An Orchestral Sized Quagmire In Tacoma

At the beginning of the week, Arts Journal featured an article at, the Interactive Media Division of The Tacoma News Tribune.  The article, written by Jen Graves, details the disintegration in the seventeen year relationship between the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra and the Tacoma City Ballet.

Here’s a quick synopsis of the situation:

  1. For 17 of the last 20 years, the Tacoma Symphony Orchetra (TSO) has been contracted by the Tacoma City Ballet (TCB) to provide live music for their holiday production of The Nutcracker.
  2. In 2002, TV Tacoma (a local access television station) recorded the production for use exclusively on their network.  Consequently, that video production was honored with a third place award in the Performing Arts category by The National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors.
  3. Unfortunately at that 2002 production, the TSO management failed to notify the orchestra musicians that TV Tacoma would be broadcasting the production in addition to owning the rights until immediately preceding the first performance.  This was tantamount to a violation of the Master Agreement between the musicians and the orchestra, but the musicians decided not to pursue the issue.
  4. Once the production began to be broadcast well past the holiday season, the musicians filed a grievance with the TSO management in order to prevent this situation from happening in the future.
  5. After the grievance was filled, the TSO Executive Director, Amy Wigstrom, presented the management of the TCB with a letter presenting an ultimatum in reference to the broadcast situation.  
  6. As a result, the ballet opted to contract the Northwest Sinfonietta for their 2004 productions instead of the TSO.

And that’s where things stand, the TSO is now without a large amount of revenue they’ve enjoyed for over 17 years and many of the musicians will now loose approximately half of their pay as a result from that elimination of ballet services. 

So where did things begin to go wrong, at what point did this situation turn into a loose-loose quagmire?  After speaking with Erin Ceragioli, the TCB Executive Director, she said their relationship with the orchestra turned sour after she received the letter from the orchestra’s Executive Director, Amy Wigstrom, issuing an ultimatum that if the TCB didn’t pay $16,500 in royalties to the orchestra then “the current situation makes it difficult for me to assure you that we will be able to provide [the TCB] with an orchestra [for future events].”  Erin said “Up until this point we’ve always had a very good relationship with the TSO.  Amy never contacted us about this situation before sending us this letter, which I viewed as a threat.  So in order to ensure that we would have a live orchestra for the 2004-2005 season, I decided to seek musicians elsewhere.”

So why did the TSO demand $16,500 in royalties, was it because of the grievance filled by the TSO musicians?  To find out, I spoke with Brian Chin, the TSO player’s representative and principal trumpet.  Brian said, “The grievance we filed only addressed issues of miscommunication.  We wanted to ensure the existing video tape from the 2002 Nutcracker would no longer be broadcast, and presented solutions for preventing similar problems in the future.” Brain then added, “At no time did the players demand royalties for the broadcasts which had already taken place and we never insisted that the TSO management issue any ultimatums to the TCB or TV Tacoma.”

I contacted Amy Wigstrom, the TSO Executive Director, to ask about the letter she sent to the TCB.  When asked where she came up with the $16,500 figure for royalties, Amy replied “no comment”.  Furthermore, Amy would not acknowledge even if she sent such a letter to the TCB, even though the TCB management has the letter on file.  Amy did say, “We never include the revenue from our contracts with the TCB when we draw up our annual budget each year, so this doesn’t really change the figures for our projected income in 2004-2005.”  Amy also added, “None of the ballet services contributed to the musician’s minimum service guarantees provided in the Master Agreement.”

When asked if the loss of the ballet contract would harm the TSO’s long term plan Amy said, “Our intention is to create sustainable opportunities for our musicians as opposed to year to year contracts, like those we have negotiated in the past with TCB.”  But according to Erin Ceragioli, “The TCB has used the TSO for 17 of the past 20 years and we did have a two year contract once in the late 90’s.  Amy has never approached us to talk about establishing a long term contract, but in 04-05 we are using live music for three productions instead of just one.  This will be the first time we’ve used live musicians for so many productions three times are usual amount.” 

“From our financial perspective, I would have liked to continued using the TSO since they would cost us less than the Northwest Sinfonietta”, said Erin.  “But we did establish a contract for all three ballets up front with the Sinfonietta and because of that, we are listing them as our official orchestra.  Since that’s as much work in one year which we’ve historically provided to the TSO over three years, I would certainly consider that a long term opportunity”. 

And that missed opportunity will hurt the TSO.  According to Brian Chin, “Many of the players in this orchestra came here with the hope that the TSO would grow into something bigger with the capability to sustain musicians with full time work.  The loss of the ballet contract is a real step back away from reaching that goal.  We wish the management would have approached us about the ultimatum before sending it to the ballet, instead, we were kept in the dark about it until after the letter was sent”.

After speaking with the involved parties, it appears much of the trouble converges on the letter from the TSO management demanding the $16,500 in royalties.  It seems that the language and intent of the letter written by Ms. Wigstrom is what initiated this quagmire.  Her inability to effectively communicate with the musicians in order to determine their desires and her failure to communicate in a positive manner with both TV Tacoma and the TCB also contributed to the destructive escalation of events.

During my conversation with Amy Wigstrom, she answered the majority of my questions with “No comment”.  But she did make sure to tell me that this situation began only weeks after her arrival as the TSO’s Executive Director and therefore the problems were initiated under her predecessor’s tenure.  But unfortunately, that isn’t much of a reason to end up with such a dilemma. 

Executives in this business tend to move up the career ladder regardless of their performance, so Ms. Wigstrom will undoubtedly get another job at a bigger organization at some point in the future.  Hopefully, she will learn from this mess and become more forthcoming about providing information as well as learn how to properly communicate with musicians and business partners.  If so, there may still be a positive future between the TSO and the TCB.  There’s no harm in admitting mistakes, as is demonstrated in my article from May 20th where I wrote about a seasoned veteran reporter who openly admitted he made an error in one of his articles by not verifying if older information was up to date. 

I wish I could say this sort of situation is isolated in this business, but it isn’t; and poor communication and heavy handed management techniques are not restricted to smaller organizations such as the TSO.  This sort of counterproductive behavior is common throughout the industry; here are a few examples from my personal experience:

  • When I was researching my article about the scam Herbert Axelrod pulled on the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, no one from the NJSO would return calls or email requests for information, nor would Larry Tamburri (now running the Pittsburgh Symphony) talk about the situation.  (But Scot Kobler, an attorney and board member from the NJSO and Phillp Lenininger, the NJSO Director of Communications didn’t seem to have any problem complaining to my editor at The Partial Observer about my Axelrod article there.  It’s amazing how well their email and telephone worked after I wrote something – too bad they couldn’t figure it out when I was asking for information!)
  • When I was gathering information for the Concert Hall series of articles, the management from the Kansas City Symphony refused to talk about their hall project. 
  • Then there were the unanswered phone messages from the Philadelphia Orchestra when I attempted to gather information about the raise Joe Kluger accepted while everyone else was being forced to accept a pay cut.
  • Repeated calls to the Cleveland Orchestra were never returned when I asked for clarification about their recent disagreement with The Proms over broadcast compensation.

There is never a good reason for this type of behavior, but fortunately I have many more examples of people I have agreed and disagreed with in this column that were willing to talk and provide information. 

Regrettably, the future for the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra has been severely hindered by the actions of a handful of managers that made some bad decisions.  What’s worse is that those bad decisions could have been avoided with better communication and even rectified if those individuals were willing to accept their mistakes and move on.

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.