A New Era of Promise for the Minnesota Orchestra

At 12:01 AM this morning, a new era will begin for the Minnesota Orchestra—in more ways than one. At the stroke of midnight, the last lockout-affected fiscal year for the Orchestra will finally end, and we will officially be able to close the books on the longest classical music labor dispute in American history.

But there is another key indicator that a new era is about to unfold. Again at the stroke of midnight, Michael Henson will officially step down as the President and CEO of the organization. His tenure has been divisive since before the lockout began, but during the lockout he became a lightning rod of criticism. Last spring, I posted an extensive open letter laying out my case why he should leave—a letter that was covered extensively in the local media and discussed in the New York Times.  I stand by what I wrote, and don’t have anything to add now.

Besides, it is completely irrelevant.

There is such good news coming out of the Orchestra right now, and that’s where our collective focus should be.

It seems nearly impossible to imagine based on what was happening a year ago, or even six months ago, but it’s true. Don’t get me wrong—the damage done by the labor dispute was real, and the effects continue today. There is still healing that has to take place.

But it is taking place.

Over the last few months a remarkable transformation has swept through the organization, leaving it almost entirely transformed. The road has been rocky, but let me say a few words about the astonishing new era that is about to unfold as the midnight bell dies away:

Artistic Flowering. We are about to embark on one of the most exciting seasons in years. And I say Hallelujah. One of my greatest concerns about the old regime was that based on its actions, words, and its planned 2014-15 season, it was leading the Orchestra to artistic extinction.  Leadership had decided classical music was a dead art form, and the Orchestra needed to be rejuvenated with pops concerts and special presentations.

No more.

In a remarkable turn of events, Music Director Osmo Vänskä and the musicians sat down and reconceptualized the season—pretty much on the fly. And their innate understanding of the art form shone brilliantly.  Within a few week they put together a spectacular season that included great works, great performers, and great collaborations with other arts groups from the community. I know when we in the Minnesota Chorale saw the wonderful choral offerings on the program we collectively gasped. And I ran out and bought a new tux.

There are so many wonderful, and wonderfully interesting events that encompass a huge array of styles, forms and themes… but all within a orchestral framework. Brand new symphonic works where the ink is still wet. Mighty war-horses. Festivals that reflect on spirituality. A musical Shakespeare homage, and a Richard Strauss festival. (My full thoughts on the season can be found here.)

This is what a season should be like—music that showcases the unique power of classical music, and speaks to the community.

I hear the same forces are soon going to work to hammer out the subsequent season, and based on what they’ve done this year, I am thrilled to see what they come up with. Wouldn’t that be fun to be a fly on the wall during those discussions!

Musical Engagement. Let me be clear that the musicians have long been an integral, important part of the community. They teach our children. They perform in churches and play in small ensembles. They are soloists and guest performers in community groups. And they are our neighbors and friends.

But in the wake of the labor dispute, they have done even more. Because an orchestra is such a large ensemble, sometimes the individuals can get lost in the crowd. But the musicians fought against that, and began speaking as individuals.  It was wonderful to watch as during the course of the lockout they broke down the labels of “the union” or even “the musicians” to remind us that they are individual people with unique gifts. Through social media, their own website, interviews and speeches from the stage, they broke down the wall that separated them from the audience… and that was incredible to watch.

And the community is hungry for this kind of personal interaction.

I know that the Orchestra’s marketing department has been exploring ways to bridge the gap between the performers and the public at large, and several ideas are in the works. This is a crucial step—that connection will make people more eager to attend concerts and to give money.

But the musicians have put their money where their mouths are, too. Rather than to take a passive approach to the rebuilding, nearly 50 musicians came forward and donated money to the various challenge grants to help rebuild the Orchestra’s finances. I can’t think of a more powerful testament to their level of engagement right now.

As I’ve said, the musicians have always been engaged with the community. But it seems that connection is closer than ever. That is a powerful development.

Community Engagement. On the flip side of my above point, the community has never been more engaged with the Orchestra… and that, too, is a new and powerful development. Whatever the financial or administrative problems faced by the Orchestra (or any orchestra, for that matter) there has always been a solid base of support for classical, orchestral music here. This is evidenced in so many ways, from students taking up music studies to adult participation in community orchestras. As the lockout unfolded, many people were forced to re-evaluate the importance of music in their lives, to rethink what it was that spoke to them and how they wanted to support it.

And support it they did.

I’m sure many observers thought the community would, in the disparaging words of one local writer, take their pitchforks, go home, and forget all about the Orchestra after the lockout ended. But they did not. Community members continue to be deeply engaged at all levels of the organization.

For example, Karen Himle, a board vice chair, convened community groups to join musicians, staff and board members on discussions about the Orchestra’s future. I was part of those discussions, and cannot praise Karen’s leadership enough. And let me say that we didn’t just offer to help the Orchestra… we rolled up our sleeves and provided help. Community members organized and implemented a CommUnity Challenge grant that raised nearly $290,000 in small donations from the public at large. Yes, I recognize that since the Orchestra’s budget hovers between $25 and $30 million, this is a relatively small amount… but these gifts were made in addition to people’s regular donations, and shows extraordinary commitment from the community. It also built excitement about the new season, and helped create a sense of “ownership” in the Orchestra; now, a much larger group of people have a real stake in its success.

But there were other community-led initiatives that came out of these meetings, too. Ken Huber led a series of focus groups with young audience members, to see how the Orchestra might better interact with a new generation. Paula DeCrosse built ties to senior groups. New cross-marketing plans developed between the Orchestra and other community partners. Audience advocacy group SOS Minnesota convened public meetings with interim president Kevin Smith, and has continued to be a clearing house for vital information about the Orchestra’s goings-on.

As a result, ticket sales are up, donations are up, and interest in the Orchestra is up.

I am thrilled to see the community step forward and take a more active role in the Orchestra. It really does now feel like our orchestra.

Financial Promise. As has been detailed in the media, the Orchestra seems to have also turned a financial corner. Skeptics claimed that in the shakeup surrounding Henson’s resignation (which infuriated many of his supporters on the board), the Orchestra would lose donors and hit a financial crisis. Plus, the old administration had told anyone who would listen that the Orchestra had a “structural deficit” and could never support itself without abandoning that pricey classical music focus and adopting a more pops-friendly structure.

Patently false.

As I’ve said many times, the Minnesota Orchestra—and pretty much every performing arts organization—does indeed face financial challenges. But the idea of writing them off as some sort of “structural” problem afflicting all classical music groups is embarrassingly simple-minded and ignores the fact that many orchestras are having great success with ticket sales and donations. Michael Kaiser, the legendary arts administrator formerly with the Kennedy Center, has also shot the idea of “structural deficits” down.

