The Pacific Symphony is “Unsustainable?” Really?

I hate buzzwords. I hate it when people casually throw around jargon as a substitute for real-world knowledge. I hate it when people paper over complicated, nuanced issues by tossing out an oversimplified term or phrase.

And I really hate when those tossed-off buzzwords aren’t even true.

“Sustainable” is just such a buzzword that sets my teeth on edge.

I freely admit that like all popular buzzwords being bandied about right now, there is value to it. I applaud the notion that we have to look at both the long-range prospects and the long-range effects of the things we do.  And I applaud the notion that we have to be planful, and think of the future… not just the fleeting needs of the moment.

But as often happens, the term has been misused by people who fundamentally misunderstand its meaning.

And far too often, the people misusing this term seem to run arts organizations… organizations like the Pacific Symphony. Continue reading

The Tribune-Review’s Disastrous Op-Ed

Here we go again.  Another great arts group has been hit by another editorial hit piece, by another media company whose ideas of “fact-finding” begin and stop at the management’s press release.

This time, this bit of kabuki theater is playing out in Pittsburgh.  The musicians for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra—one of our nation’s great ensembles—are currently on strike.  The issues involved mirror those of several other orchestra labor disputes;  the management of Pittsburgh Symphony, Inc. (PSI) has demanded steep cuts to the musicians’ pay and benefits, and insisted on reducing the size of the orchestra to a level it feels is “sustainable.”   Continue reading

“You Are Doing it Wrong.” Advice to Orchestra Leaders from Ed Stephan

Earlier today I ran across this Facebook post from Ed Stephan, Principal Timpanist at San Francisco Symphony.  Ed was previously with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra (FWSO) and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO), and has taken a keen interest in both those ensembles’ respective strikes.  Ed does a fantastic job about laying out some real issues involved in these disputes; but beyond that, he provides a powerful testimony about why the arts are important.  With Ed’s permission, I’m reposting his piece here, to give it the audience it deserves.  —Scott Continue reading

A Curious Letter from Fort Worth

Yesterday, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram published an interesting letter regarding the ongoing Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra (FWSO) strike.  It came from Mark G. Nurdin, chairman of the executive committee for the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra Association (FWSOA).  This is, essentially, the voice of management.

And I found it to be, well… problematic.

I have no interest in smearing or attacking Mr. Nurdin… a man I’ve neither met nor corresponded with. But as someone who has worked in nonprofit management—particularly arts nonprofit management—for many years, and as someone who serves as President of the Board of a music group here in Minneapolis, I feel I must respond to his points. Continue reading

Classical Music for Halloween: An Edgar Allan Poe Playlist

October is here!  Halloween fast approaches—it’s a time of harvest moons and leering jack-o’-lanterns, and images of ghosts, goblins, and witches are springing up everywhere.

Around this time of year, lots of folks begin posting Halloween “best of” lists, providing recommendations for scariest movies, best horror novels, and more.  Classical music groups get into the fun too, as orchestras start putting together spooky concerts, and recommending terrifying playlists.  I applaud the notion, but it can get wearying to see the same horrifying pieces recycled again and again… works like Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, Berlioz’s March to the Scaffold and Witches’ Sabbath, Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre, Pachelbel’s Canon in D….

To stay in the spirit of the holiday, but to go in a slightly different direction, let me recommend a different kind of classical playlist—one dedicated to works inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. Continue reading

What *Does* it Take to Be a Professional Orchestra Musician?

Same song, different verse… yet another round of labor disputes is rippling through the world of classical music.  Earlier this month the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra went on strike, and today the venerable Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra went on strike too. [Edit: Scant hours after this posted, the musicians of the great Philadelphia Orchestra also declared a strike… although it was resolved 48 hours later.]

Something I’ve noticed… each time news of a strike, lockout, or even difficult negotiations breaks out, there’s a chorus of people unfamiliar with the business of running an orchestra who, after hearing a couple of sound bites bandied about in the press, decide musicians are wildly overcompensated.  Again and again, these people ask, “Where can I get a job with 10 weeks paid vacation, full benefits and $70K, $100K, [or whatever the so-called ‘inflated’ salary is that’s been ripped out of context and floated around by the press]?”

When we’re lucky, these folks are asking this as an honest question.  When we’re unlucky, it’s simply a sarcastic retort meant to belittle the musicians.

A few thoughts. Continue reading

Book Review: “Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey Through America’s National Parks”

A Photographic Odyssey Through America’s National Parks
By Q T Luong (Forward by Dayton Duncan)
Illustrated. 456 pp. Cameron + Company

This new book by Q T Luong, a photographer featured in Ken Burns’s series, The National Parks, is a glorious birthday present to help us celebrate our park system’s centennial year. 

* * *


Back in 2009, I (like many others) was completely swept away by Ken Burns’ magisterial series, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. There were so many admirable parts of the series, but two things in particular have stayed with me.

First I was how it humanized the parks—it wasn’t just a 12-hour collection of gorgeous images, but a study in how we’ve thought about, and even fought about the parks. Along the way, it focused attention on the long and distinguished line of thinkers, writers, and photographers who have helped us understand these natural treasures and what they mean to us, such as John Muir, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, or Ansel Adams. The series brought us face to face with these luminaries, giving us a chance to get to know our National Parks through their works.

The other point that resonated with me was how skillfully the series told the story of ordinary (and not so ordinary) people who were completely transformed by their experiences in the parks. People like Stephen Mather, or even Teddy Roosevelt himself, wandered into these natural wonderlands at some critical point of their lives… and never really left.  In seeing these transformations, we were transformed ourselves.

Toward the end of the program we were introduced to a person who embodied both these ideas: photographer Q T Luong.  Mr. Luong was a relative newcomer, someone who was first drawn to the parks in the early 1990s; but once he experienced them, he too was hooked.  More than that, he was moved to capture the essence of the National Parks and share them with a larger audience… to transform how we saw them.  Inspired by the long tradition of American landscape photography, he decided to embark on an unprecedented, multi-year project to photograph all the national parks with a large-format camera.

Now, some years later, the project is complete… just in time for the National Parks’ 100th birthday.  Mr. Luong has gathered the collected photos into a new book, Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey Through America’s National Parks, due to come out October 1.  And in a word, this book is spectacular. Continue reading