Every few months or so there seems to be yet another article discussing various perspectives regarding women on the podium. I noticed a distinct uptick after the finale of the Proms, at which the eminent Marin Alsop appeared (finally). From the ridiculous to the well-reasoned, female conductors are a hot topic these days.
You may wonder what angle could possibly be missing from the avalanche of words spilled (and sometimes wasted) on what is rapidly becoming a tiresome dialogue (to me, anyway). Here’s a little secret, at least in my experience: nobody cares. That is to say, truly gifted conductors are in such short supply these days that most orchestras wouldn’t care if you are male, female, or some combination as long as you possess that intangible and complex set of skills that both inspires and challenges a large group of musicians to play their best on a regular basis without growing to despise you in the process. And even if that happens, they’ll still be happy about some great concerts.
The thing is, you can’t teach this stuff, kind of like having a great business vision, mastering creative bike tricks, or becoming a great quarterback. There’s a certain alchemy to conducting, along with the aforementioned exceptional artistic qualities, and you don’t get that in “school”. Further, conductors’ engagements and early career development are often determined by word of mouth between artistic administrators and managers, many of whom (not all) have less than comprehensive knowledge with regard to conducting ability and potential. I couldn’t possibly count the number of times I’ve seen a 20 or 30-something “rising star” (male or female) who was clearly in over their head within the first 30 minutes, sometimes embarrassingly so. In my experience with very rare exceptions, from the musicians’ standpoint gender is almost an afterthought, given the current scarcity of conducting talent with real promise and durability. Perhaps every orchestra has its share of traditionalists and/or bigots, and orchestral musicians are notorious for having wildly diverging evaluations of the same conductor or concert. But it does seem as if general attitudes are more inclusive these days.
I am not at all dismissing the unique obstacles for any woman attempting to develop a conducting career. As some recent articles have noted, extra scrutiny, ingrained stereotyping, the relative “maleness” of the conducting profession, etc. are all factors to one degree or another. And these are obviously more pronounced in certain cultures and orchestras (say, the Vienna Philharmonic, for example. Or the entire country of Russia, if you believe some of what you read). But what about the numbers themselves? Countless young males imagine they can slog through a conducting program and instantly be taken very seriously, no matter what their abilities (and sometimes they do sustain an over-hyped career for a few seasons). Far less women embark on this path (except maybe in Finland), so proportionally alone the odds are against them. In other words, there are huge numbers of mediocre male conductors, so why would the talent level be automatically higher with a much smaller talent pool of women? Beyond the hype and sometimes counterproductive marketing of conductors (which often perpetuate negative stereotypes), it seems to me that a truly gifted conductor who happens to be a women may enjoy a huge advantage simply by virtue of those two elements alone.
The relative scarcity of women conductors is a complex topic, and this is obviously a singular perspective after 25 years of sitting very close to the podium (and more recently, occasionally standing on it). One of the great joys of playing in an orchestra is having either a guest conductor or Music Director that truly leads, inspires, shows professional respect, knows the scores in detail, doesn’t waste time, and allows you to both play your best and push the boundaries artistically. Admittedly a tall order, and such a rare event that when it does take place, matters of gender, race, or anything else just don’t matter to me. I could be mistaken, but based my own totally unscientific surveys of some colleagues, I don’t think my attitude is unique. Still, I’ll consider it real progress when the issues of quality dominate the narrative and evaluation of any conductor, and gender truly becomes irrelevant on a broader scale. I look forward to that.
I’ll go ahead and say it- I almost feel bad for Michael Henson and Jon Campbell (CEO and Board Chair of the Minnesota Orchestral Association, respectively). Yes, they’ve presided over one of the biggest cultural disasters in recent memory, ripped off their own musicians and ignored the patrons (and of course any and all blogs), and altered the musical landscape in Minnesota for years to come. True, they are in many ways directly responsible for the immense emotional and financial hardship experienced by the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra for the past year, and most likely for some time to come. And after all those millions raised (and spent), now they’re stuck with no orchestra and a concert hall no one will use and that will probably get picketed. Yet I still find myself sympathizing in some unusual way, probably because I don’t think either of them (or the MOA Board) could’ve possibly envisioned the travesty they unleashed.
Like many outside observers, at first I figured the intransigence of the MOA Board and management was simply a negotiating tactic, something so draconian that they knew it wouldn’t be taken seriously, and eventually they’d come to their senses and find a path forward of shared sacrifice that would meaningfully address the financial concerns while preserving the artistic excellence that had so beautifully flowered over many decades. Detroit and Philadelphia were recent memories with their own issues, but this was different. Clearly this orchestra was at an artistic apex with Osmo Vänskä, at least that was never in dispute. Who would even risk throwing all that away?
