Musical Marvels from the New World

December is one long, crazy month of music-making. There is a rendition of Messiah or Nutcracker for every taste, and every single soloist and music group known to humankind puts on some sort of holiday extravaganza.

How to decide among the embarrassment of riches?

Let me suggest one concert in particular that you should attend. It is a completely different kind of concert—one that celebrates the extraordinary Baroque music of Latin America.

Navidad en Cuba: Christmas in Havana Cathedral takes place on December 14 at Orchestra Hall, featuring The Rose Ensemble and Minnesota Orchestra ensemble players. (You can get your tickets here.)

I’d like to provide a bit of background about why this concert, and why this music is so remarkable. And to begin, let me tell a story.

* * *

The year was 1990, and I was attending college in St. Paul.   I ran across a listing for a concert by a local early music ensemble named Ex Machina that caught my eye… it was called “Little Anthony and the Imperialists: Baroque Music of the New World.”

I immediately did a cartoon-like double take. Wait… what? Baroque music… of the New World? Was there such a thing?

For someone deeply in love with music and Latin America, I was surprised that this was an entire area that I knew nothing about. Driven by curiosity, I quickly resolved to make my way over to the concert.

And it was a concert that has stayed with me ever since.

The title song, Tarara! Tarara! qui yo soy Anton! (“Tra la la, I am Anthony!”) by Antonio de Salazar served as an introduction to an entirely new world of musical possibilities. Ex Machina, assisted by singers from another famed local group, Sounds of Blackness, presented a dazzling array of songs that showed the complex musical traditions of Latin America—and how they intertwined and enriched each other. European counterpoint and polyphony collided with African rhythms and themes, and played over the sounds of Native American instruments. It was clearly baroque music, but unlike anything I had heard before. It was also Latin dance music, but far more sophisticated than any dance music I had ever experienced.

But the concert wasn’t just a musicological exercise—those songs were absolutely incredible. We listened with rapt joy, joined in the rhythmic clapping, and roared our approval as each song concluded.

And as part of the grand finale, they cut loose with one of the most riveting pieces of the night: Los coflades de la estleya by Juan de Araujo. The deliciously complex rhythms, the asymmetrical melody… it was breathtaking.

Again, this concert was life-changing, and I’m proud to say that I’ve been a vocal proponent of Latin American Baroque music ever since.

* * *

As I said in my preview of the Minnesota Orchestra’s new season, I am sorry to report that most music lovers are woefully uninformed about the wonders of the Baroque music written in the New World between 1600 and 1800. This is most unfortunate, because as I discovered first hand, there is nothing quite like it.

While today we tend to think of Latin America as a series of “developing” or “third-world” countries, the reality is that during this time, cities like Mexico City, Havana, Puebla, and Lima were some of the wealthiest cities in the world. Flush with wealth brought in from the lucrative silver trade, the great churches of the region recruited a steady stream of musicians and composers from Europe. A Chapel Master in Mexico City could make a fortune relative to his peers in Italy or Germany, and many eagerly immigrated to the New World to enjoy a standard of living they could never attain in the Old.

It is also interesting to note that these musicians hailed from diverse backgrounds. The Spanish Empire of the time encompassed Milan, Naples, Belgium, and Portugal in addition to Spain itself, and ties between the Habsburgs of Spain and Austria meant that musicians from Central Europe made their way to the New World as well. As a result, the music of Baroque-Era Latin America is a fascinating fusion of these styles, cheerfully drawing from Spanish, Italian, German, and Flemish traditions to create music that is unexpectedly sophisticated and cosmopolitan.

But there’s more. Once set up in the New World, these musicians discovered the rich, vibrant musical traditions of the native peoples and Africans. These musical stylings hit composers like a thunderclap and led to a revolution in composition. Soon church composers were composing religious motets in native languages, such as the Aztecs’ Nahuatl and the Incas’ Quechua. Moreover, they drew heavily from native and African rhythms and instrumentation. European, Indigenous, and African elements came together in new and fascinating ways.

The result is a stunning musical tradition that crackles with rhythm, drive, and excitement. And better yet, it is so unexpected—for years these manuscripts have been gathering dust in the great churches of Latin America, and only in the last 20 years has this music been uncovered and performed.

Looking over the program listed on the Orchestra’s website, two works in particular stand out for me: the aforementioned Los coflades de la estleya by Juan de Araujo, and Xicochi conetzintle by Gaspar Fernandes. These works are absolute jewels that I never tire of listening to.

* * *

Juan de Araujo has a colorful life story. Born in Extremadura, Spain, he crossed the ocean at an early age with his father, and completed his education at the University of San Marcos in Lima, studying composition with Tomás de Torrejón y Velasco.

He was involved in some shenanigans as a student, and as a result was banished from Lima by the Viceroy. He went to Panamá, was ordained to the priesthood, and ultimately secured a pardon that allowed him to return to Lima in 1672 as choirmaster.  His wanderings were hardly over, however; he relocated to Cuzco Cathedral (Peru) in 1676, and to the Cathedral of La Plata (present-day Sucre, Bolivia) in 1680, where he lived until his death in 1712. While he certainly composed a fair amount of Latin liturgical music, his real talent was in creating vernacular religious songs known as villancicos.

Villancicos had mixed reputation in the colonial world. In these colorful miniatures, composers tossed aside the strict conventions of formal church music and freely made use of popular rhythms, instruments and stories. In doing so, they pushed the boundaries about what was allowed in a church service. Several ecclesiastical leaders such as Domenico Pietro Cerone, complained that such exuberant songs were scandalous, and “threaten to turn God’s Holy temple into a common theater!” Others wryly noted that the announcement of a service of villancicos all but guaranteed a packed house. “No man is more pious than when he hears villancicos are to be performed. Suddenly, he demands that the whole family be gathered up and bustled off to Church at once,” quipped one Archbishop.

Araujo’s Los coflades de la estleya is a perfect example of a boisterous villancico. This is nothing like a graceful, Christmas motet. In place of a stately Christmas procession, the text imagines a joyous rush of African commoners dancing their way to greet the newly-born Jesus in his manger:

Los coflades de la estleya
vamo turus a Beleya
y velemo a ziola beya
con Siolo en la poltal.
¡Vamo, vamo curendo aya!
Oylemo un viyansico
que lo compondla Flasico ziendo
gayta su fosico y luego
lo cantala Blasico, Pellico, Zuanico y Tomá
y lo estliviyo dila:

Gulumbé, gulumbé, gulumbá
guache, guache molenio de Safala.

Bamo a bel que traen de Angola a ziolo y a ziola
Baltasale con Melchola y mi plimo Gasipar
¡Vamo, vamo curendo aya!

                    –

Brothers and sisters of the Brotherhood of the Star,
let’s all go now to Bethlehem,
where we’ll see our lovely Lady
with our little Lord in the stable.
Let’s go, let’s go running there!
We’ll hear a carol
that Francisco will compose,
with a gourd to keep the beat;
then Blas, Pedro, Juan and Tomás will sing it,
and the refrain will go:

Gulumbé, gulumbé, gulumbá.
Guaché, guaché! O blacks from Safala!