The truth is the matter is that people will support an orchestra when they are engaged, inspired… and have confidence in its ability to do its work.

This has certainly been the case here in Minnesota.  The fact that the Orchestra engaged its musicians and scheduled a drool-worthy season of great music, the fact that the community came together and started taking an active role in the Orchestra’s success, and the fact that the Orchestra was changing for the better inspired more and more people to support it. In addition to the small-scale donors providing $290,000 in community gifts, several big donors came forward and contributed a jaw-dropping $13 million to the organization.

These new monies will go toward the endowment, but also go to several initiatives in the here and now. For example, new marketing initiatives are being launched. New tweaks to the freshly-refurbished Orchestra Hall are being developed to improve audience experience. New tweaks to the Orchestra’s branding.  And more.  Collectively these will all snowball, and help increase ticket sales and donations. They are investments that will post significant dividends in the future.

And none of this would have been remotely imaginable six months ago.

Future Needs. Despite the good news, there are still areas of concern that I would like to see addressed in the months to come. For one, I would like to see the community involvement continue, and to continue in a helpful way.  To this end I would love to see regular meetings between the upper administration and audience advocacy groups like SOS Minnesota or Orchestrate Excellence. I don’t advocate this as a way of punishing, ham-stringing, or scolding the incoming leadership—but many of the tensions between the community and the old administration were caused by the fact that it felt that information was not being shared freely… or honestly. I would propose these meetings as a good way to rebuild trust, and to help keep the public engaged in a positive way.

Something else I feel must be addressed, although I recognize it may be beyond the ability of the Orchestra to manage directly. We need better arts writing here in the Twin Cities… particularly in regards to classical music.

Don’t get me wrong… Pamela Espeland is doing fantastic work over at MinnPost, and I was thrilled that there was a successful community grant challenge to expand her arts coverage. I love Ron Hubbard’s reviews in the Pioneer Press, and Brian Newhouse is a treasure over at Minnesota Public Radio. And I was particularly happy that non-arts writers such as Doug Grow (again over at MinnPost) were able to illuminate important developments over the course of the lockout, and to give the lockout the attention it deserved.

But for being an arts-crazed community like ours, we need more. It has been particularly discouraging to watch the arts coverage from the Star Tribune, the state’s largest media outlet, spiral down from being irrelevant to disrespectful, to snarky… and finally this week to become (forgive me) bitchy. And worse, it’s reporting is factually questionable.  The Star Tribune’s “coverage” of the Orchestra’s new era this weekend was so embarrassing that I can’t bring myself to link to the stories.

There is enormous interest and involvement in classical music here. Where are the human interest stories, the backstories, and interviews? I don’t want wide-eyed boosterism—we’re too sophisticated for that. But there are real stories to tell…real stories of why the music is so interesting. Emily Hogstad over at Song of the Lark and I have been trying to do more in this regard, to try and explain why people should experience one of these concerts for themselves. From Ken Huber’s focus groups (and my blog’s stats) I know that there is a real hunger for these kinds of stories and information, and I wish more could be done.

But these are minor concerns.

This is a thrilling time to be part of the Minnesota Orchestra, and to get swept up in the experience. Back in January when the lockout ended, I was cautiously optimistic that things were going to get better. But I could not believe in my wildest dreams things would have gotten so much better so fast.

Want to see what I mean? If you don’t have tickets, try the Create Your Own series, available now at a savings of 25% off individual ticket prices by using the code SUPPORT15.

And allow me to pass along a special offer if you’d like to sample the new season before committing. On  September 13, the Orchestra will present its “Season Sampler Concert.” First-time concert-goers can get up to four tickets at only $5 each!  To order, click here.

Tomorrow is the start of a new fiscal year for the Orchestra… and it has never, ever seemed so full of promise. Come join me at Orchestra Hall to experience it for yourself.

 

Xochipilli

Hope for the Met’s Future

As has been widely reported this morning, the Metropolitan Opera has reached a tentative agreement with two critical unions at the heart of its labor dispute, and has thus pulled back its threat to lock its workers out.

I think we heard the collective sigh of relief all the way here in Minneapolis.

It is far too early to comment what is happening—as of this writing, the deal hasn’t yet been ratified, its contours have not been revealed to the public, and negotiations with some the other unions involved are still ongoing. But rest assured I will have something to say when it’s appropriate to do so.

In the meantime, let me offer up something different—a memory of my first experience to the Met, and why this labor dispute has resonated with me personally.

* * *

First, let me say that I have never lived in New York. As a result, most of my interactions with the Met were all done remotely, either through televised specials, videos, or CDs. These are invaluable links to the outside world, which allow the wider public to have a taste of the magic of what happens there on performance nights.

But as fine as they are, these remote interfaces cannot capture the totality of the Met experience. I learned this first-hand when I finally arrived and took in a performance live—an Otto Schenk production of Richard Strauss’s Elektra back in the 1990s.

Now, I fully understand that if the Met were to raise one single production as the signal achievement of its long and illustrious history… it would probably not be this one. But for this reason it was a perfect example to show the inspired professionalism that runs through the organization, top to bottom—a professionalism that is evident even when the performance itself isn’t creating headlines around the world.

And let me tell you, all parts of that performance were lovingly tended to, so that together the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. And that was a testament to the skill, dedication, and expertise of everyone involved… not just the stars onstage.

For example. That perfectly crafted set delivered exactly the message it was supposed to—a broken, ruined world that corrupted all who came into contact with it. But this was not some otherworldly realm like Tolkien’s Mordor; it was a ruined human world that humans had let fall into decay. The tortured physicality of that set was perfectly executed by the scenic designers, carpenters, scenic artists, and all the other workers who completed it. Yes, the concept may have originated by Jurgen Rose, but it was these workers—these professionals—who actually brought it to life and allowed it to have its intended impact. And it’s interesting to note that the set’s ponderous, overpowering menace was all an illusion, as it had to be disassembled and carted off at the end of each performance. It is rare skill to make something so ephemeral feel so monstrously heavy. As the saying goes, God is in the details… and that was certainly true in these details.

But there were other brilliant details as well. The orchestra, for example, could not have given any more of themselves in that performance. In Strauss’s score, the orchestra all but becomes another character that stands apart from the characters on stage. It comments on the action, mocks, snarls with irony, and screams with rage. This adds to the instability of the piece, and is in fact crucial to the overall effect. The Met orchestra performed this task magnificently—all opera houses should have such an orchestra!

And the front of the house staff contributed to the overall experience, too. Everything was handled with crisp professionalism as the staff maneuvered the crowd to where it needed to be and tended to its various needs. But there was still a human warmth to it all, driven by a passion for the art form, a commitment to the institution, and a desire to get things right.

