Why the NSJO Strad Fiasco is Bad For Pittsburgh

If you’ve been following this fantastic saga about Herbert R. Axelrod, the New Jersey Symphony orchestra, and a gaggle of really old, expensive string instruments, then I hope you caught Arts Journal’s Sunday Music headlines.  The principal headline featured the article in the NY Times by Richard Lezin Jones about the Axelrod’s “gift” to the NJSO, but if you skipped the secondary headline do yourself a favor and go give it a read.

That secondary headline is an article by Mary Jo Patterson, Mark Mueller, and Ted Sherman from the New Jersey Star Ledger.  This article goes into considerably more detail about Axelrod’s dubious history than does the story in the Times.  And if you put the two articles together you can come to some pretty fascinating conclusions about how they relate to orchestra management.  Allow me to walk you though them first we’ll look at the deal, as depicted in the Times and Star Ledger articles:

  1. Axelrod knew he was getting into trouble with the Feds and as a result needed to start liquefying his assets.
  2. One of those assets was his collection of rare string instruments, which Axelrod apparently artificially inflated the value.
  3. Axelrod approaches an orchestra that is known for collecting such instruments and says “Hey, you’re such great people and I want to practically give you these instruments, they’re worth $50 million but I’ll let you have them at the bargain basement price of only $25 million”.
  4. The NJSO collectively have stars in their eyes, so even though they’re in the red and the asking price is nearly twice their annual operating budget the orchestra’s board and executive management fall all over themselves to raise the cash.
  5. The orchestra fails to meet the deadline and isn’t even close to Axelrod’s $25 million asking price.  So the great guy that Axelrod is, he knocks down the price to a mere $18 million only a fool would pass up that offer!
  6. Almost a year later, the NJSO was finally able to raise $14 million; so they put on a shaky smile, say it’s the best they can do, and hope Axelrod will accept.
  7. Axelrod says sure and allows them to make the remaining $4 million an I.O.U.; they can just send it along to his cabana in Cuba.
  8. The orchestra gets the string collection and everyone’s happy – especially Axelrod.

Now let’s look at how this applies to orchestra management.  I’ve been writing for awhile now that many of the orchestra managers getting promoted up to bigger, higher paying jobs have not really been doing all that great where they came from in the first place – most recently in the Are We Compensating Effort Instead of Achievement series.  And I see this recent scam perpetrated by Axelrod contributing to this idea.

The executive director for the NJSO during the instrument grab was Lawrence Tamburri, who has since moved on to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, a big step up fromNew Jersey.  When the PSO board announced they offered the job to Tamburri, the attributes they stated were mainly his fund raising skills, especially the string collection purchase from Axelrod.  But now that the details of the deal have come out, where does that put Tamburri?

Here’s where I run into problems:

  1. Tamburri was credited for raising what funds he could (a pretty heft sum at nearly 130% of the orchestra’s annual budget) and getting Axelrod to accept what they raised, as well as come down on his asking price.

But as it turns out, Axelrod would have taken nearly anything they could offer since he was getting ready to run.  I do believe that Axelrod probably wanted the collection to go to a good home, but it’s easier to deflect the attention one would attract (especially by the IRS) by dumping the entire lot on the steps of an auction house. Then he got a twofer by using the difference in purchase price against the valued price as a tax write off.  So exactly how much of an accomplishment is it to get a man with dubious intent and wanting cash in a hurry to come down on his asking price?

  1. “If it’s too good to be true, it usually is”.  Even though the NJSO apparently did their part toward due diligence regarding the quality of the instruments, they never really paid much heed to Axelrod’s background.

This is the second time in the past two years that a major philanthropist has ended up pulling a Potomac Two Step just to leave others holding the bag.  Alberto Vilar left Placido Domingo with a $1 million dollar tab backing 2002 (not to mention welching on promised contributions to the Met, Carnegie Hall, the Los Angeles Opera, and the Washington Opera to name a few).  And now the NJSO got caught by not looking into Axelrod’s past to find out just who they were dealing with.

  1. Even though I think Tamburri is just as much of an easy mark as the rest of the NJSO is in this story, he did benefit professionally by winning the PSO top executive position.  So now that his biggest accomplishment is really just the result of a con, where does that leave him and (more importantly) the PSO?

If I were in Tamburri’s position, there would be some significant self doubt in my mind concerning my ability to do all of the things that the beleaguered Pittsburgh Symphony needs to have done.  And if I were one of the PSO players or executive board members I would remember an old saying, “Keep your eye on the new guy”.  Pittsburghhas very little room for failure and now that they’ve got someone at the helm that may very well be the cultural embodiment of the Peter Principle, I think they should take that saying to heart.

The really sad part of all this is twofold.  First, the Feds may very well confiscate those string instruments from the NJSO, thus denying the orchestra musicians the joy or playing them and their audience the joy of hearing them.  Second, according to the Times article, congress is ticked off over all of this lost revenue in the form of charitable tax deductions, so now they’re starting a crusade that will more than likely scare some big donors away from giving.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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