Let’s see what Baltasar, Melchor and my cousin Gaspar
are bringing from Angola to Our Lady and our little Lord.

But a reading of the text cannot do this piece justice. In concert, you are blown away by the striking, constantly shifting rhythms, which are a precursor to the rhumba… and are absolutely infectious. Plus, its melody could not be more exuberant. Even though this is technically a Christmas song, I unashamedly listen to it throughout the year. It’s that good.

* * *

And it’s quite different from my other favorite on the program, Xicochi conetzintle.

Xicochi conetzintle is the most famous work by Gaspar Fernandes, who lived from 1565 to 1629. Fernnades, originally from Portugal, immigrated to the New World by 1599, taking a job as an organist at the cathedral of Santiago, Guatemala. From there here moved to the prestigious position of Chapel Master at the great cathedral in Puebla, Mexico, remaining there until his death.

Like Araujo, he created a great deal of Latin ecclesiastical music, but he took equal delight in composing vernacular religious songs, too. Xicochi conetzintle, was done in this style, a deliberate blending of European and Native American traditions. It is a Christmas lullaby, written in the Aztecs’ language of Nahuatl, making it immediately accessible to the large number of congregants who spoke neither Spanish nor Latin.

Xicochi, xicochi conetzintlé
ca ōmitzhuihuixocoh in angelosmeh.
Alleluia.

                    –

Go to sleep, go to sleep revered baby;
the angels are already rocking you.
Alleluia.

As a simply lullaby, it could not be more beautiful. Fernandes creates a lilting rhythm that perfectly captures the natural inflection of the Nahuatl language, but also implies a gentle rocking that underlines the message of the text. It is absolutely stunning, and has enjoyed performances outside of those by period music specialists—a version has even appeared on Linda Ronstadt’s album, A Merry Little Christmas.

These works are not simply musical masterpieces, however—they also are brilliant testimonies to the process of cultural mixing that happened in colonial Latin America. And in fact, while I was teaching Colonial Latin American History at the University of Kansas, I used both songs to illustrate how this cultural transformation took place. In both cases these prestigious composers, whose positions put them in colonial Latin America’s elite, were enthusiastically reaching out across cultures for their inspiration. They freely integrated vernacular languages to make their works immediately understandable to their non-European audiences, and did so with a high degree of skill. Fernandes’ text setting of Nahuatl words, for example, is remarkable in that it is highly unlikely that he ever heard the language until he was in his 40s. The rhythms both composers used come entirely from the African and Native American musical traditions—and are still used in Latin American popular music today. The fact that these and similar works were popular and performed frequently over centuries reveal just how multicultural Latin America’s musical tastes really were.

As an aside, both works are featured on the award-winning album, New World Symphonies—Baroque Music from Latin America, with Jeffrey Skidmore conducting the group Ex Cathedra. You can preview the songs from the album here.

* * *

I cannot recommend this concert enough. While I’ve focused on these two particular pieces, the other works on the program share these same wondrous qualities. At the risk of coming off like tired advertising copy, this concert will both surprise and delight you. Especially under the expert interpretations of the Rose Ensemble, one of the Twin Cities best vocal groups. The Rose Ensemble has already recorded a wonderful album of Latin American Baroque music that I highly recommend.

Do not miss this event—get your tickets here!

 

Xochipilli

How I Fell in Love With Mozart

I had already posted about the Minnesota Orchestra’s concert coming up this week—noting the multiple plays off of Russian fairy tales. But there is another, more personal reason why I made damn sure I had tickets for this week’s concert at Orchestra Hall.

And that reason is Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20.

Let me explain.

* * *

Back in my younger days, I had little use for Mozart. I had cut my musical teeth on the late Romantic works of Tchaikovsky, Dvořák and Sibelius—composers that spoke in Big Gestures about Big Things. With all the smug self-importance that only a twentysomething guy can muster, I had written Mozart off as a fop in a powdered wig. His was the music that my musical heroes had reacted against.

If anything, it got worse after college, when I became an ardent supporter of 20th century music and the composers who working in the trenches today. While I certainly had professional, obligatory respect for Mozart as the greatest musical genius who ever lived… his music just was not a part of life.

And then, by chance, I had an experience that mercifully smacked some sense into me.

While in grad school, I had some down time and wanted to watch a movie. For some reason, I grabbed a hold of Amadeus, which I had not seen for many years.

I thoroughly enjoyed it, and certainly enjoyed hearing the music. But what really hit me, oddly enough, was the final credits. As the scene faded to black, and I was still contemplating the tragedy of what had happened, this gentle piano music began. It perfectly—perfectly—captured the pathos of the scene, as if Mozart had been commissioned to write the music to order. There was no overt teeth-gnashing, no maudlin sobbing, just a melody that somehow managed to express… everything. And I turned into a ball of emotional goo.

And that’s how I fell in love with the 20th Piano Concerto, with its heart-stopping central movement.

It is rare to have such a powerful musical epiphany… and when you do, it’s usually comes from hearing the music live, and not via the sadly inadequate speakers of my hand-me-down TV of the time. But to paraphrase one of the movie’s characters, there it was. I was hooked.

I rewound the scene twice more to re-listen to it, and then once more to study the credits to determine which piece it was. Reasonably secure that I had found it, I went to the library the next day to give it a more proper listen….

…and so my Mozart madness began.

I didn’t stop with the concerto. Curious about the Requiem that featured so prominently in the film, I hit that piece next. And then the Mass in C minor. And then the Symphony No. 25, and the Symphony No. 40. I freely admit to being a wee bit obsessive… but it was the fire of a new convert. I remember complaining at one point, “Why didn’t someone tell me how good his music is?!?” (I think the person I was complaining to actually hit me.)

And now, Mozart is an indispensable part of my life. His music is in heavy rotation at home. A CD of his late piano concertos was one of the handful I carried when I went off to live in Costa Rica (I may not have a “desert island” music list, but I literally have a “living in the rainforest” list). But it’s not just listening; I’ve had the good fortune to perform his music many times, too. Some of my favorite performances have been collaborations with the Minnesota Orchestra, where I’ve been privileged to sing in works ranging from The Magic Flute and the Requiem to smaller pieces like the Kyrie in D and the heart-stopping Ave Verum Corpus. Good stuff.

But nothing has replaced my singular affection for the Piano Concerto No. 20, which started it all.

And I’m hardly alone—the 20th has long been one of Mozart’s best-loved concertos. After hearing the work, Joseph Haydn, the most respected musician of the time, proclaimed Mozart to be the greatest composer he knew. Beethoven adored the work and performed it often, and even wrote out his own cadenzas for it (so, too, did other composers such as Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann). As the classical era gave way to the Romantic era, much of Mozart’s music fell out of favor, but the 20th, however, remained popular with performers and audiences alike. Even as late as 1945 Abraham Veinus pronounced in his survey of The Concerto that the 20th was really the only popular Mozart concerto. Even though Mozart’s other concertos have made a roaring return to the concert hall in the past few decades, the 20th continues to hold a place of honor.