And of course there were the costumers, wig makers, make-up artists, lighting designers, and many, many other brilliant professionals who made this performance soar.  Each contributed brilliantly, as they do for every single performance.

In the end, I both loved and admired the performance, and the hugely famous singers on stage more than earned their ovations. But what made that Met experience an experience was the combined efforts everyone involved. Together, they elevated that performance into an Event. Every part of that evening was handled with not just professional skill, but élan. From my experiences as both a performer and an arts administrator, I know how critical this is to an arts organization. And once an organization creates such a culture of professional excellence, it mutually reinforces itself and becomes self-sustaining… with glorious results.

The Met has such a culture, and the results are magical.

So let me take a minute to thank all the hard working professionals who make the Met’s productions happen, whether you work backstage, in the costume shop, in the rehearsal room, in the administration, or anywhere else. You work magic. Please do not think your efforts go unnoticed.

I am hopeful that this labor dispute is drawing to a close, and the Met’s wonderful culture of artistic excellence can be restored. I’m hopeful that the solutions being hammered out can effectively deal with some of the ongoing financial difficulties, and strengthen the organization to make it stronger in the years ahead.

And most of all, I’m hopeful that the Met can go back to creating art as no other organization can.

 

Xochipilli

 

 

Renée Fleming, Osmo Vänskä, and the Minnesota Orchestra

Renée Fleming is coming to Orchestra Hall! She’s an absolute superstar—I mean, did you see her performance of the Star-Spangled Banner at last year’s Super Bowl?— and the chance to see a singer of her talent live and in-person makes this an absolute must-see event.

But for me, there is another reason why I’m so excited to attend this concert. Several years ago, I had another chance to attend one of her concerts, and it was an experience I treasure to this day. And I have to say, it was not just her incredible artistry, but also her incredible humanity that turned me into a life-long fan.

The performance was September 11, 2002, and I remember every part of it. Vividly.

* * *

For most of that day—for most of that week, really—I was in a dark mood. It was one year after the horrific terrorist attack on 9-11, and the country was still taking stock of what had happened. And as the one-year anniversary approached, all the raw feelings of that tragic day had begun to resurface.

The Minnesota Orchestra, like so many other groups around the county, chose to honor those who fell that day with a special commemorative concert; and to my surprise the Orchestra announced that Renée Fleming would be the featured guest artist. Already by that time, Renée was a superstar. Given her stature, I was sure she could have performed in New York proper, or possibly given a public concert on the Mall in Washington D.C. as Marian Anderson had done so many years ago. But of all her many possible options, she came to Minneapolis to join the Orchestra in its commemorative concert.

And it really was a concert, in the best of all possible senses. One of the great dangers of this kind of event is that the featured guest star can have too much prominence, essentially upstaging the event at hand.

But that was not what happened that night.

Conductor Yakov Kreizberg led the Orchestra in a deeply moving performance of “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations as the concert opener. This haunting work, and the long moment of absolute silence that followed it, set the stage for Renée, who came out to deliver Richard Strauss’s magisterial Four Last Songs.

I can’t imagine how hard it was for her to take the stage… for everyone in that Hall, the memories were raw and nearly overwhelming. But she did the remarkable. With elegance and serenity I cannot begin to describe, she strode to take her place. Her expression, her bearing all commanded our attention… but that was nothing compared to what happened when she began to sing.

She had us. Completely.

Her voice enveloped us with beauty I cannot describe. We were spellbound as she gave an astonishing rendition of Strauss’ music, filling the songs with a sense of loss, hope and unfathomable wisdom that I’ve never heard since. It was not art for art’s sake; through music, she gave us peace.

It is rare to see a performer so thoroughly command a room like that—not from power or vocal fireworks, but from elegance and light. But that is exactly what she did, and by the time the music finally died away we had gone on an incredible healing journey together. And I tell you everyone in that room loved her for taking us with her on that journey.

But there was a surprise. Given the overwhelming audience reaction when she was finished, she agreed to perform one last piece: “Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém” (“The Song of the Moon”) from Antonin Dvořák’s opera, Rusalka. In this song, the water-nymph Rusalka confesses to the moon that she is in love with a mortal prince. It is moltenly beautiful, and one of Renée’s signatures. Although nominally about unrequited love, in the context of that commemorative concert the song took on a broader meaning to become a delicate prayer of memory, and a song of hope:

O moon,
Illuminate him far away,
and tell him, tell him who is waiting for him!

A perfect, gentle finale.

All in all, it was a magical evening, held together by incomparable artistry that showed the power of music to heal and bring us together.

But in reflecting on the event, the most impressive part of all wasn’t her artistry… it was the way her humanity came shining through. There was no hint of an operatic diva, just a warm-hearted fellow human who used her gifts to bring about a perfect moment of reflection and healing. I am firmly convinced that it is that humanity which makes her opera roles so compelling, and elevates her artistry to such an astonishing level.

* * *

And now she’s coming back. And I can hardly wait.

Renée will be joining Osmo and the Minnesota Orchestra for A Starry, Starry Night, on September 5 at Orchestra Hall. This is a benefit concert to help the Orchestra start its new season on solid financial ground.

And as my readers know, this is a cause near and dear to my heart. Back a few months ago, when we as a community helped pull the Orchestra back from the brink of destruction, I vowed I would do everything I could to help it thrive… and buying tickets to this benefit concert is a great way for me to honor that pledge. In fact, it feels like I’m cheating—this concert will be far, far too good to pass up on its own! But throw in the chance to give extra financial support to one of my favorite ensembles? You better believe I snapped up my tickets the minute the website went live!

Don’t miss your chance to do the same. I understand that there are still $100 tickets available at the Orchestra’s website, and I urge you to quit reading right now, follow this link, and grab them. You will not regret it—you will see an astonishing artist who is at the height of her abilities, and an astonishing conductor who is so loved and respected by our community that we refused to let him go. And of course, you will hear an astonishing Orchestra made up of some of the finest musicians—and people—I am privileged to know. This is great music for a great cause.

See you there!

 

Xochipilli

Reflections on Anthony Tommasini’s Piece in the Times

New York Times arts writer Anthony Tommasini has written an important piece on the Met dispute, particularly examining the issue of new artistic productions. Interestingly, this subject was also covered by James Jorden yesterday, too (my response to Jorden’s article is here).

By and large, Tommasini brings up good points, and in broad terms I agree with him (and Jorden) that an arts organization must engage in new productions and perform new works. The artistic mission and artistic strategic plan are every bit as important as their financial counterparts.  And in fact, I argued this again and again during the Minnesota Orchestra lockout.

That said, there are a couple of areas where I believe we part company.

