Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Detroit Symphony: We disagree with more experts

UPDATE: We just received a comment on a previous post from Shelley Heron, oboist for the Detroit Symphony, confirming the community problem that symphony has. We've attached it below.

Yesterday, we posted again on the musicians strike at the Detroit Symphony, primarily to respond to a Detroit Free Press article that tried to cast the dispute as a battle between the progressive attitudes of the board of directors and the dull reactionaries who happen to play instruments in the orchestra. We took issue with that account. It didn't match the comments by a former member of the Oregon Symphony who commented on our original post, and the rhetoric of the "progressive" board itself sounded far from inclusionary, collaborative or democratic. We suspect we'd be on that picket line, too.

For those just catching up with the Detroit Case, we posted three times about various aspects of the dispute.

1. If the cellist's salary declines in Detroit, does the music sound less sweet in Portland?  This lays out the original problem and disputes the notion that a salary cut will mean the symphony will tumble into mediocrity (whatever that is). The comment threat is full of good ideas. And this post was by far the most viewed post in the brief history of Arts Dispatch, thanks to an ArtsJournal link, among others.

2. Dear Detroit, the economy of music isn't rational  I tried to sharpen the idea that the "iron laws" of economics may not immediately apply to such things as music quality, and I argued that the Detroit Symphony (and by extension, all symphonies) should be involved in making classical music itself more central to the culture, whatever that takes.

3. The Detroit Symphony and the top-down community  That was yesterday, when I finally started to understand that problem wasn't "mechanical" -- coming up with tactics and strategies for the symphony. It is a problem of a breakdown in the community. And until that's fixed, then nothing else matters.

This morning I visited Sticks and Drones, the website of Bill Eddins, the Music Director of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, and Ron Spigelman, the Music Director of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra in Missouri. Eddins was mentored by Ernest Fleischmann, the late executive director of the LA Philharmonic for many years and an important figure in the debate as the Detroit Free Press casts it. Fleischmann favored the all-out, community engagement approach, and Eddins concurs. His post insists that symphony orchestras must change their way of doing business, along the lines Fleischmann suggests. And he puts the onus on the musicians because they've resisted the calls for contract renegotiation by their "progressive" symphony boards. It's a post well worth reading, because Eddins is so deeply engaged in the issues involved, even though I don't agree with the framework of his discussion.

Eddins writes,  "I know of at least two other top 30 budget orchestras where management has asked for musicians’ contracts to be re-opened specifically to lay the groundwork for these kind of changes." I would suggest that unless those orchestras have open, transparent, collaborative communities, in which all the major decisions are shared ones, change is going to be brutal. As long as the paradigm is "management v. labor,"  as long as the hierarchies are strict and advice and consent rare, it's almost impossible to move forward with the enthusiasm and creativity that the best kind of change requires.

My own thinking on this has shifted through the course of these posts. At first, I thought it WAS a tactical problem and the musicians were the ones resisting the solution. But why they are resisting? Do they believe that all is well with American symphony orchestras? I doubt it seriously.  Do they trust "management" to make the right decisions? Of course not! Why should they? They live in a system in which the music director and executive director are often lordly creatures whose opinions must not be questioned.

Fleischmann, who said he wanted the orchestra to be a "community of musicians," by many accounts was like that. "Ernest Fleischmann may be arrogant, rude and ruthless, but even his critics admit he's the best orchestra boss in the business," Martin Bernheimer, the LA Times music critic wrote about him. Andre Previn called him "an untrustworthy, scheming bastard," after a power struggle with Fleischmann that Previn lost.  I don't know; I wasn't there. Maybe he was also the sort of leader who takes the time to find out what everyone around him thinks about a problem and then applies the best solution regardless of who originates it.

At the Detroit Symphony, I'm suggesting, the community (audience, board, staff, musicians) needs to be flexible, engaged and creative. Power plays, brinksmanship (and that's coming, I fear), back-stabbing, scapegoating, the entire Machiavellian arsenal, might have some immediate effect. But they destroy the community you need to succeed in the long run. The question for Detroit: Is that community irreparably destroyed?

Here is Shelley Heron's comment:

Barry, you have correctly surmised that the musicians have been entirely left out of our management's latest plan to redefine the DSO.

A strategic planning effort concluded in late 2008 that was a fully collaborative process which included Leonard Slatkin. It took more than three years of dedicated effort on everyone’s part to successfully produce a long-range plan that was supported by the entire organization. It was the first time in the organization’s history that the musicians felt they had been involved in a meaningful process.

However, in June of 2009, only seven months later, a presentation was made to our board of directors by Michael Walsh, Jesse Rosen (League of American Orchestras) and others about the need to redefine the orchestra in the wake of the economic downturn. They felt that everything had to be on the table from the ground up, and that while it would be very difficult for the musicians to accept, it would be a “great adventure.” After that presentation, DSO CEO Anne Parsons said, “We’ll have to have a discussion and create a plan.”