Its popularity is easy to understand. It isn’t just that it is dark and dramatic… it seems to portray a heroic struggle that ultimately ends in triumph. But what a struggle! The tension, the back-and-forth… leading to a final coda that seems to blast in like a comet and explode across the keyboard.

There is a reason this work has captured so many hearts over so many years… it is just that good.

Hear it. This weekend. Buy your tickets here.

You will not be sorry.

 

Xochipilli

A Powerful Concert for Veteran’s Day

Today is Veterans’ Day in the United States—an extraordinary day of reflection and gratitude. To honor the day, let me tell you about a concert I attended recently in London, which beautifully captured the spirit of the holiday and its multiple layers of meaning. It is a concert that will stay with me for a long, long time.

* * *

As a bit of background, let us recall that the holiday we now know as “Veteran’s Day” in the United States was originally established as “Armistice Day” to commemorate the end of World War I. This is an important event in American history, but it looms far, far larger on the other side of the Pond. The date is particularly poignant this year, as it marks the 100th anniversary of the war’s beginning.

Given the importance of this year’s anniversary, Britain has created a country-wide series of events to commemorate it. Of course, the most famous commemorative event is the “Blood Swept Lands And Seas of Red” poppy installation at the Tower of London. This exhibit is the brainchild of Paul Cummins, a 37-year-old ceramic artist, who envisioned a vast field of ceramic poppies—one for each fallen soldier from the Commonwealth—that ebbs and flows around this iconic building.

But there have been other events, too. In particular, the Philharmonia Orchestra, under the direction of Nicholas Collon, paid homage to the Great War with a thoughtfully conceived, brilliantly executed concert that my wife and I were fortunate enough to attend at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury.

It was a perfect tribute.

* * *

Opening the program was Benjamin Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” from Peter Grimes. This is a remarkable work that moves through a wide range of divergent moods. “Dawn,” which opens the set, manages to be simultaneously luminous and ominous. “Sunday Morning” teems with activity and industry, setting up a stark contrast with the loneliness of “Moonlight.” Done correctly, “Storm” is a visceral, elemental experience that should make your hair stand on end.

The performance was quite good, although I might have hoped the extremes were slightly more… well, extreme. I wondered if the dry acoustic of the Marlowe might have been a factor, but I was hoping for a wilder, louder finale. But this would be quibbling—the orchestra gave it a virtuosic performance with tight ensemble playing. I was again reminded that I would at some point love to see the full opera live.

The first half was rounded out with Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in a probing performance by Alisa Weilerstein. The concerto is a natural choice for a concert such as this; written in 1919, it is often seen as an elegy for the Edwardian era that was swept away by the carnage of World War I. It is introspective, even sorrowful, but still carries a grave dignity about it.

Alisa Weilerstein made the most of the work, giving it an emotional reading that was deeply personal. So personal, in fact, that there were a couple of moments where she seemed poised to leave the ensemble behind and take off on her own. But by and large it was a strong partnership, particularly in the third movement. In the adagio, there was a close rapport between the artists, and the Philhamonia’s strings provided breath-taking support for her.

All in all, this was a heartfelt performance that was unafraid of taking risks. And the risks paid off.

* * *

The second half of the concert was given over to Vaughan Williams’s A Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No. 3), a relative rarity in the concert hall. It was a remarkable performance.

Curiously, the Pastoral Symphony caused quite a bit of controversy when it premiered in 1922. For one, the choice of title was inherently problematic, suggesting a (non-existent) connection to Beethoven’s famous Sixth Symphony, and implying that Vaughan Williams was depicting the English landscape.

But the word “pastoral” didn’t signify the fields of England. Its point of departure was the fields of Flanders, which over the course of World War I had been ripped asunder by heavy artillery. This was a landscape he knew well—in 1914, at age 42, he joined an ambulance brigade on the Western Front, and from there he witnessed the unfolding carnage first-hand.

Years after the premiere, Vaughan Williams lamented that so many had mistaken his ironic intent. He wrote:

It’s really wartime music – a great deal of it incubated when I used to go up night after night in the ambulance wagon at Ecoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset. It’s not really lambkins frisking at all, as most people take for granted.

But besides the confusion caused by the name, the symphony’s overall structure took many people by surprise. There are the expected four movements, but they are all fairly slow. More than anything, however, the music is unstable… it keeps shifting from one tonal center to another. It also veers into modal harmonies that, while not jarring in a Stravinsky-esque manner, leave the listener without a solid foundation.

It is serenely restless. Gently disquieting.

Another curious point. For having been conceived during the war, it is almost the antithesis of wartime music as typified by Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. It is as if the horrors Vaughan Williams witnessed were too terrible to remember. Instead of marches, percussion and martial fanfares, the Pastoral Symphony is a work of longing and regret, lamenting the loss of many personal friends, as well as an entire generation.

The Philharmonic gave a performance that brilliantly captured these profound, complex feelings.

Right from the start, Collon created a perfect blend of solemnity and spirituality, without ever making the work feel like a dirge. The upper strings were absolutely luminous. Yukiko Ogura created a series of fleeting viola solos that were breathtaking, but also led the entire section in creating wonderfully rich sonorities. It was masterful playing that earned her strong accolades from the orchestra during the final applause. The cellos’ playing was equally inspired, and as a whole the strings’ sound was gorgeous.

The second movement in famous for its haunting, off-stage trumpet solo; Vaughn Williams was inspired by an army bugler he had heard practicing, who repeatedly missed a high note, hitting the seventh rather than the octave. The resulting solo is riveting. It feels vaguely unresolved—and I don’t mean musically unresolved so much as spiritually unresolved. Jason Evans captured the gesture perfectly.

The third movement was the symphony’s “fast” movement… but again Vaughan Williams toys with our expectations. He creates a sequence of lop-sided dance rhythms that are both familiar and disorienting, and the Philharmonia made the most of this delicious paradox.

But it was in the final movement that made this performance so extraordinary.

Over nothing but a low drum roll, soprano Elizabeth Watts began an otherworldly, wordless song that rolled down on us from the uppermost balcony. It was as if we had stepped out of time. I don’t know that I can adequately convey the effect in words… it was serene and comforting, and yet absolutely devastating.

At its end, Collon brought the orchestra in with a sense of conviction, a finality that the work never alluded to before. There was at last a sense of peace.

But in the work’s closing moments, this assurance was interrupted by the wordless song again floating in from the distance. Was this a song of hope for the fallen? A lament? Simply the wind swirling around the shattered terrain? We aren’t allowed to know, and that final ambiguity was deeply, deeply affecting.

In the end, I was struck that early listeners would think the Pastoral Symphony was about sheep and babbling brooks. It was gorgeous… but at the same time, it had depths of profound sadness.