* * *

“Who could have imagined that when the labor talks got underway this summer, one small scenic element of this alluring “Prince Igor” — the magical poppy field that covered the stage during the Polovtsian scene — would be seized upon to the point of absurdity by union members as evidence that the money woes of the Met came not from unsustainable labor costs, but from the general manager Peter Gelb’s spendthrift ways in mounting lavish new productions? That those in-house satin poppies cost $169,000 was decried. Did they have to be satin? How about pre-made plastic ones?”

Indeed, the debate that has broken out is surprising. It is even more surprising to see that we’ve now moved past the original debate about the poppies’ worth, and are now debating… the debate surrounding the debate of the poppies’ worth.

For what it’s worth, I think the poppies are important to the discussion. The unions are not arguing that this poppy field by itself broke the bank; instead, they see it as something that illuminates Peter Gelb’s priorities, budgeting processes, and management style. Coupled with other examples such as the moving monoliths in the Ring cycle, it helps show a pattern of behavior. And as such, it remains fair game.

“The formidable Met orchestra players and choristers, who occupy the top tiers in their field and are paid accordingly, should be careful of debunking the importance of new productions.”

Well… are they fully against new productions?

Let me speak from my own experiences. As a singer, I am happy to perform the regular ol’ warhorses, but I am thrilled to perform new works, as well as less familiar works. I like the challenge of learning music I don’t know, with all the ups and downs along the way; these are the kinds of artistic challenges that get me out of bed in the morning. And to be blunt, having these off-the-beaten-track works in my portfolio gives me street cred with other singers and conductors. I imagine all artists would say the same thing about their chosen art form—the routine can get routine. We crave artistic excitement.

So from this perspective, I’m confident that the Met choristers want to do new productions, new works, and ambitious projects. I’m similarly confident that the wig makers, costumers, and carpenters want to do new productions, new works, and ambitious projects… who wants to make yet another nondescript peasant frock? I’m sure the workers who created that poppy field were fascinated by the unique challenge it presented, and at the end of the day looked upon it with pride and said “I created something remarkable!”

But at the same time, they want financial stability. If they are forced to choose between having a chance to create a dazzling set or making their house payment, I’m fairly sure the workers will choose their house payment.

So, I’m not sure that the unionized workers are against new productions per se.  I think the more accurate assessment is that they are against a pattern of extravagant new productions that cripples the organization’s budget and forces them to take large pay cuts to make up the difference.

And they are not wrong to make this case to the public.

“Some of the recommendations from the unions on other ways to trim the budget without cutting salaries and benefits would compromise the artistic ambition of the house, especially the stupefying suggestion that the Met should not present so many long operas.”

As I mentioned above, when presented with the choice of taking part in an ambitious new production or paying their kid’s college tuition, most people will choose the later.

And from my perspective, the unions have signaled their willingness to negotiate and take cuts—they just don’t want the entire budget to be balanced on their paychecks when there are other areas that could be cut.

And the thing with longer operas. As others have pointed out, sometimes there are ways to cut running times, making it possible for longer operas to fit into the prescribed time frame. Plus, I don’t see any indication that the unions are advocating that Parsifal, Les Troyens or similar operas be abolished forever, or that they wish to turn the Met’s season into a festival of one-acts. Their argument is that it makes no sense to schedule several long, chorus-heavy productions together in a season… and then blame the unions for the resulting cost overruns.

“If the Met cannot present ‘Parsifal’ in a performance and production as ambitious as this one, then what is it for?”

I’m not sure it has to be either/or. The “New Bayreuth” productions of the 1950s were critical and commercial successes. Not that we have to go back to that extreme, but extravagance alone does not create great performances.  There are many ways to be ambitious.

“Mr. Gelb rightly points to the serious structural challenges that have long been undermining American opera companies and orchestras.”

“Structural challenges” was a phrase bandied about all the time during the Minnesota Orchestra’s labor dispute… and I lost all patience for it. As Michael Kaiser from the Kennedy Center stated:

I think the term is overused, and misused, and is simply a cop out in most situations. It allows a group to rationalize reducing fundraising and ticket sales requirements. It provides a guilt-free excuse to do less to achieve the organization’s mission.

Arts organizations may be earning deficits but they are doing so because they have not created the art, pursued the marketing, built the boards, or created the fundraising mechanisms that are required to sustain the organization.

I can point to dozens of arts organizations that are balancing their budgets. Why can they balance their budgets while others in the same art form cannot? Why don’t they have structural deficits when they have the same structure as their less fortunate counterparts?

As a result, I’m not convinced that Mr. Gelb has “rightly” pointed out the serious structural challenges facing the Met, or opera in general.

“On the whole, one hopes that the unions will tone down the rhetoric. In his public statements, Mr. Gelb has consistently praised the artists and technicians at the Met, whereas many company members have denigrated their boss as overbearing and clueless.”

I find this statement astonishing. From my perspective, Gelb has done nothing of the sort. On the contrary, in his interview with Paula Zahn he laid 100% of the Met’s financial difficulties on the unions with their unsupportable salaries, and implied that unions simply couldn’t understand the need for cuts. In an AP interview, he said that a lockout was necessary to make the unions “take this seriously.” His interview with Maureen Dowd, contained this nugget, “ ‘They’re surrounded by too much gold leaf,’ Gelb says of the 15 unions — from wigs and makeup to a union consisting of one house painter. ‘It’s delusional.’ ” (For the curious, my responses to these interviews are here, here, and here respectively.)

I would hardly qualify that as consistent praise.

The praise that he has provided has almost always come off as perfunctory and paternalistic—essentially a disclaimer added onto long bout of criticism to avoid potential legal action.

* * *

Anthony Tommasini’s love for the Met bursts forth in every paragraph of this work—it is obvious he wants it to prosper for years to come. And he is correct that the Met, along with every other arts organization in the world, has to grow its art, developing new productions, nurturing new talent, and presenting new works.

But on some of his other points, I’m afraid we disagree.

 

Xochipilli

A Response to James Jorden

The Metropolitan Opera’s ongoing labor dispute has hit a bit a lull—there is a freeze in negotiations while an independent financial analysis takes place.

As both sides prepare for the next round of negotiations, a new article has appeared—a piece by James Jorden in the New York Observer. Jorden’s stated goal with this piece is to show that the maligned Peter Gelb is not as bad as we think. Gelb has, Jorden argues, enjoyed many successes over his tenure. Fair enough. I’ve been strongly critical of him here in my blog, but I’m open to hearing a different perspective… particularly from someone who knows him far better than I do.

That said, in reading through the piece, I’m not sure fully agree with Jorden. Let me explain.

* * *

“It’s not hard to understand how the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager Peter Gelb got a bad rap.”

First, I appreciate the honest assessment of some of Gelb’s potential drawbacks in this section. As both sides become more and more entrenched, nuance and balance can go flying out the window. Thank you.