I was stunned. Having been a participant in the strategic planning process for last three years I couldn’t believe what I was hearing -- that our strategic plan, not even a year old was essentially being shelved so that the “powers that be” could ram home massive change using the financial crisis as cover.

And I’m sorry to say – that is exactly what is happening. All of the discussions have taken place in back rooms without DSO musicians present and management is hoping that their stick is big enough to force the changes they desire.

So many times in the past the DSO has failed to recognize the long-term implications of its actions. Unfortunately, in my opinion, this is yet another example.

For anyone wishing to read more, I have written a detailed accounting at:

Shelley Heron
Oboist – Detroit Symphony Orchestra


cathycompton said...

No one has yet discussed how complicated our lives are already as symphony orchestra members. Our yearly schedules are so complex, we dare not make any commitment, no matter how small, before checking the printed version of our rehearsal and concert schedule. I dread to think what it would be like if it became more “flexible” as management now claims it needs to be.

In a typical week, we drive to work seven or eight separate times. There are 9 possible start times: 10 am, 10:45, 11, 1:30 pm, 3, 3:30, 7:30, 8 and 8:30, on any day of the week. In the winter we play at Orchestra Hall and in the summer we already play at 7 different places in the Metro area. Most often, we work 6 days in a week, but our “guaranteed” day off, Monday, is sometimes used for special events. If our contract did not include some required weeks with two days off, and some with the two days side by side, we would not have any.

We musicians have to fit our personal lives into this rigid structure of services, which differ from day to day and week to week, but are all required services. Management wants the flexibility to schedule more start times at more venues with different repertoire, but I doubt they will offer us any flexibility to choose which of these events we wish to perform. Right now, if we perform or teach or volunteer elsewhere, we choose when and where we do so, and it is not easy to fit other things in even now.

How do we make symphony orchestras more relevant to modern Americans? First of all, bring them to us, where we can shine, and do what we do best, that is, play symphonic music where it sounds best, in our own great concert halls.  Please do not send us in small groups hither and yon in a vain search for community support imagined to be lurking just around the next corner.

Catherine Compton
Violist - Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Barry Johnson said...

That schedule sounds crazy. Any staff or board that thinks that's in the overall interest of the orchestra isn't thinking clearly.

I think the "location" problem is difficult for several reasons, but it's worth experimenting to see what my work to lure non-regulars into the concert hall. I'm sure everyone's already considered things like "casual Friday" or "singles-only Saturday" and various ideas like that. Sometimes the hall itself, weirdly enough, can be intimidating and the ritual can quickly separate the newcomer from the rest of the crowd (the one clapping between movements).

Anonymous said...

I would prefer not to write anonymously, but I think I must.

While I think it is lamentable that the three-year strategic plan was quickly shelved, I think it is more unfortunate that they even spent that much time on such a process that couldn't have been comprehensive in scope from the beginning.

I have nothing to do with DSO, but I have been involved in similar conversations elsewhere. I think it is a great idea to try to include the orchestra, but there are ground rules that keep very important issues off the collaborative table, because those issues are typically negotiated in a non-collaborative fashion.

Those very important issues include orchestra compensation and what the orchestra will do, and when. Orchestra compensation in a top-ten symphony orchestra can be 30-40% of the budget. You can't comprehensively discuss strategy without discussing the single largest element of the operating cost model. The orchestra musicians are undoubtedly the greatest resource of such an organization, and therefore what these musicians do for their compensation is of PARAMOUNT strategic importance. Likewise, details such as how many Sunday concerts there can be can have a significant impact on ticket sales. If all of these issues are off the table during a collaborative strategic planning process, then it is simply NOT a comprehensive planning process. If those issues were not on the table for the DSO's strategic planning efforts, then my expectation would certainly be that these efforts would not survive a strong economic shock.

Heron asks on the DSO Musicians blog, "Didn’t we already examine the DSO from bottom to the top?" I wasn't there, but I highly doubt it. From the description of the process provided by Herron, Development and Marketing were examined from bottom to top, and this SHOULD be done frequently. But in my experience it seems highly unlikely that the basic structure--what the orchestra does, and how often, and for how much--could have even been on the table for discussion.

Herron says that car makers don't respond to a recession by cutting out the brakes and seatbelts to save money. Agreed. What car makers do (though they've been slow to learn this lesson in Detroit) is stop making SUV's, and start making something the market wants to pay for.

chenmeinv0 said...

ray ban glasses
roshe run 3
mlb jerseys wholesale
stivali ugg
spurs jerseys
true religion outlet
true religion outlet
pandora rings
ralph lauren polo shirts
cavaliers jerseys