My heartfelt gratitude to Collon, Watts, Weilerstein and all the musicians of the Philharmonia. It was a profoundly moving tribute.

And thank you of course to our veterans.  We remember.

 

 

Xochipilli

 

The Lockout is Over, and the Rebuilding Begins

Reckless O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me,

Sail forth—steer for the deep waters only,
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,
And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

O my brave soul!
O farther farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!

          – Walt Whitman

 

It appears that the ugly lockout of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) is over, and the ASO musicians have reached a new four-year agreement with their parent organization, the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC). The new contract retains a fixed complement of 88 and provides small pay increases for the musicians. It also gives the WAC time to improve marketing and fundraising.

Upon hearing this, I immediately recalled the above text by Walt Whitman, which was set by Ralph Vaughan Williams as the finale of his visionary work, A Sea Symphony. This is a work that the ASO was scheduled to perform shortly, but given the loss of rehearsal time will likely be replaced with another work.

The words carry a reminder of what was lost with the lockout, but convey a sense of hope… of an extraordinary journey ahead into uncharted waters, with a vast horizon beckoning.

To all y’all in Atlanta, I wish you well as you start this journey—one that will involve everyone working together.

And based on my observations of the ASO and Minnesota Orchestra labor disputes, allow me to share a few thoughts about that future. I had just posted a series of broad principles about how an arts organization should work, and these may be of use as people start planning the next steps. But I have a few specific thoughts about the ASO’s situation, too.

* * *

Rebuilding trust. For the organization to not just thrive, but to survive, there has to be a new sense of trust between stakeholders. Unfortunately, the ASO dispute has raised some serious questions about the organization… and I don’t think the questions, or the questioning, will die away soon. More important, I’m not sure the questions and questioning should die away soon. We need explanations.

I would hope that the WAC doesn’t attempt to sweep the recent allegations under the rug, under a mantra of “we’re all working together now” or “that’s all in the past!” Instead, I hope it commits itself to addressing the various concerns that have been raised with openness and honesty. As it does so, trust will return over time.

Rebuilding trust is an enormous challenge, but it also represents an opportunity. In working through the underlying issues, all sides can hear each others perspectives, and gain a greater understanding of their positions. This has happened in Minnesota; the effort to work together, while perhaps awkward at first, has created a sense of camaraderie and shared purpose. It can happen in Atlanta, too.

Restoring a mutual sense of trust is the most difficult step the various stakeholders can take… but it is necessary for all other steps to happen.

Rebuilding the organization. Let me be blunt… the organization is in need of a serious overhaul. For example, it has been hemorrhaging musicians for at least two years; this is dangerous, being that music is the organization’s product. The ASO’s President and CEO Stanley Romanstein has left, leaving a huge gap in the administration. The role of the ASO board is in limbo. And as has been pointed out, there are questions about how the WAC has allocated resources among its constituent parts.

Clearly, there is a need for comprehensive, honest discussion about how the organization should be… well, organized. This is an opportunity to have all stakeholders come together and decide what the ASO, and the WAC should be doing, and then to create an appropriate structure to meet these needs.

This discussion cannot be dictated top-down; there needs to be input from the board, the staff, the musicians, and volunteers. Plus, this conversation has to include the community at large—ticket buyers, donors, the city, and the state all have a stake in the ASO’s success, so they should be involved, too. Bringing everyone into the discussion will not only help to create a stronger organization, but greatly increase the number of people who are personally committed to its success.

And returning to my previous point, it will help build trust.

Rebuilding the community. In order to thrive, the ASO needs to rebuild its standing with the community. I don’t think it’s too much to say that regardless of which side they were on during the dispute, people are feeling raw right now. Audience members, donors, funders, and volunteers are feeling frustrated. As a bit of comparison, let me throw out the example of the baseball strike in the 1990s. Once the strike was over, the public didn’t care which side was in the right; people were still hoping mad and stayed home.

This has to change—without the support of the public, the ASO cannot survive. Everyone in the ASO will have to work hard and fast to re-engage the public. New marketing initiatives are needed fast, along with new ways of engaging donors. Education and outreach opportunities need to move ahead at light speed.

As before, this means a lot work lies ahead, and it means things will have to happen on a compressed timetable. But again, the challenge of rebuilding ties with the community also provides a new opportunity for the ASO. As we saw in Minnesota, the lockout snapped the public out of its complacency, and forced a re-evaluation about what the Orchestra meant for the community. The public ended up being far, far more engaged then they had been in the past, and the Minnesota Orchestra wisely tapped this enthusiasm to speed the recovery. The same needs to happen in Atlanta.

There’s another opportunity that can be taken advantage of. As has happened in other cities with classical music labor disputes, audience advocacy groups have arisen in Atlanta, driven by passionate music lovers and civic boosters. They have not only come forward, they want to help. Let them! They are a resource that can be used, taking on valuable initiatives and serving as a bridge to the community at large.

The ASO and WAC would be wise to make use of this energy now, while people are still deeply engaged. The danger isn’t feelings of frustration on the part of the public… frustration can be channeled into useful activity. The real danger is feelings of apathy. This will create inertia that is nearly impossible to break.

This is an opportunity for the ASO to re-introduce itself to the community. The public is hungry for such an introduction now, so get out there and do it.

* * *

To my friends in Atlanta, let me say that I’m thrilled this lockout is over.

…and now, the work begins.

I won’t promise that this work will be easy, but there is opportunity here. There is a chance for substantial growth, healing, and renewal, if all sides commit to making them happen.

As Vaughan Williams’ work suggests, you are starting a new journey, to unknown waters. Go forth boldly and with purpose on these seas of God.

And please be assured that I stand with you as you embark on this voyage, and will do what I can to help you.

 

Xochipilli

Four Critical Ingredients for a Successful Arts Organization

As I’ve been commenting on the recent plague of labor disputes that have engulfed the classical music world (most recently the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, but also the Metropolitan Opera and Minnesota Orchestra), I’ve made references to artistic strategic plans and artistic bottom lines. Some criticized the very idea of these concepts, remarking that they are superfluous—suggesting, apparently, that an arts organization should just get on with the business of “doing” art without wasting too much time thinking about it.

I disagree. In today’s competitive environment, an arts organization that wants to survive has to do more than just going around “arting.”

I would argue that a successful arts organization needs to tend four key areas if it is to thrive: artistic development, financial development, audience development, and administrative development. Moreover, these four areas need to be developed in tandem with each other—they fit together like interlocking puzzle pieces. If one is underdeveloped, the structure as a whole won’t work.

Let me explain.

* * *

1. Artistic Development. For an arts organization, this should be the fundamental area of concern: at what artistic and programmatic endeavors must we excel, in order to succeed? This is what you do. Because it is so central to the organization, it should be systematically looked at, considered, and re-evaluated. What activities do we do, and why? A strong arts organization will nurture the artistic passion of its artists, creating work that challenges them, poses questions of them, makes demands of them, and lets them grow as artists.