“…as one member of his administrative staff puts it, ‘Nothing can change his mind.’ ”

This hits on a major issue…one that may overwhelm all the others. The problem is that the Met is heading into a tough series of negotiations, and I think it’s fair to say that neither side is going to get everything they want. The union representatives have acknowledged this, with D. Joseph Hartnett of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees stating “We feel that, just as any family that has a budgetary crisis, everything needs to be on the table. And that includes Mr. Gelb’s spending. And if we’re being asked to tighten our belts, Mr. Gelb is gonna have to cut up some credit cards.”

But it is somewhat alarming to see that those closest to Gelb freely state that “nothing can change his mind.” Does that mean he is willing to fight to the death for his positions? Does that mean nothing will convince him that his data could be off? Or there might be better options than the ones he has already chosen?

As I’ve mentioned many times on my blog, this whole situation has an eerie parallel with the Minnesota Orchestra dispute. There, too, leadership simply refused to budge from its pre-established position and never developed a “plan B.” The management’s intransigence was ultimately its undoing—after 16 months the state government had enough, and the City of Minneapolis came within a hair’s breadth of taking over Orchestra Hall.

Refusing to budge can make you look strong, but it can also make you look stubborn… and unsympathetic.

This goes beyond being obstinate in labor negotiations; in general, it is dangerous to have an inflexible leader running a large, complex arts organization. Yes, a strong leader can sometimes be an asset, and sometimes an organization needs an indomitable force of nature to get things done. But it is dangerous to fetishize this autocratic approach to leadership, as there are other ways to push through difficulties and achieve organizational goals.

As I discussed in a previous post, the Harvard Business Review ran a fascinating article that looked into autocratic vs. collective management styles. “How Management Teams Can Have a Good Fight,” by Kathleen M. Eisenhardt, Jean L. Kahwajy and L. J. Bourgeois III, suggested that the most effective approach to running an organization was one that encouraged dissent, healthy conflict, and finding win-win solutions. The authors concluded:

[T]eams whose members challenge one another’s thinking develop a more complete understanding of the choices, create a richer range of options, and ultimately make the kinds of effective decisions necessary in today’s competitive environments.

That is not what Peter Gelb seems to be encouraging now.

“When Mr. Gelb defends his management of the Met, he tends to lead with less than his strongest card. Since his first season in 2006-2007, he has doubled the number of new productions the company presented to six or seven a year. Unfortunately, the quality of these has been uneven….”

Agreed, this is a mixed bag at best, and is probably not Gelb’s strongest card. In fact, the varying quality of the productions is most worrisome, and has long-range implications for the future of the Met. For example, these productions may be fully funded by private donors (and a full financial review may help determine if the productions really were fully funded, as Gelb claims), but they also represent a huge drain on the organization’s overall capacity—taking time, attention, and resources from other projects. Plus, as has been pointed out, many of these new productions have fared poorly in revival, meaning that they will remain expensive albatrosses around the Met’s neck for years to come.

I would toss out a different question, too: should new productions be Gelb’s top area of concern right now? Are they providing the strongest possible return on investment, relative to the resources expended? I absolutely agree that new productions are important, if not critical, to the Met’s overall success. But Gelb claims that the Met is in a precarious position right now. Could limited resources be better applied elsewhere, where they might make a more positive impact? Is this emphasis on new productions putting undue strain on the organization’s human resource capacity, and forcing it to rely too heavily on overtime to get things ready on time? Would a scaling back on new productions reduce the overall strain on the Met’s capacity and give it breathing room? Could new productions be done smarter, so that they are cheaper and easier to pull off?

These are honest questions… I don’t have answers. But I think the questions have to be raised.

“It’s going to take the Met’s audience a while to catch up to European sophistication about stage direction…”

This is a curious statement, and one I’m surprised to read. Taste is, of course, a highly subjective thing, and for everyone who lauds current European productions as avant-garde, I can find several more who reject them as “Eurotrash.” Even the Germans seem to have lost patience for over-sophisticated productions; for example, stagings of Wagner’s Ring have drawn raw derision at the Bayreuth Festival for the last two years.  While I speak only for myself, I can appreciate both cutting-edge and traditional stagings—as long as they serve the opera itself. The problem with avant-garde productions is they can be so concerned with making a statement about, say, “patriarchy as hegemonic discourse” that we never get a sense why the two characters standing in front of us fell in love in the first place.

“[I]n the meantime, though, they might keep in mind Mr. Gelb’s greatest triumph at the Met. His comprehensive media initiative is spearheaded by the HD program, which transmits 10 Met performances a season in real time to cinemas across the United States and internationally.”

This is again a curious point to make. I personally think the HD telecasts are great, and many of my friends here in Minneapolis mob the theaters where they are shown. But why are they successful? Based on what criteria? There are concerns that they are not financially self-sustaining, and have not helped diversify the audience by attracting younger viewers. How specifically do they help the organization? What is their goal?

This is important to clarify, because it is possible that this specific initiative could technically be considered “successful,” yet still be a drag on the organization as a whole. Is it a loss leader, and is that sufficient? Or is this program distracting the organization from its core mission? This is, after all, the position of Gelb’s critics, who argue that the telecasts are siphoning off audience members from the live productions…and this is negatively impacting the bottom line. The critics also point out that more and more resources have to be expended to make the costumes, sets and makeup look acceptable for the HD presentations. As a result, workers have to work overtime, blowing a huge hole in the budget, and siphoning off resources that could be used elsewhere.

So again, while I think the HD telecasts are great, I can see the counter-argument that they represent a net drain on the Met’s resources.

“Mr. Gelb has also proven himself adept in the more traditional skills of the impresario. He has introduced to the Met conductors Daniel Barenboim, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Riccardo Muti and William Christie.”

I agree that it is important to bring in new talent… and concur that these conductors are certainly important artists. And yes, an arts organization has to concentrate both on its artistic product and its finances to thrive.  I wish, however, there was more of a sense of how these conductors fit into a strategic plan, even an artistic strategic plan. How does bringing them in add value, or help with the Met’s overall mission? Were they scattershot one-offs, or did they build off each other’s strengths? Did these conductors create buzz, and attract audiences? Will they be back? Were they worth the investment, or did Gelb break the bank by bringing in expensive talent with little to show for it?

I am all for bringing in new talent, and can be persuaded that this is indeed one of Gelb’s areas of strength… but I’d like more proof that bringing in these conductors clearly helped the artistic and financial bottom lines.

“The Met’s top-line casting is unrivaled, with practically every important star singer appearing annually.”

