the New Haven Symphony. He holds bachelors and masters degrees in horn performance from Eastman and Yale and has pursued doctoral studies at the University of Connecticut.
Community engagement has long been a priority for Undercofler, as it will continue to be in Philadelphia. In Rochester he initiated an outreach program called Music for All, which sent Eastman students out to perform classical music in schools and community organizations across the city. He served on the Board of the Rochester Philharmonic, was a founder and Board member of Mercury Opera of Rochester, and a member of the City of Rochester/Monroe County Cultural Commission. Undercofler is also recognized as a leader on the national front of music and education. He has been a featured speaker at events convened by the National Association of Schools of Music, the Music Educators National Conference, the Council on Exceptional Children, the International NETWORK of Visual and Performing Arts Schools, the National Association of State Legislatures, and Chamber Music America. His articles have appeared in Arts Education Policy Review and documents published by the U.S. Department of Education and the Minnesota Department of Education.
Music has also been a priority on the home front. Undercofler's wife, Wendy, teaches violin and will continue to do so in Philadelphia. His two daughters, Jennifer Undercofler and Katharine Allen, are both professional musicians, and music will no doubt figure largely in the lives of his three granddaughters.
What has been on Undercofler's plate since moving into his new home on Bainbridge Street, just south of the Orchestra's home at the Kimmel Center, and officially moving into his office on August 1? Well, he hasn't spent much time in that office. He headed off to Saratoga Springs for part of the Orchestra's three-week residency at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center and its performance at Tanglewood before joining them on their 16-day European Festivals Tour.
And Undercofler will be very visible this fall at Orchestra concerts (backstage with musicians and in Commonwealth Plaza talking to audience members), out and about in Philadelphia meeting arts and community leaders, and rediscovering the energy, diversity, and vibrancy of this area he will once again call home.
"This world-class orchestra in this great city has such a rich history and tradition, and it is a privilege to have this opportunity to be part of its future," says Undercofler. "The Philadelphia Orchestra has the artistry and spirit necessary to bring rejuvenating innovations to the classical music field while continuing to give breathtaking performances. It is a tremendous thrill to partner with the musicians and the full Philadelphia Orchestra community — together we will accomplish great things."
Katherine Blodgett is director of Public and Media Relations for The Philadelphia Orchestra and Peter Nero and the Philly Pops.