And the organization should find its comparative advantage (or if you will, competitive advantage) so that it can stand out from its peers. What is the organization’s unique strength, the one area that it will excel in? What can it provide artistically that other peer groups cannot? That unique advantage should be identified, and then relentlessly pursued.

Related to this, an organization should know its basic artistic limitations. It cannot do all things, or be all things to all people… so there have to be artistic choices. It should look at its activities with a clear eye, and not be afraid to edit what it does, so that it can create more focused artistry. And it should never let ancillary artistic activities interfere with its primary artistic product. For example, an orchestra can, in theory, perform just about every kind of music from every genre. But it shouldn’t. It should internally agree that it is to focus on symphonic, orchestral-based art music. That does not mean that it cannot ever perform pops concerts, movie concerts, opera or any other sub-groups of music… but it cannot let these activities overwhelm its primary artistic product of classical art music. In doing so, it will lose its comparative advantage, and be competing against peer organizations that specialize in those kinds of projects. And it will be competing at a disadvantage.

To support this, there needs to be an artistic strategic plan that helps the organization ensure that every artistic activity supports the shared artistic vision. There are hundreds of possible works that a group could perform, but the trick is to find those that fit into the overall artistic vision. Similarly, there are hundreds of potential guest artists/soloists/conductors a group could work with, but the trick is to find people that make sense for the art the organization is creating. In both these cases, the reason doesn’t have to be grandiose or complicated—there just needs to be a reason.

One other important thing: the arts group should evaluate how effectively it’s presenting its art. This is an area where many people roll their eyes and insist this is nearly impossible. I agree it is hard to measure artistic success, but it must be done—you pay attention to the things you measure. Plus, more and more funders are demanding some sort of evaluation that shows the effectiveness of the programs they support. A group should give thought to how it could be evaluated in a way that makes sense for itself. For some, it might be by improved scores on audience surveys, or through better media reviews. Others might be able to convene a peer-review panel of other trusted artists who provide external feedback. There are many options, and the field of evaluation is a growing one.

At the end of the day, every arts organization should have a clear vision about the kind of art it engages in. There should be a focused plan for what the art is and how it is created, and there should be strong evaluative tools in place to see if the artistic vision has been achieved.

* * *

2. Financial Development. At the same time, there is another critical question an organization must ask itself: what resources must it marshal and steward effectively to insure the artistic vision is fulfilled? This is obviously a question many bedevils many arts groups—some of whom never successfully address it.

There are some key things to remember. First, if an arts group is a non-profit organization (unlike, say, a commercial theater) the financial resources are harnessed to support the art. This may seem obvious, but it’s worth calling out. The goal is not about maximizing profits, or paying dividends to shareholders; rather, it is about finding the right mix of financial resources to make the art possible.

But just as the finances support the art, the art has to support the finances—the organization cannot spend outside its resources. There has to be a realistic plan that links the art with the financial support necessary to make it happen.

Traditionally there are three sources of financial support: earned income (primarily ticket sales), contributed income (from individuals corporations, foundations or the government), and investment income (as in an endowment). Each organization will have its own unique blend of these three sources—there is no “correct” formula. The Sanford Social Innovation Review lists several financial models that an organization can follow… each with its own benefits and limitations.

Because there is no one size fits all answer to building financial support, an organization must choose which approach best suits its needs. Does it have the capacity to manage an endowment? Can it survive solely on earned income? Is its base of individual donors sufficient? And there are other questions that speak to institutional priorities, too. Is the goal to achieve steady growth? A better ratio of donations to ticket sales? Maximizing corporate support? Each aspect will have benefits and drawbacks, and the wise group will carefully evaluate the real-world implications of its choices, rather than blindly say “increase ticket sales!”

Ultimately, a group needs to create a strategic plan that helps focus the organization. Like a strategic artistic plan, such a financial plan lays out priorities and helps an organization make decisions among competing options. Such a plan keeps an organization from running in too many directions or chasing money

And again, there needs to be some sort of evaluation so the organization can chart its progress, and see if course corrections need to be made. This is far better than waiting until the end of a fiscal year and realizing you are broke.

* * *

3. Audience Development. Every arts group needs an audience. Audience development asks the question of how relevant an arts group is… how is it meeting the needs of its customers and the community?

All arts groups are concerned about growing their audience, as these people are the principle source of earned income and contributions. But too often, they don’t do so in a strategic way. There are three strategies for audience development: broadening, deepening, or diversifying.

Broadening means attracting more audience members like those cur­rently attending (and usually, are already inclined to attend).  It is essentially an effort to cast the nets as widely as possible to get more people in the seats.  The whole focus is to continually and rapidly find new patrons, and tends to be somewhat of an indiscriminate strategy.  Mailing a flyer to all addresses in the city of Minneapolis, for example. Because the emphasis is on attracting new people, and not necessarily on keeping them, this strategy can have a relatively high rate of attrition as some people will casually give you a try and move on.  The hope is that with enough people coming through your doors, some are bound to stay around.

To deepen your audience base, however, you have to get fewer numbers of people who already support you somehow to engage with you at a higher level.  In short, you try to turn your existing friends into your best friends.   You may ask them to go from casual ticket buyers to season subscribers, or move them from casual contributors to major donors.  This strategy relies heavily on targeting people, segmenting them into discrete populations and applying very specific strategies to get them to take specific actions that move them in a specific direction.   In many ways, the ways you work to deepen your audience are directly at odds with the strategies needed to broaden it.

Diversifying an audience means you are implementing strategies to specifically attract people who do not normally attend your performances… say, bringing in more youth aged 18 to 30.  It requires a comprehensive view of your audience base as it is now, as well as a clear idea of who you want to attract, for what reason.  You need an understanding of what barriers this new population faces, plus a clear sense of what methods would convince these folks to attend—in short you need a very, very specific pool of research and a clear strategy before you even begin.

These three approaches don’t overlap. And not only are the strategies different for each, but the revenue generated will be different, too.  There isn’t a single correct answer, but an organization has to decide what it wants to do, develop a plan around that goal, and execute it.

* * *

4. Human Resource Development. And finally, an arts organization has to have the capacity to fulfill all the above plans. The primary question here is how can the workers across the organization perform their duties, learn, improve, communicate, and collaborate?

It is not enough to say people should do their jobs… do they have the resources to do them effectively? Do they have the required expertise, or do they require additional training? How do they interact with each other, and can these interactions be more positive? More efficient? A How is institutional memory maintained—are there succession plans for artists who move away from the organization, staff members who resign, or board members who rotate off the board?

Speaking of board members, what is their role? How active are they in actual running of the organization? Do they take a completely laissez-faire approach and only show up at the annual meeting? If so, is there a better way to engage them? Are they micro-managing the staff, and if so can they be pulled back? How can the board structure be managed to maximize board leader’s expertise, connections, and knowledge without burning them out?