Turns out that was the wrong question. Anyone closely following the twists and turns over the last year (and especially recently) can only arrive at one conclusion: despite the very real questions raised involving basic standards of competence and common sense, the MOA and management did seriously prepare to reinvent the wheel, and are now willing to sacrifice the fundamental artistic standards of the institution if necessary. Now it’s just about damage control and saving face. I truly believe that the only reason the substantial efforts of former Sen. George Mitchell and Gov. Mark Dayton haven’t been successful is that somehow Mr. Henson and Mr. Campbell, blinded by industrial-sized ideology, titanic egos, and raw hubris (read- fear and cowardice) now believe that even seriously sitting at the table will be perceived as some sort of failure.
You cannot simulate this sort of ignorance, so blatantly obvious to anyone really paying attention. To many, these two will forever be known first and foremost for this debacle. Is that to be celebrated? Okay, Mr. Campbell will eventually have his millions from Wells Fargo and his corporate perks and whatever, and Mr. Henson will, well, I don’t know what he’ll do when he finally steps down. But I have a feeling that somewhere way down inside they grasp the magnitude of this, and on a purely human level that cannot feel great. I also believe there are MOA board members who deeply regret their blind allegiance and will not remain silent forever.
With the developments last week, I suppose there is a microscopic chance that some superhero will swoop in, conk them all on the head, and some magical agreement will materialize before September 15. Intuition tells me otherwise; I hope I’m wrong. As the weeks went on this summer with no substantial news, I kept thinking of the pivotal questions at this point for anyone in the orchestra business and especially the cultural community in Minneapolis:
After all this, what exactly has been accomplished? Has there been any upside at all? And perhaps most critically, how can other institutions learn from this tragedy? However the next two weeks play out, I sincerely hope those questions will be widely and intensely explored, and that the lessons from this sort of trench warfare will never be forgotten.
The Minnesota Orchestra cross-blog event is a collection of more than a dozen bloggers, musicians, patrons, and administrators writing about the orchestra’s devastating work stoppage. You can find all of the contributions in the following list and the authors encourage everyone to participate by sharing, commenting, or publishing something at your own culture blog.
Most of you know I released a CD last April on AVIE called A Violin’s Life after completing a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign. The idea was to partially chronicle the amazing history of the violin I’m so fortunate to be playing by recording works of composers closely associated with it, along with a fairly comprehensive website. It’s been really gratifying to see a nice press response including reviews in The Strad, Strings Magazine, the Irish Times, and even a nice mention in the New York Times.
I’m particularly grateful to the people at SiriusXM that took an interest, and wanted to let you all know that SiriusXM Radio will be broadcasting a program featuring interviews and excerpts from the CD, starting tonight. It will be on Symphony Hall (channel 76) and broadcast times are:
Thursday July 25th 7pm
Saturday 27th 4pm
Sunday 28th 6pm
Monday 29th 10pm
All times EST.
If you aren’t already a subscriber you can still listen online with a free trial at www.siriusxm.com. Check out the Symphony Hall page on facebook here.
Happy listening, and special thanks again to all the devoted Kickstarter donors that made this project possible.
Hope everyone had a safe and happy holiday. Summer is usually kind of a slow news cycle in the arts world, but for come reason there has been a series of provocative articles in the past few weeks on various topics. For those of you looking for some amusing (and sometimes amazing) reading this Friday, this is for you…..
First up is this widely circulated and spectacularly ignorant piece that would be almost comical but for the not-so-subtle racism couched in buzzwords and simplistic conclusions. Fortunately Bill Eddins demolishes this nonsense in his excellent response, emphasizing the fact that blatant racial stereotypes are neither the cause nor the solution for the various issues confronting orchestras these days.
This article eloquently explains why Pandora sucks for musicians and songwriters. As convenient as it is, I still wince when I see one of my musician friend’s Facebook posts telling me how they’re currently getting ripped off what they’re listening to on Pandora.
On the upside, the Pittsburgh Symphony musicians got a nice new contract a year early, after what was apparently a cordial set of negotiations. Then the orchestra reported its deficit tripled last year; presumably that fact was an element of the contract talks, since no one seems too concerned at the moment.