This is indeed a current strength… but it has a fragile base. Great singers might be attracted by Gelb’s managerial skill, but I would guess that the more important lures are the Met’s reputation, its reach, and its pay. And if a prolonged, ugly labor dispute breaks out, these incentives will go away. For example, singers (or critically, their agents) may decide it isn’t worth the bad publicity to appear onstage. And while some top performers might be happy to take a pay cut, others may not, particularly over the long-term. And in these cases, it wouldn’t matter how persuasive Gelb is—the singers still probably won’t come.

“Of all Mr. Gelb duties, though, probably his most important, and perhaps his area of greatest success, is development, the art of getting donors to contribute to the not-for-profit company. With less than half the Met’s annual $300 million budget covered by ticket sales and other revenue, that means going hat in hand to donors for more than $150 million.”

Again, curious. I congratulate Gelb on raising this sizable sum, and recognize how much effort it must have taken. That said, I don’t know that I’d call this a unique strength or consider this a unique success—as I’ve mentioned before, the Met is classified by the IRS as a 501 (c) 3 not-for-profit organization. This means that by definition, it relies on fundraising for its budget. So really, raising money is one of his most fundamental job duties. I’m also curious as to how Gelb stacks up to his counterparts at similar-sized non-profits, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, PBS, or the Art Institute of Chicago. Does he stand out from his peers? Gelb is described as abrasive in this articles first paragraph—this coming from someone sympathetic to him. Would someone with more charisma enjoy better success with donors?

“And right now Mr. Gelb performs that role better than anyone in the world.”

Well… perhaps. Although I suspect that if that was the case, the Met wouldn’t be in the situation it is right now, and we would not be having this conversation. If things were going great, there wouldn’t be deficits, there wouldn’t be demands for huge budget cuts, there wouldn’t be a decline in ticket sales, there wouldn’t be threats to Opera News to stop publishing negative reviews of the Met’s performances, there wouldn’t be donor fatigue, and there wouldn’t be friction with the unionized workforce.

Since we do have all these problems, I think it’s safe to conclude that Gelb is not doing the right things, or he’s doing things badly. Or both. As I mention throughout this response, many of the initiatives Gelb is pursuing such as the HD simulcasts or the focus on new productions are not necessarily bad, but I’m not convinced they’re the right ones he should be pursuing right now. And based on the Met’s drooping numbers, I don’t know that he’s excelling at them.

Moreover, other opera companies are having banner years, including companies in Chicago, Houston, and St. Louis. If leaders in these companies are enjoying record ticket sales, increased donations, and high levels of community engagement—and Peter Gelb is not—I’m not sure how we can say that “Mr. Gelb performs that role better than anyone in the world.”

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In the end, I hardly begrudge the press for taking a deeper look at Peter Gelb, or pointing out his successes as part of a broader examination of his tenure. I’m still not convinced, however, that his successes have been all that successful.

Xochipilli

Music for a Great City: London

Pack the bags and ready the passport—I’m delighted to report that I will be visiting London early this fall. It will be my first time in England, as my only previous visit to the UK was a singing tour of Scotland. But my wife lived there for several years right out of college, and she is thrilled to be able to reconnect with old friends and revisit some of her favorite haunts.

Given my love of history, plus English culture generally, I am greatly looking forward to our trip. And as my friends know, I love diving into the music of places I plan to visit—it really helps me connect with a place personally. So in that vein, I am delighted to assemble a London playlist—a dream collection of classical (and classical-ish) music that celebrates this great city.

Here is what I have so far. My list doesn’t just collect my favorite works by English composers, or pull together works inspired by England generally; instead, it presents works that specifically reflect London itself.

If I’ve missed any, please tell me about them in the comments. And if you have recommendations of great places to eat, please share them in the comments section as well! Cheers!

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Ralph Vaughan Williams: A London Symphony (Symphony #2). Vaughan Williams vies with Jean Sibelius for being the composer closest to my heart. Way back in high school, I ran across his song Silent Noon while participating in a singing competition, and Vaughan Williams and I have been close companions ever since (Silent Noon is still one of my signatures, and I had the distinct pleasure of singing it my mom’s marriage to my stepfather back in the ‘90s). While A London Symphony isn’t my absolute favorite Vaughan Williams work, I dearly love it. It is not a strictly programmatic piece (the composer thought a better title would be “A Symphony by a Londoner”), although there are a few musical quotes—most famously the Westminster Chimes. I heard Osmo and the Minnesota Orchestra perform the work live a few years back, and it was a perfect piece to showcase the Orchestra’s stunning dynamic range. That said, the unbelievably quiet ending of the Third Movement was completely disrupted when an audience member launched into a wild coughing fit . The coughing was so loud and prolonged that my mom actually believed she was going to have to administer medical assistance.

Gustav Holst: Hammersmith. Holst is one of those unfortunate composers to have one work (in this case, The Planets) overshadow everything else they ever wrote. But Holst is by no means a one hit wonder—his music is wonderfully distinct and endlessly fascinating. Hammersmith in particular is a great piece. His daughter Imogen described it best: “Its mood is the outcome of long years of familiarity with the changing crowds and the changing river [Thames]: those Saturday night crowds, who were always good-natured even when they were being pushed of the pavement into the middle of the traffic, and the stall-holders in that narrow lane behind the Broadway, with their unexpected assortment of goods lit up by brilliant flares, and the large woman at the fruit shop who always called him ‘dearie’ when he bought oranges for his Sunday picnics.  As for the river, he had known it since he was a student, when he paced up and down outside William Morris‘s house, discussing Ibsen with earnest young socialists.  During all the years since then, his favorite London walk had been along the river-path to Chiswick. In Hammersmith the river is the background to the crowd: it is a river that goes on its way unnoticed and unconcerned.”

I understand that Holst composed the work while sitting at a table in the Blue Anchor pub… which may mean I have to give the place a visit.

Joseph Haydn: Symphony #104, London. There are 12 so-called “London Symphonies” by this great master, but the moniker has particularly stuck with the final one of the series, No. 104. It was written in a flurry of activity in 1795, and became a smash hit at its premiere. The composer wrote in his diary, “The hall was filled with a picked audience. The whole company was delighted and so was I. I took in this evening 4000 gulden. One can make as much as this only in England.” This great work has it all—dark drama in the beginning giving way to exuberance.

George Frideric Handel: Water Music. Handel wrote this stunning work to accompany a royal cruise on the Thames, and by all accounts, its premiere was spectacular. In July, 1717, King George I and several aristocrats boarded a royal barge at Whitehall Palace for an excursion up the Thames toward Chelsea. The king wanted the procession to be a show-stopping spectacle to delight and amaze his subjects, and he commissioned suitable music from Handel as part of the extravaganza. Handel’s music was appropriately magnificent, and specifically scored for big-voiced instruments whose sound would carry across the water to reach the crowds gathered along the shore. The king was so delighted that he demanded the work be repeated at least three times—meaning the orchestra performed nearly four hours straight from about 8 PM to well after midnight.

