A Rose By Any Other Name

I had the good fortune to spend some of my recent time in New York City to pay a quick visit to the offices of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and chat with their executive director, Marianne Lockwood.

One of the reasons I wanted to stop by the St. Luke’s offices in person was because of an article I read in the October 21st edition of the New York Times by Anne Midgette.

Although I thought Anne did a great job espousing n the artistic merits of the group, she kept referring to it as a “freelance” orchestra.  To me, that term conjures up images of a music jobber calling around to several dozen string players hoping to find enough players to fill a dinner cruise gig he’s booked.  I can hear his smoke laden voice on an answering machine now:

“Hey, Johnny, I got a gig for ya on Saturday night and it pays scale. Ya gotta wear black tie, a clean shirt, bring a folding stand, and your own copy of Eine Kline Nachtmusick. Call me back, it’s first come first serve.”

I would hardly call St. Luke’s a freelance orchestra; when compared to their big budget brother, the New York Philharmonic, St. Luke’s can rightfully claim to consistently maintain the same players on stage more frequently.

Compare St. Luke’s side by side to other orchestras and you’ll find some pretty remarkable facts:

  • St. Luke’s budget is $4.3 million; the average ROPA orchestra budget is $2.8 million.
  • The Fort Wayne Philharmonic and New Mexico Symphony have similar budget size to St. Luke’s but pay their core musicians less.
  • St. Luke’s has a larger discography than any ROPA orchestra and more than half of the ICSOM ensembles.
  • St. Luke’s maintains a great web site (which I appallingly neglected to include in my orchestra website review my apologies to St. Luke’s); they provide more information about the ensemble musicians than most big budget orchestras.
  • St. Luke’s manages their organization with a smaller staff to musician ratio than most ICSOM or ROPA ensembles.

I certainly don’t think Anne meant any disrespect to St. Luke’s with the “freelance” term and she rightfully praised their artistic merits. But perhaps we all need to break out of the old 19th century frame of reference and realize that just because an orchestra isn’t organized precisely like the New York Phil or Chicago Symphony doesn’t mean that it’s a fly-by-night freelance ensemble.

After all, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.”

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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