More recently this appeared, MPR’s hyper-contorionist attempt to be “fair and balanced” regarding the Minnesota Orchestra situation. While most would acknowledge that serious miscalculations have been made all around (unsurprising after a 10-month lockout), this article completely sidesteps some important facts. For example, the original proposal from the Minnesota Orchestra Association (MOA) didn’t just have an average pay cut of 30%, it also tore up the master agreement, starting from scratch in terms of industry-standard working conditions (check this out for starters). Then they walked away and literally locked the doors. In essence, the MOA management continues its quest to completely rebuild the entire business model of a (formerly) thriving arts institution by first destroying it, then plowing forward at a bargain price with the musicians that hung around. That is, after the shiny new lobby is done, and if they can ignore the picketing from former patrons. Make no mistake- the MOA and Board hold the key to the future here, not the (fleeing) musicians or their likely-soon-to-be-former Music Director. And the entire community is losing out, with no end in sight.
Finally there’s this, which just left me speechless, but the comments are worth reading. Truly one of the most appalling things I’ve ever seen on a prominent NY press outlet, and further evidence of the sad deterioration of the Village Voice, formerly known for some outstanding arts writing prior to firing everyone with an even ounce of talent. Take note, MOA….
Like most everyone in the orchestra business, I was happy to finish out this season with all its peaks and valleys. Personally I’m looking forward to a fairly quiet summer (with some exceptions) but in the meantime here are a few interesting articles just in case you’re tired of reading about Minnesota.…
This article might interest all your friends that think you’re a crazy musician. And look, you can buy a concert hall in Nashville if you want.
If you have a birthday coming up, maybe read this first…..
If you’re tired of being polite up in MN you can read about how we all learned these words to describe the situation. Here’s why so many of us take a nap before a concert.
Don’t have time to read Ulysses this summer? Check this out.
Maybe you heard I have a new CD release. I think it’s pretty good and that everyone should buy it. No, really, you should.
Happy reading (or listening). More soon……
Coming up on six months of lockouts in Minneapolis and St. Paul, it’s very difficult to think of what else to say or write on this tragic situation, since lots of people way smarter than I have already done so. But since the cliff is fast approaching (or maybe already past), I thought I’d post a few thoughts mostly directed to the MOA (Minnesota Orchestral Association) Board and the soon-to-be former patrons of classical music in the Twin Cities.
I’ve got several friends in the Minnesota Orchestra; some I’ve been in contact with, a few who have been subbing with the Milwaukee Symphony off and on for the last few months (a substantial portion of the MN Orch is now working with ensembles all over the country). As time has progressed I’ve noticed quite a few similar and sometimes unexpected perspectives from the musicians I’ve spoken with, and maybe some are worth sharing.
First is the very real human cost of this debacle: lost income, families with no health insurance (cut off when the lockout started), houses for sale, permanent relocation, possible career changes, serious soul searching. Another common refrain was how the MOA Board is allowing this to happen- a slow-motion catastrophe that could permanently affect their very own community. After months of disbelief, the most common question from musicians seems to be “How can these people continue to drink this crazy Kool-Aid from a couple of guys who clearly have no idea what they’ve set in motion? Why won’t at least a few board members stand up and do the right thing?” Another source of confusion seems to involve the MN Orchestra patrons themselves. Obviously they are passionate and well-meaning, with sites like Orchestrate Excellence , some social media efforts, and lots of volunteer work, but who thus far seem to lack an effective or potent strategy to get their message across to a broad coalition, possibly including members of the MOA Board that might eventually get tired of sitting on the sidelines while the institution disintegrates. With all due respect, where are the thousands of people who attended those self-promoted concerts (shunned by most of the MOA Board), and might there be better ways to get the points across more effectively to the Board and broader community? At least the recent actions of the MN legislature might get their attention, but those wheels turn slowly.
It was interesting to hear one person reflect on one aspect of why they left the MN Orchestra many years ago, despite it’s considerable artistic cachet and (at that time) unmistakable upward trajectory. To paraphrase- “If there’s a serious problem, everyone puts their head in the sand. People in Minnesota hate conflict, and this is Exhibit A. Even the audience seems to think that it’s better to sit back and let it all play out rather than get off their asses and directly confront this idiotic Board; it’s just part of the culture up there. This time things may really come crashing down; they probably have already”. Presumably they were referring to the fact that if indeed the entire season is eventually cancelled (a very real possibility), that would have repercussions that are far beyond the scope of what this Board and arts community seem to comprehend- in most other cities it has taken years to recover, and when the smoke cleared it would be a very different institution indeed. But at least here they’ll have a really nice lobby.
For the record, no musician I’ve spoken with was willing to work with President/CEO Michael Henson in any capacity. Responses ranged from resigned disappointment to outright hostility; all agreed his departure would be a requirement for any path forward, once a decision is taken to have actual negotiations rather than silly posturing and repeating the same nonsense everyone’s heard since last April.
