Keeping Up With The Jones’ In New Jersey Part 4

The final installment in the series of articles examining the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Internal Review Report will continue where Part 3 finished.  After examining issues of valuation and authenticity what’s left are some of the most critical issues related to any musical instrument, how they sound and what the musicians think of them.

Issue #3 How they sound

As discovered in Part 3, even the NJSO appears to be dancing around the issue of whether or not the authenticity of the instruments really matters they do seem to be concerned with how they sound.

During my telephone conversation with NJSO president & CEO, Simon Woods, he reminded me that their concertmaster has mentioned in the press that he doesn’t care whether or not his instrument is legitimate; he simply likes the way it sounds.

And that’s the way any good musician should view their instrument.  As a result,  I asked Simon if the sound is the only real qualifying factor, why didn’t the NJSO consider the option of simply spending the $18 million (which comes to $346,938.77 per NJSO string player) used to purchase the Axelrod collection directed toward allowing each musician to find an ideal instrument on their own?  He mentioned that was a good question but one which he didn’t have an answer for other than that option was never considered during the purchase process.

I can understand why Simon wouldn’t want to answer a loaded question like that, because if authenticity isn’t important and all that really matters is how the instruments sound then why consider buying the Axelrod collection at all?

The $18 million could have been put to better use by benefiting 100% of the string section as opposed to only 61% (which implies that 39% of the NJSO string players aren’t playing on instruments up to par with the Axelrod collection) thus creating an imbalance in quality assuming you believe the instruments in the Axelrod collection are inherently better.

And according to the report the NJSO must believe that premise to some degree or they wouldn’t see any real value in promoting the instruments as a selling point for the orchestra (pg. 5).

It’s a vicious cycle; the NJSO doesn’t wish to address issues of the collection’s authenticity because it could damage its reputation and seriously degrade the value of the instruments – however – they also want to capitalize on their investment in these instruments by marketing them as being worthwhile to come listen to; it’s a Catch-22.

I asked Simon if the orchestra would charge less for a concert ticket if the Axelrod collection wasn’t used and he said that he didn’t think so.  I followed up by asking Simon if the Axelrod collection isn’t planned to be used in any given concert, would the promotional material for the concert state that fact and he said,

“I didn’t think [we] would include mention in promotional literature if the collection is being used or not in concerts.”

Simon went on to mention that the Axelrod collection is used for all of their Masterworks series of concerts and the only concerts where the collection isn’t used is during pops concerts, like their recent “Lord of the Rings” concert.  He went on to say that the type of audience that attends pops concerts isn’t as discerning as those who attend the Masterworks series and therefore, using the Axelrod collection wasn’t as necessary.

I asked Simon if he were running the orchestra during the procurement process would he have been as enthusiastic about buying the instruments as his predecessor.  He declined to speculate what he would have done in that situation but he did say,

“I think it was a bold and unprecedented move to purchase the instruments”

I followed up by asking him if a similar opportunity presented itself in the near future to purchase another collection of “Golden Age” instruments would he support it and he said,

“I think one collection is enough for now.”

Issue #4 Lack of objectivity & equality

The report relies heavily on NJSO musician perspective to justify the perceived “value” of the instruments.  I would agree that including musician input is certainly a critical component but that input must come under the protection of outside investigators who can promise protection through anonymity, otherwise the musicians won’t have a safe environment to express the full range of their professional and personal opinions.

The Sarbanses-Oxley Act of 2002 provides legal protection for whistle blowers who risk their careers by reporting activities inside their respective organization. It is illegal for a company (including nonprofit organizations) to single out and punish a whistle blower in any manner and furthermore, they must provide an avenue for individuals to bring their concerns forward.

The report made no mention of the process used to gather opinions and information from the NJSO musicians; furthermore, it didn’t allow all of the musicians in the orchestra an opportunity to express their professional opinions and/or observations under the protections provided by the Sarbanes-Oxley act of 2002.

Instead, only a portion of the NJSO musicians in the string sections who were selected by the Trustees.  By failing to create an independent, external investigation committee the NJSO removed any hope of complying with Sarbanes-Oxley act of 2002 or establishing plausible credibility.

Furthermore, there’s the fact that the Axelrod collection only serves a percentage of the string section as opposed to all of the musicians.  They did develop a rotation system which allows each string player to use one of the instruments at one point or another but what about the musicians in the wind and percussion sections; they don’t directly benefit from the collection purchase at all.  Instead, they actually have increased pressure (perceived or not) to purchase instruments for use in the NSJO which they may not have otherwise considered.

The December 11th, 2004 edition of the New York Times reported that NJSO principal clarinetist, Karl Herman, said that the presence of the Axelrod instruments inspired him to make a change in a recent instrument purchase.  According to the article Karl said that “when he bought new instruments, he opted for a set of handmade clarinets that cost twice as much as manufactured ones.”

The individual musician in question did not appear to be upset by this at all but what sort of precedent does that set for the remainder of the orchestra over the years to come?

For the string players, use of the Axelrod instruments does not cost them anything personally.  But the other musicians, woodwind and brass players in particular, do not receive any additional compensation or supplemental funds from the orchestra to offset the added cost of purchasing more expensive instruments they would have otherwise purchased based on what their annual salary allows them to afford.

Then only way to improve this situation fairly, among all of the musicians, is to do what was outlined in a previous article which used the Baltimore Symphony as an example: pay the players more money.

Conclusions

Toward the end of my telephone interview with Simon Woods I asked him if the NJSO would ever consider creating a sort of “blind listening test” where the string players would use the Axelrod collection for one half of a concert and their personal instruments for the other, then survey the audience (and perhaps invite a few prominent music critics and cultural journalists to attend) to discover their reactions.  Simon said,

“I doubt we could do some sort of comparative test like that because what the audience thinks is subjective.”

Although I don’t disagree that each individual opinion would be subjective I still think it would be intriguing to find out if the audience would recognize a noticeable difference.  The results could go a long way toward justifying the artistic results of Axelrod collection purchase.

Unfortunately, although the Trustee Report was structurally well written and submitted with all good intentions the simple fact that it was conducted by board members; individuals charged with the responsibility for the success of the organization.  This fact, in and of itself, makes it impossible to obtain an impartial examination of events.

NJSO donors, ticket buyers, and the general classical music public at large deserve to have better.

In the end all that matters is how an orchestra sounds.  It doesn’t make a bit of difference where they are located, who the musicians are, or what instruments they play on so long as they create an artistic product worthy of inspiring the art to new levels.

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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