Maintaining The Quality In Milwaukee

Last Monday evening, the 18th, I found myself listening to a live radio broadcast of the Milwaukee Symphony performing Mahler 1.  I have to say that it was a fantastic concert; the interpretation was poignant, the strings were tight, and the wind solos were superb.  Even the sound mixing was excellent; it was obvious that none of the sections or players were artificially enhanced to “compensate” for a dead spot on the stage or a weak section.

After the final chord, the audience reaction told you that it was a well received concert; the applause erupted in waves and persisted for some time.

Following the concert, I began to wonder how things in Milwaukee were going to shape up after this year.  Would the planned artistic budget cuts in the amount of $1 million have a negative effect on this wonderful artistic output I recently experienced (those cuts are covered in detail from an article published on October 7th).  How can anyone expect the players to produce that extraordinary level of artistic achievement if they have to repeatedly accept reductions in pay and benefits?

Yes, musicians are professionals and they’ll do their best because that’s what they do.  But there’s a noticeable difference between players playing at their best in a positive environment and those that have to summon up sheer will time and time again to reach those artistic levels due to a negative environment.

In Philadelphia, they’re agonizing over the very same issues.  The management wants to make cuts in artistic issues which the players contend will cause irreparable harm to their product.  Who’s right?  Do you really want to find out through trial and error with an artistic product at that level?  When push comes to shove do managers know better than musicians when it comes to artistic ability?

Philadelphia management has claimed that they want nothing more than to uphold the level of artistic excellence that their ensemble is known for, and what orchestra management wouldn’t say that?  Do you think that you’ll hear a board president come out and say “Yep, these artistic cuts will tear our artistic quality apart, but oh well, times are tough.”?

At least Philadelphia has been a world class orchestra for decades; they’re a benchmark after all.  Ensembles like Milwaukee have been slowly growing toward this level of artistic excellence and they’ve just started to reach these goals.

So how exactly can you simultaneously cut an artistic budget and guarantee an equal level of artistic accomplishment?  In Philadelphia they’re still pulling their hair out over the issue management seems to absolutely refuse to bargain over this issue.  Hopefully Milwaukee won’t have to relive the Philly experience a year from now.

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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