This is a broader point… there needs to be constant attention to whether anyone is getting bored or burned out. These are festering problems that will slowly infect other aspects of the organization or its critical operations.

Human resource development is an area where many arts organizations fall flat; far too often an organization will bite off more than it can institutionally chew.

For example, this is one of the problems of demanding that arts organizations increase earned revenue… by adding more performances. While this sounds nice in theory, if there isn’t sufficient staffing to run the box office, to manage the increased number of contracts, complete basic maintenance on the facility, the product as a whole will suffer.

* * *

Each of these four areas is critically important for an arts organization, but to achieve greatness an organization has to manage each of these four in connection with the others.

The successful arts organization does these things simultaneously.

For example, it is great to have a strong artistic strategic plan, but such a plan has to take into account the expected audience and be in line with the expected budget. Plus, the plan has to be based on the real-world capacity of the staff, volunteers and board members.

One of the problems with all the recent orchestra/opera labor disputes has been a fixation on a financial plan as the end-all, be-all of the organization. While the financial strategic plan is critical, it cannot exist in isolation. If the board and staff members simply don’t have the ability to raise the expected funds, it will fall flat. If there is no engagement of the community, it will be increasingly difficult to sell tickets or secure donations. And if the art is an afterthought… well, why bother with any of it?

And one final key point. The way to keep all four areas in synch with each other is constant, transparent communication. All stakeholders need to communicate openly and honestly, with full acknowledgement of each others role and importance for the organization. When communication breaks down, the organization starts to break down.

* * *

I do not at all subscribe to the idea that classical music, opera, or arts in general are “dying.” Many organizations have successfully survived the Great Recession, and many are having banner years in terms of donations, ticket sales, and innovative artistry.

But I absolutely believe that arts organizations face challenges—big ones.

My hope is that by adopting a more rounded, holistic approach to the way they do business, arts groups can better understand their mission, marshal their resources, and continue to deliver powerful artistic experiences.

 

Xochipilli

Russian Fairy Tales at Orchestra Hall

“Once upon a time….”

There are few phrases that can so quickly capture our attention and fill us with an expectant sense of wonder. This is, of course, the phrase that opens the door to the world of fairy tales and imagination… and for many of us, a phrase that rekindles long-forgotten memories of childhood. People all over the world love their fairy tales, which have stoked the creative fires of authors, screenwriters, painters and musicians for centuries.

Especially for Russian composers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

It is hard to overstate the influence of fairy tales on Russian art music. A wide range of Russian composers, each with radically different aesthetics, have created works inspired by fairy tales, using them to express profound truths about the human condition… or simply to tell an irresistible story. These composers drew not just from Old Russian tales for their music, but also from works by Charles Perrault, E.T.A. Hoffmann, the Brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Andersen. And from these tales they created a dazzling array or works, ranging from ballets such as Swan Lake, The Firebird, and Sleeping Beauty, to operas such as Ruslan and Ludmila and tone poems like Scheherazade.

This is an incomparable musical legacy.

Over the next two weeks, the Minnesota Orchestra is presenting a mini-festival that highlights Russia’s musical love affair with fairy tales. The festival features gorgeous music and you do not want to miss it.

* * *

It is a pity Peter Tchaikovsky’s The Snow Maiden is not better known. It was originally written to accompany Alexander Ostrovsky’s play of the same name, which premiered in 1873. It tells the story of the Snow Maiden, who is a daughter of Father Frost and Lady Spring. Although she is beautiful the Snow Maiden has a heart of ice, and she is warned that if she ever falls in love, her heart would melt away.

Clearly this tale of dangerous love resonated with Tchaikovsky, as he dove into the project with great gusto. His letters to friends and family shimmered with enthusiasm about his new work, and he claimed he was so inspired that he finished the score in three weeks—ten days before Ostrovsky finished writing the play itself.

And such music!

Like the scores to today’s movies, the music had to walk a delicate line—it had to enhance the scene and add to the overall emotional impact, without ever dominating the scene and drawing too much attention to itself. Tchaikovsky handled this challenge with élan, creating vivid miniatures that brim with emotion and melody. It is relentlessly delightful.

Plus, it is relentlessly Russian. To capture the essential Russian character of the story, Tchaikovsky drew from Russian folksongs, either quoting them directly or composing new material in the same style. In this way, he created one of his most nationalistic scores, and one that spoke directly to the hearts of his Russian audience. It was one of the first scores in which the young Tchaikovsky found his voice, and it helped establish his reputation as one of Russia’s great composers.

And in the end, it remained one of the composer’s favorite works. In an 1897 letter written to his friend and patron to Nadezhda von Meck, he wrote: “The Snow Maiden is one of my favorite offspring. Spring is a wonderful time; I was in good spirits, as I always am at the approach of summer and three months of freedom. I think this music is imbued with the joys of spring that I was experiencing at the time.”

* * *

A half-century later, Russian composers were still drawing inspiration from fairy tales… even such “modernist” composers as Igor Stravinsky.

In 1928, Stravinsky composed a remarkable ballet for the actress-dancer Ida Rubenstein: The Fairy’s Kiss, based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen. As he explained,

“In 1928 Ida Rubenstein commissioned me to compose a full-length ballet. The thirty-fifth anniversary of Tchaikovsky’s death was 1928 – the actual day was observed in Paris’ Russian churches – and I therefore conceived my compatriotic homage as an anniversary piece. I chose Andersen’s The Ice Maiden because it suggested an allegory of Tchaikovsky himself.”

The plot roughly follows the original tale. A fairy acts as a muse; she imprints her magic kiss on a child at birth and sends him forth to find his destiny. Twenty years later, when the youth has attained the very zenith of his good fortune, she repeats the kiss. This second kiss, however, signals an end to the man’s earthly life, and the fairy carries him off to live in supreme happiness with her ever afterward.

In the end, this is the most bewitchingly beautiful scores Stravinsky ever wrote.

There is no part of The Fairy’s Kiss that doesn’t sparkle with magic. But perhaps surprisingly, it overflows with melody. In paying homage to his idol, Stravinsky chose not just to adopt Tchaikovsky’s musical sensibility, but to incorporate Tchaikovsky’s music wholesale into the score. Interestingly, Stravinsky opted to use Tchaikovsky’s piano pieces and songs instead of orchestral works; they include, among others, his Scherzo à la russe, Humoresque, Evening Reverie, and Danse Russe. The key benefit of utilizing these works was that it allowed Stravinsky to orchestrate them in his own style, creating a wonderful fusion of music that is clearly a homage to Tchaikovsky’s work, while still feeling fresh and original as well.

As Stravinsky wrote in the dedication: “I dedicate this ballet to the memory of Peter Tchaikovsky by relating the Fairy to his Muse, and in this way the ballet becomes an allegory, the Muse having similarly branded Tchaikovsky with her fatal kiss, whose mysterious imprint made itself felt in all this great artist’s work.”