And we wonder why musicians unionize….

Edward Elgar: Cockaigne Overture (In London Town). Following the disappointing premiere of his monumental The Dream of Gerontius in 1900, Elgar threw his energy into a new composition to bolster his spirits. Cockaigne is, as he described it, “cheerful and Londony, … honest, healthy, humorous and strong, but not vulgar.” I absolutely love it—it is a wonderful evocation of London at the dawn of the 20th Century that drives forward with all the confidence and exuberance of that glittering age.

William Walton: In Honour of the City of London. It is odd… for his patriotic cantata celebrating London, Walton took his text and title from a poem by the 16th Century Scot, William Dunbar. This 16-minute work does a brilliant job of gathering all the sounds of the bustling metropolis to create a vivid portrait of this “sovereign of all cities.” It is relentless, bordering on frantic, but the energy of the great city comes shining through.

John Gay: The Beggar’s Opera. Few musical works have had such a profound, immediate impact as Gay’s 1728 hit, The Beggar’s Opera. This “ballad opera” drew heavily from popular songs instead of Italian-style opera and art music, sparking a musical revolution that lead directly to the creation of modern musical theater. So great was its popularity that traditional operas in England, such as those being composed by Handel, completely fell out of favor; soon thereafter, Handel abandoned opera altogether and turned his attention to composing English-language oratorios such as Messiah. The Beggar’s Opera focuses on a motley crew of cut-throats, beggars, thieves and other assorted underworld figures in a hilarious satire of London high-society. The original has been reprised many times, but the work also is the basis for Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera.

Eric Coates: The London Suite. The London Suite, written in 1932, launched Coates’ international career. The work grew in popularity when the “Knightsbridge March” section was used by the BBC as the signature tune for its Saturday night show, In Town Tonight, which ran for 27 years. Coates once wrote, “It is extraordinary the way in which the “Knightsbridge March” never fails to rouse the dullest of audiences. I cannot understand the reason for it, but over and over again, when I have been conducting it in public, both in this country and abroad, the moment the double-basses begin the reiterated quaver beats at the opening I can feel a sensation of excited anticipation coming from the audience and striking me in the back of the head.” So popular was the work that Coates composed a sequel in 1936 called the London Again Suite.

Stephen Sondheim: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. This work, like the Beggar’s Opera above, might not fully qualify as “classical,” but the work has been performed by symphony orchestras and traditional opera companies, so I’m squeezing it in. Besides, it’s one of my favorite works of music. I first ran across the work by accident—years back when the show was still new and relatively unknown, some friends asked if our family wanted to go with them to see it. No one knew nothing about it save that it had garnered rave reviews. My folks thought it sounded fun… and so, at the tender age of 11, I saw my first Sondheim show. It has stayed with me ever since—and not just in my nightmares. Sweeney Todd completely revolutionized my ideas about what music could sound like, offering up a miraculous score unlike anything else ever composed. Sweeney Todd also presents a different take on London; in Sondheim’s hands, the city is a metaphor for the horrors and dehumanization of the Industrial Revolution.

Whew…after that, I may need to turn back to Vaughan Williams’ A London Symphony again….

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These are my top pics. What else?

 

Xochipilli

Anne Midgette Speaks Out

The Metropolitan Opera’s ongoing labor dispute continues to attract attention; yesterday Anne Midgette joined the fray, writing a column for the Washington Post where she grapples with the issues being raised in a cool-headed way.

I greatly appreciate her willingness to add her voice to the discussion—she brings good insights into the conversation, and overall I think her analysis is quite thought-provoking.  I’ve been interested to see how writers with a little distance have perceived the ongoing struggle.

But although I agree with much that Midgette says, I believe we do part company in a few key areas. As I’ve done in the past, allow me to share some thoughts about her piece.

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“This is the most heartening progress yet in a negotiation period that has been conducted, throughout the summer, in the public eye.”

I’m also hopeful this can be a good sign. As I’ve said before, my perspective is from the Minnesota Orchestra dispute, and from that perspective I feel a lockout will be a terrible, needless blow to the organization. I dearly hope that can be avoided.

“The Met — in the person of its controversial general director, Peter Gelb — says that opera audiences are steadily declining, donations are down, and cutting salaries is the only way to stave off disaster. (This argument evokes the terms of the Minnesota Orchestra’s 16-month lockout, which started in much the same way.) The unions retaliate by saying that they are experts in their field, work punishing hours, and that their salaries along are not to blame; the Met should take a long hard look at the cost of its new productions — many of which have not been very good.”

May I say how much I appreciate a willingness to try to frame each side of the dispute as they see it? Too many writers have “explained” the two sides by saying something like: “on the one hand the Met is running a huge deficit, and on the other side choristers are protecting their $200,000-a-year salary.” The problem with these analyses is that the info for both sides actually comes from Peter Gelb’s talking points. This gives a more accurate view of the union’s position.

“Both sides are partly right — this is why negotiation is so difficult. But the discourse in the media has amounted to a dust-cloud of response focused on a few constantly rehashed points: Peter Gelb’s statement that opera audiences are declining; the union members’ high salaries; and the idea that Peter Gelb’s expensive and supposedly bad productions are to blame for this mess.”

There is much truth here, but for me Midgette leaves off one critical issue—one I’ve found particularly irritating. Much of the discussion over the last 10 days or so has focused on Mr. Gelb’s direct statements that he is determined to break the unions. As unions. It’s not just an issue of union members’ high salaries, but whether the unions should have any sway whatsoever. In his interview with Paula Zahn, Gelb put 100% of the blame on unions and remarked that they were incapable of understanding budget cuts. Just the other day he told Maureen Dowd that the unions “[have] been calling the shots for decades. And I have to break that up for the Met to survive.”

This is a critical point, and makes clear that union-busting is a goal. That is a key reason negotiations are so difficult—it’s hard to have negotiations when you are looking to make a balanced series of budget cuts, but your opponent is looking to trying to nullify your existence.  How do you find middle ground in such a scenario?  I think that is why the rhetoric has gotten so heated right now… the unions feel they are facing not just a tough negotiation, but an existential threat.

“The most hysterical response is reserved for Gelb’s statement that opera audiences are declining. In recent weeks, articles and blogs and Facebook posts have repeatedly said that Gelb is lying: opera attendance is just fine, because look, the Chicago Lyric Opera had a banner year this year! This view represents an alarming level of wilful denial.”

Well, as I’ve written extensively about this topic, I’ll assume this applies to me… although I don’t know that I’d consider my posts to be “hysterical.” But then again, I would be expected to say that, yes?