I lack the details of the local politics and personality clashes that are such a huge part of this now, perhaps the most important factor. But what I find most amazing is that this is Minneapolis, a city with a supposedly literate, highly-educated, culturally aware populace, and an economy that (while not ideal) is certainly able to sustain (and has sustained) major cultural institutions for decades. Not exactly Detroit. The Minnesota Orchestra has evolved mightily over the last 15 years or so (artistically anyway), and was a symbol of excellence for the city and beyond. Could anyone have possibly imagined that the MOA Board and arts community would toss it away? It is absolutely incredible, and begs the question of what might also circle the drain if things get tough, the Guthrie? Walker Center? I cannot think of another instance in which such a shining point of civic pride was abandoned for what now appear to be ideological and mean-spirited motivations, not to mention outright stupidity and incompetence.
Not to slight the SPCO; that esteemed group is certainly part of the whole picture here. The general buzz has been that somehow they’re closer to a solution that might save some of the season and/or the institution itself. I’m not holding my breath.
In the end, maybe this is just how it is and the glory days of music in the Twin Cities are over. But the record will very clearly show it was a conscious choice made by the relevant Boards and the community itself, not the musicians.
As usual, I encourage everyone to read Song of the Lark for much more comprehensive coverage and insight.
photo credit: duncan via photopin cc
With all the headlines lately regarding labor disputes/lockouts/general malaise in the orchestral world, I’ve had some pretty interesting conversations regarding the general level of management expertise that currently prevails in arts administration. Even so, the latest news from the New Jersey Symphony caught me by surprise.
At least he made it nine days. To me the bigger question lies with the Board (as is often the case)- more specifically, how did this guy get so far? According the to Times piece, Stephen Sichak, the orchestra’s co-chair, admitted they knew of the criminal history as well as questions about Mr. Dare’s résumé and business accomplishments. And a “thorough background check” was performed that seemed to satisfy everyone.
Is this considered due diligence when a non-profit of this size hires an executive? Why was the NYT able to uncover what were (at the very least) serious issues of ethics and character that did not seem to bother the NJSO Board, even though their patrons would obviously (and correctly) raise significant concerns? Not to mention how all this seems to have gotten past the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Huffington Post, and Musical America.
Here is some advice to any orchestra currently in the midst of a CEO search:
- don’t completely rely on a search firm or the League.
- do a Google search.
- don’t ignore red flags and assume your audience is also stupid enough to ignore them.
- consider thinking way outside the box, like we did.
I know the conventional wisdom is that the bench just isn’t that deep these days, with major groups like the New York Philharmonic and Dallas Symphony taking years to find the right person. But is it possible that there are actually highly qualified people out there that don’t quite fit into the traditional search procedures?
How about a “new model” for filling top management positions?
Apologies for my absence recently- suffice to say the last two months have not been boring. I’ll be back more often after Jan 1, but I wanted to get a quick post up to wish everyone a great holiday season and a wonderful 2013. If you’re sick of all the doom and gloom in the music biz, check where Santa is at the moment, courtesy of NORAD. I also enjoyed the Santa Cam.
As we all remember, last season the Detroit Symphony won the race to the bottom in the labor relations/management incompetence sweepstakes. I’m amazed and very sorry to report that apparently the Minnesota Orchestra has decided Detroit didn’t quite go far enough, and has locked out the musicians for the first time in its 100-year history. With recent developments in Atlanta, Indianapolis and St. Paul, it doesn’t appear that the war on musicians will end anytime soon.
A google search will reveal that many people way more informed than I are feverishly dissecting the Minnesota situation. If you want to get up to speed quickly and comprehensively, one of the best sources is Song of the Lark, and in one way or another it includes most of the (still unanswered) questions that occurred to me when the lockout began yesterday. Such as:
* Why was the lockout so carefully anticipated and constructed, if the management was negotiating in good faith? You don’t immediately cancel two months of concerts without some careful planning (although the blowback from patrons may be much more intense than they think).
* How does one characterize a “negotiation”, when the management hasn’t moved from its initial positions presented last April?
* Why is the management so violently opposed to an independent financial audit, given their catastrophic proposals to the musicians? They claim they have their own audits- so did Lehman Brothers. And so does JP Morgan. What’s the orchestra hiding?
* Why did the management immediately dismiss the idea of a mediator? That approach has been very successful in lots of other situations, but usually without the driving force of radical ideology .
* Why are so many proposed changes to the contract work rules simply punitive to the musicians, with no financial element at all?