* * *

Fairy tales worked their way into seemingly “absolute” music, too. Arts writer Scott MacClelland has a fascinating take on Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony and how it relates to fairy tales:

When he wrote his Fifth Symphony, Prokofiev had recently composed the music for his Cinderella ballet; and the work on today’s program could easily be called the “Cinderella” Symphony. It differs from Cinderella in two important ways: it replaces the gentler fairy tale-narrative with an edgier symphonic ambition, and it veers sharply in favor of the classical sonata example of Haydn (the composer he had honored and parodied in the “Classical” Symphony.) Nevertheless, the Fifth is shot full of music from Prokofiev’s Cinderella ballet, which makes appearances in every movement, some obvious, some disguised.

Prokofiev completed the Fifth Symphony in one month. Immediately paraphrasing Cinderella, it begins with a memorable rising theme, softly intoned at the start, then gaining energy as it begins its journey. Soon a second, more excited theme begins on the high winds, leading toward a return of the first theme and, in turn, an elaborate development of both that climaxes with bristling dissonance. Out of the tumult the first theme calmly signals the recapitulation, with further development; the second theme then reappears, moving into a powerful finale that casts the first theme in bold face underscored by low percussion.

Serving as a scherzo, the sizzling second movement captures the spirit of the “Classical” Symphony, tinged with the sarcasm that marked the composer’s early period. Between its gentle beginning and ending, the middle section swaggers with exuberance. The clock scene from Cinderella is at hand, with no missed shot at spoofing itself.

The adagio recaptures the fairy tale music of the ballet (with flavors from the composer’s Romeo and Juliet also in evidence), yearning dreamlike for something elusively out-of-focus. Still the energy piles up to a grand symphonic climax. A slow introduction to the final movement quotes from the first movement’s first theme, then opens a headlong rondo theme that recurs throughout, sandwiching recalled earlier material and new ideas.  

There is a second reason that the Fifth Symphony might be called the “Cinderella;” it turned out to be the composer’s last happy ending. Despite the war, he was in an upbeat, even exhilarated, state of mind, as evidenced by a statement he released at the time describing the Symphony as “a hymn to free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit,” and adding, “The music matured within me. It filled my soul.” Two weeks after conducting its premiere, in January 1945, he suffered a mild heart attack that caused him to tumble down a flight of stairs. He never fully recovered from the resulting concussion of the brain, and in the eight years that remained was forced by poor health to severely restrict his activities. Even so, those years did see the completion of the Piano Sonata No. 9, Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7, the film music for Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, The Tale of the Stone Flower ballet and the Symphony-Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, composed for Rostropovich.  

* * *

You should hear these magical works for yourself. The Minnesota Orchestra’s The Art of Russia Festival—presented in partnership with The Museum of Russian Art—run November 6 through November 15. Tickets are available here, so don’t miss this opportunity!

 

Xochipilli

Statements, Part 2

Yesterday (in part 1 of this blog entry) I noted that the negotiations between the locked out musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) and the management of the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC) hit a rough patch; shortly thereafter the two sides had begun making statements in the press. My main point was that the WAC’s statements were, to be honest, bizarre, and they did not inspire trust in the WAC’s ability to manage the situation.

Well… I’m disappointed to report that things only got worse.

While I was posting my blog entry, I learned that the WAC had posted a full-blown summary of its position. I didn’t want to delay my previous post, or make it any longer than it already was, so I held off on commenting about this much fuller statement.

Allow me to do so now.

* * *

At a glance, it appears that the statement isn’t (as of this moment) on the ASO’s website, so I will post the version that appears on their Facebook page. Curiously for a social media site, the comments have been wiped clean. I mean, isn’t that the purpose for posting things on social media—to encourage interactions? If not, why not just post it to the website? Regardless, here’s the link, but as not everyone uses Facebook, I’ll just copy and paste the text:

This is in response to the Counterproposal made by ASOPA last night shortly before 11PM. You were informed at that time that we would consider your counterproposal and respond in writing today.

First, let me remind you of the situation in which our negotiations have occurred. As you well know, the Atlanta Symphony has been losing millions of dollars every year for 12 consecutive years. We have used up a significant portion of our endowment to cover the losses. Ticket sales only pay for approximately 20% of the cost of producing classical concerts. The rest of the cost has to be covered by donor contributions and other revenue sources. Despite prior fundraising efforts by the ASO Board and Staff, and significant support from the Arts Center, there is still a deficit every year—$2 million last year. ASO is spending money it does not have.

Stated simply, continued deficits aren’t sustainable. Some of our biggest donors have told us they will stop contributing if we do not slow down our spending and put forth a plan for sustaining the Symphony into the future. It is against this background that the Union wants us to increase our expenditures and spend money we do not have.

Here are the specifics of our proposal:

  1. Wage Increases. Despite our desperate financial condition, we have offered the Union wage increases. This is because we know the Musicians took a substantial pay cut two years ago and we did not want to ask them to take another cut. Our proposal is to raise Musician pay by 4.5% over the term of the agreement. Your proposal would add almost $10,000 to each Musician’s base pay by the end of the fourth year. Musician base pay, excluding benefits, currently ranges from a high of over $200,000 to a low of approximately $75,000, with an average of $112,000, plus extra pay for such things as playing multiple instruments, overtime, youth coaching, travel, etc. We believe that our current offer is more than generous under the circumstances for 38 weeks of work and four weeks of paid vacation.
  2. Health Care. We have reached agreement on health care. The plan that ASOPA has agreed to is a BCBS High Deductible plan with HSA cash contributions to Musician accounts from $1,000 to $2,000. Musicians will only pay $20 per week for this plan. This modest increase is more than offset by the wage increases we have proposed.
  3. Size of the Orchestra. It has become clear that the only real remaining issue in the negotiations is the size of the orchestra. The Orchestra currently has 76 active musicians. The Union has demanded that the number of players be raised to 89 by the fourth year, regardless of the fact that the orchestra is losing money. Of course, everyone would like to have a very large orchestra, but we cannot afford 89 musicians at the present time.

ASO has proposed to start where we now are (76 musicians) and to guarantee that no Musician would lose his/her job during the four-year agreement due to downsizing. Then we would build the size of the orchestra over time as we can afford to do so—up to 90 players. To accomplish that, we committed to use our best efforts by putting a major endowment campaign into place, with the proceeds being used exclusively to increase the number of Musicians.

You have previously received our detailed proposal on complement which states:
“ASO will increase the complement through endowment of chairs during the term of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The ASO/Arts Center intends, as of the date of this agreement, to create and undertake a major fundraising campaign focused on endowment of chairs, led by the ASO/Arts Center with the full support of the Music Director and the participation of Musicians.

The goal of the campaign will be to increase the complement of the orchestra as follows:  By the end of year one of the Agreement…………At least 77 Musicians By the end of year two of the Agreement………….At least 81 Musicians By the end of year three of the Agreement……….At least 85 Musicians By the end of year four of the Agreement…………At least 90 Musicians.”