As I mentioned in earlier posts on this subject… yes, I understand. As a classical performer, as an arts administrator, and as a board member of a large arts organization, I am quite aware of all the potential threats that opera and classical music are facing. As a board member I have had to make difficult budget decisions for the organization I serve, and as an administrator and performer I’ve had had to live with difficult decisions other boards have made. I am under no illusion that everything is going great.

But some organizations—including those I work with—are doing well right now, both artistically and financially. In a parallel situation, it is also a tough time to run a restaurant or boutique hotel, but people are doing so, and making them work.

I believe that this is very much a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty argument. In the same way that the Lyric Opera doesn’t “prove” that opera as whole is doing great, the Met’s problems don’t “prove” that opera is in decline.  Your opinion depends on your data, your observations, and perspective.

“In a recent article on the Glimmerglass Festival, I cited an Opera America study that followed nine major American companies — not including the Metropolitan Opera or the Chicago Lyric — from 2002 to 2012; all declined, but the summer festivals declined the least.”

I wrote about this study in an earlier post. The info is summarized on the following graph:

Opera_America_1988_-_2002_Attendance__1_page_

While some might see a decline, what struck me about the graph is that it shows great constancy, with growth and decline both hovering around 1 million audience members. The decline most evident in the graph comes in 2009, right on the heels of the Great Recession. But even then, after a quick drop lasting one year, audience size quickly stabilized. And may have even recovered over the last two years.

And as I mentioned before, it strikes me that if the last two years showed a return to the baseline, this graph would reinforce my notion that opera is stable. Perhaps this is just me, but I feel that if we were seeing a wholesale decline, the drop-off in audience sizes would be much greater, and more constant over a longer period of time.

For another take on this subject, Andrew Doe wrote a fascinating analysis showing that audiences for classical music were quite strong.  The piece is reprinted by the Met musicians, here.

“There’s a lot of talk, these days, about the future of classical music; and in this debate there is considerable blurring — as I’ve said before — of the distinction between the art form itself and the institutions that surround it. Cars are not in trouble every time that automobile manufacturers are in crisis. Similarly, classical music is not in trouble; opera is not in trouble; the news is not in trouble; religion is not in trouble.”

I agree 100%… in fact, I’ve made that point before, including a near-identical comment about automakers just a few days ago. This is a crucial point; the Met’s problems are the Met’s. For example, the fact that the Met can’t quite make its HD telecasts pay off doesn’t mean no one can—a similar program in Dallas has been quite successful. I feel it is possible to believe that the Met can have serious problems, without meaning that opera (or classical music generally) is dying. And other people in the industry have said the same thing.

And a quick word on why I’m optimistic. I work with great professional companies, but I also work with a wide range of wonderful community arts organizations. And I see nothing but strength in these “under the radar” groups, who feed the public’s appetite for music, use music to engage people in creative ways, and keep the performing tradition alive. Large-scale groups like the Met (or here, like the Minnesota Orchestra) are critical for keeping the musical ecosystem alive; they model professional norms, demonstrate how the art form exists at its highest level, and provide a wealth of employment opportunities, which encourages others to pursue careers in the music industry. They are vital. But so are the community groups working at the ground level. They keep people personally engaged in the arts. They provide vehicles for personal creative expression. And they foster community.

During the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, this ecosystem was threatened. But it didn’t die—it actually demonstrated its health and resilience. Deprived of its top-level concerts, the public flooded community performances… many groups reported record numbers of attendees. And the public was engaged as never before; the lockout also forced everyone in the entire network to reflect on why music was important for them. Gathered together, the public fought to re-establish the greater musical ecosystem, and took active steps to ensure it would not be threatened again. These efforts have been hugely successful—concerts at Orchestra Hall have had phenomenal sales, and musicians and the community are connecting in a wide variety of new ways. Audience advocacy groups have sprung up, and music is actively discussed.

That is strength. That is vitality. And I am thrilled to be a part of it.

So yes, we should be realistic about the threats to music; but I don’t believe we should fall into defeatism.

“As for the salaries: debating how much anybody’s work is ‘worth’ is an exercise in futility.”

I agree. I wish this would stop.

“This is not just hype that greedy institutions spin at contract negotiation time, though the Minnesota Orchestra case certainly eroded people’s trust in managements’ good faith.”

This is a bit of an understatement. The Minnesota Orchestra dispute didn’t “erode” trust in management’s good faith, it completely shattered it. Board documents came to light that detailed how the Orchestra’s finances were manipulated for several years to show surpluses when the Orchestra was seeking bonding money from the state, and deficits on the eve of contract negotiations. The Orchestra’s leadership refused to take the offer crafted by its own hand-picked mediator (Senator George Mitchell, who famously brought peace to Northern Ireland) because they would “lose leverage” if it did so. The Orchestra’s leadership provided misleading information to the state as part of its application for bonding funds, leading 10 state legislators call for the removal of the Orchestra’s CEO and board leadership. The Orchestra provided such mendacious information to the City of Minneapolis—the lease-holder for Orchestra Hall—that the city was 48 hours from taking over the Hall.

And now the Met’s leadership is following a similar model in New York. Yes, I doubt its good faith.

“As for the question of Peter Gelb’s productions: I don’t know of many cases where a labor dispute bled over into the critic’s terrain and became so focused on artistic quality. It seems somehow extraneous to the argument.”

I disagree with this statement, and think that the discussion of artistic quality is a crucial one. The Met has to be concerned with artistic quality and its artistic product—that’s how it will get its money. Unless something drastic changes, it will always be a 501 (c) 3 organization that depends on fundraising. It is a well-known fundraising truism that people don’t donate money to you because you deserve or need it—they give to you because you inspire them. On a personal level, I check to make sure charities I donate to are using my donation wisely, but that’s not why I contributed… I didn’t do a Google search for the most financially sound organizations, I gave to the organization that touched my heart.  Similarly, I don’t go to performances because they sound financially sustainable, but because they sound amazing.

Most people are the same.  They want to see something inspiring.  They want to see potentials. They want to see the power of your product. They want to be part of a team that is doing great work. And if you don’t give these things to them, they will find some other cause or organization that will. There are too many other options out there.

As a result, the Met has to focus on its art, which is the way it inspires people and shows them its relevant. Yes, of course there has to be a solid administrative structure, yes the finances have to be solid, and yes there has to be a clear-eyed assessment of what the organization’s capacity is. But in the end, the art drives everything. Otherwise, the Met is just chasing money… and anyone who has tried that approach knows it never works.

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All in all, an interesting piece. Midgette and I don’t agree on the state of classical music in this country, and I imagine we’d have very different views on how arts organizations should be run. But I appreciate her perspective, and hope people give serious thoughts to the points she raises—as they go far beyond the current situation at the Met.

 

Xochipilli