I could go on. But the point is this: maybe the last contract was overly generous in some respects, maybe things weren’t properly managed in other ways, and everyone needs to share in the sacrifice going forward. But a lockout? 81 musicians and their families instantly lose both their salaries and health insurance (but not management)? The musicians are being demonized because of an economic situation and climate that breeds resentment of anything that can possibly be construed as “expert”, or highly specialized (read “elite”). Same reason the NFL locked out the overpaid, spoiled refs- anyone can do that job, they aren’t so special, right?
For decades, Minnesotans have take pride in the accomplishments and extraordinary talents that make up the state’s most prominent cultural institution. In dramatic contrast, this management and board is out to destroy it, even though they may not quite realize that yet.
We have great respect for our musicians’ talents and today is a difficult day. – Jon Campbell, Board Chair
Our intention now is to get our current players back onstage.- Richard Davis, Chair of the board negotiating team.
We have great respect for our musicians’ talents and today is a difficult day. – Jon Campbell, Board Chair
Our intention now is to get our current players back onstage.- Richard Davis, Chair of the board negotiating team.
With all due respect, that’s just bulls**t, and based on their recent actions they shouldn’t be allowed near any orchestra board. If they cared at all about the institution, both they and CEO Michael Henson would quit acting like North Korean diplomats, get back to the table with a mediator, open the books, and get a deal. And there will be a deal at some point, it’s just a matter of how much they learned (or didn’t learn) from Detroit or (more recently) Atlanta.
In the meantime, anyone that genuinely cares about the Minnesota Orchestra should make themselves heard loud and clear in any way they can.
Possibly. But last week’s news from my own orchestra was certainly a shock to anyone familiar with traditional arts management dogma. As my colleague Robert Levine has noted, this isn’t exactly new thinking, although it may be the first time a major orchestra has rather abruptly propelled one of its musicians into the CEO position. The amazing thing to me is that it happened at all, given the current industry climate.
At this very moment, musicians in Indianapolis, Atlanta, the Twin Cities, Jacksonville, and a few other places are all facing the same mindset in one form or another: draconian management and/or board proposals that will dramatically affect the institutions (and communities themselves) in ways that those managements and boards most likely do not comprehend. Often in barely concealed contempt for the musicians, we continue to see attitudes and ideas that (if implemented) could rapidly erase decades of effort and dedication. Along with high artistic standards and goals, the matching importance of quality management, board participation and governance, and intelligent development strategies seems to hardly merit discussion- it’s much more expedient to penalize the musicians that have shown up every day and done their jobs.
So how is it possible that our own board would even consider the idea of a musician running the place? One factor would be that for years now we’ve had an unusual circumstance: musicians are involved in virtually every aspect of the organization (including serving on the board), and generally positive musician/management relations even through some pretty tough times. When the whispers of this idea started to take shape, the first reactions were widespread disbelief and skepticism (from everyone, including Mark Niehaus). But after everyone got in the weeds a little and really thought it through, it didn’t seem like such a crazy idea after all.
Consider that for a new CEO, the search aspect alone is onerous: maybe 12 months out of everyone’s life slogging through a pretty thin talent pool (or maybe longer- ask someone in Dallas or New York ). Then another few months while the new person gets up to speed, then maybe it’ll all work out and that individual will somehow possess the incredibly complex and rare skill set required to be an effective orchestra CEO. With a fair amount of momentum artistically and otherwise, we just didn’t have that kind of time, and we’d been through all that just two years ago. But we did have a musician who had repeatedly demonstrated that he might have the necessary skills for that role, and those skills did not go unnoticed by either our board chair or Music Director. Plus Mark was an MSO veteran, chair of the Player’s Council, a gifted public cheerleader for the institution, and (along with myself) a musician rep on the board. He knows the whole organization (and cultural pulse of the city) inside out.
Does it matter that Mark has no management experience beyond a few years with the Cub Scouts? Of course, although I would argue that the Cub Scouts have much more in common with orchestras than most people realize. Were there other drawbacks or potential deal-breakers? Absolutely. But to their credit, our board leadership did something we always ask for but is all too rare these days: they acted like authentic stakeholders. They took decisive, innovative action and rigorously examined a truly novel idea, and after a pretty comprehensive interview process and assessment, they hired him.
Obviously there are no guarantees, and there’s always a chance the whole thing will blow up at some point for various reasons. I guess then we could do a search and Mark could go back to his horn. But I’ve seen my share of orchestra managers, some spectacular and brilliant, many more that were not. I’ve met very few musicians with the skill set I mentioned earlier, and I believe Mark is one of them. I hope and expect that he will succeed, not just for the sake of an orchestra and community I am deeply fond of, but for the industry as a whole.
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