The ASOPA Committee made it crystal clear during the past few days–it would rather have no orchestra at all if it cannot have a larger orchestra with a guaranteed number of players. ASO simply cannot agree to spend money we do not have.

We are pleased that we are able to guarantee positions for the current 76 musicians but we must decline your proposal to guarantee more without having the funding in place to pay for them.

We have provided a path to a larger orchestra through an endowment campaign and we wholeheartedly believe that the Atlanta community will support such an effort. By rejecting that concept and demanding further deficit spending, we believe the union threatens to bring an end to our great orchestra.

Our proposal will remain open for your acceptance until 4PM, Monday, October 27, 2014. If not accepted by that time, we will be forced to make further cancellations.

* * *

And now, my response.

“You were informed at that time that we would consider your counterproposal and respond in writing today.”

I suppose there could be a reason why the WAC negotiators would need to leave the bargaining table and formally draw up a response, but are these steps truly necessary? Couldn’t you agree (or disagree) on the back of a cocktail napkin, and write up any formal response later, once both parties have agreed in principle? Why did you need to “adjourn” to do this? It feels like a transparent attempt to run out the clock… and indeed, the federal mediators have now left town.

“First, let me remind you of the situation in which our negotiations have occurred. As you well know, the Atlanta Symphony has been losing millions of dollars every year for 12 consecutive years.”

I’m sure the musicians don’t need a reminder… being without pay or insurance tends to focus the mind. I’m fairly confident the events of the past few months are seared into their memories without any help from the WAC.

And again with these statistics. Simply restating a point does not make it true. As many have pointed out, there are serious questions about how the WAC has managed the ASO’s finances, and these questions have not been satisfactorily answered. Plus, the WAC insisted two years ago that the lockout and subsequent cuts were going to turn this bleak financial situation around. By your own admission, they didn’t. So why are you relentlessly pursuing this same, failed strategy? Especially when you know that it is having an adverse impact on the organization?

“Ticket sales only pay for approximately 20% of the cost of producing classical concerts. The rest of the cost has to be covered by donor contributions and other revenue sources.”

Yes. You are a non-profit. This is what every other 501 (c) (3) not-for-profit organization experiences. Do you not realize how ridiculous you sound… to every other person across the country who works in a non-profit?

“Despite prior fundraising efforts by the ASO Board and Staff, and significant support from the Arts Center, there is still a deficit every year—$2 million last year. ASO is spending money it does not have.”

And again, since there are serious questions about how the WAC has managed the ASO’s finances, this statement is debatable at best. I ask you: Is it that the ASO does not have any money, or is it that that the ASO does not have any money because the WAC is withholding financial support from it?

“Some of our biggest donors have told us they will stop contributing if we do not slow down our spending and put forth a plan for sustaining the Symphony into the future.”

Perhaps. But are they the same big donors that currently are running the negotiations… so that only a very select group of self-interested people is weighing in? And if so, is the situation simply a self-fulfilling prophecy?

I’d also like to point out that several members of the ASO’s board have come forward with emergency funds, but the WAC turned this extra money down.

Moreover, in order to back up this statement, I would expect the WAC to produce a capacity study by a respected firm that clearly indicates that the community is tapped out. That’s what non-profits usually do.

And finally, this point is undermined by a recent article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, which showed that “in Atlanta, individual giving increased by more than $465-million from 2006 to 2012. Atlantans gave roughly 4 percent of their adjusted gross income to charity in 2012, which ranks the city fourth nationally among large metropolitan areas.”

This doesn’t help your argument.

“Our proposal is to raise Musician pay by 4.5% over the term of the agreement.”

Great! That covers inflation. It does not, however, bring the musicians up to the level of pay they were at two years ago.  And, these totals still keep wages on the low side for a major symphony orchestra.

“We believe that our current offer is more than generous under the circumstances for 38 weeks of work and four weeks of paid vacation.”

Leaving aside your self-satisfied “belief” in your “generosity,” I can’t help but read between the lines here. You are essentially trying to make the musicians look overpaid by tossing out the “endless weeks of vacation” canard. Look, as we dealt with repeatedly in the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, “vacation” means something very different for an orchestral musician. Like athletes, the musicians have to practice constantly, usually daily, to maintain conditioning. And they do so for the same reasons—that’s the only way to insure they stay at the top of their artistic game.  Plus, musicians are at grave danger for repetitive stress injuries. So musicians are not sitting around drinking mai-tais on the beach, those weeks are simply non-performance weeks. Giving musicians those breaks in the schedule is a win-win situation that is critical to maintaining health and keeping the overall level of performance high.

And “38 weeks?” Just how long is the season you’re proposing?

“The Union has demanded that the number of players be raised to 89 by the fourth year, regardless of the fact that the orchestra is losing money. Of course, everyone would like to have a very large orchestra, but we cannot afford 89 musicians at the present time.”

It isn’t just “the union” that is concerned about this. Every outside observer has concerns about this. Look, you need a set number of musicians to perform music by Beethoven, Mahler, or Strauss. If you don’t have that number, you will have to hire freelancers, or shift to a different kind of music.

There are real concerns that you will use this as an escape clause to unilaterally reduce the size of the ensemble, in effect turning it into a house band to back up pop performances. And based on your statements and actions to date, I find these fears to be fully justified.  Your assurances that you would not do such a thing are meaningless…after all, two years ago you promised not to demand concessions from the musicians again.

I covered this yesterday, if you wish to read more.

“Our proposal will remain open for your acceptance until 4PM, Monday, October 27, 2014. If not accepted by that time, we will be forced to make further cancellations.”

Please, can we stop with the abuser-blaming-the-victim routine? You locked out the musicians at the first moment you were legally able to do so. You chose to cancel the season. There is a well-established mechanism to keep the season going: play-and-talk. Groups do this all the time. All sorts of people have urged you to do so, too. So please, you aren’t forced to do anything. You are choosing to do this.

And taking this thought further, I find it odd that you are so coy about what you are doing. You have said again and again that you are acting to bring about much-needed “sustainability” for the organization, and you are convinced that this will be a net positive for the organization. To achieve sustainability, you have proudly announced your intention to cut costs and reduce the scope of the ASO.   And you clearly believe that although there might be short-term pain, the benefits will be worth it.

But why do you dissemble about your strategy to do so? Right from the beginning you were astonishingly evasive about the fact that you had locked out the musicians. Even today, you avoid using the factually correct word, “lockout,” and instead refer to what’s happening as a passive-voice “work stoppage.” And here, as elsewhere, you blame the musicians for bringing it about.

But this is your chosen strategy. You think it is a good thing that will provide benefits to all. So why won’t you own up to it, if it is so self-evidently wonderful?

If you are afraid of sparking a backlash… well, doesn’t that raise questions about how “obviously” good your strategy really is?

* * *

Again, given how sloppy the WAC is being—in both words and actions—I find it hard to take them seriously.

 

Xochipilli