Something Special In St. Louis Part 3

In order to round out this series of articles about the uniquely special grand concert in St. Louis on March 13th, 2005 it seems fitting to allow the last voice to come from those who participated in the event as patrons.  If you missed the earlier installments, here are Part 1 and Part 2.

Karen Coulter, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Patron
My friend, Mary Parks, told me about the concert and although I haven’t been to a SLSO concert in years I never realized how much I missed it until after I learned we may lose them.  I think the community has taken them for granted and this was a real wake up call for us.

I haven’t been exposed to music for a long time and now I feel like I’m learning all over again and as such, Benjamin Zander’s comments helped me really get more out of the concert.    I really felt like I was part of a feeling of love between the musicians and the audience, it was like there was a great sense of healing and hope.  Now that we’ve all been tested by this I hope we all realize what we have and never lose it.

I ran into a neighbor at the concert I had not seen in 30 years so it was wonderful to make those connections again.  This has all started to bring back something that was important to me but I lost, so now I will continue to go.

Mary Brunstrom, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Patron
I knew that there were musicians from all over the country so there would be this tremendous sense of camaraderie.  However, I was still surprised by the sheer numbers of musicians and although I knew about Maestro Benjamin Zander’s excellent reputation I wasn’t expecting the experience to be as profound as it was.

I did interact with the musicians afterward and I detected that they understood something quite incredible had just happened.  Nevertheless, I noticed a tremendous amount of strain etched on their faces as I suspect the events over the last few months have impacted them.

That made me think about Zander’s words about music being a healing component.  I still think there’s a great deal of work to do with the healing of the organization.  Since the concert, I have written letters to the SLSO board and managers expressing that I hope they attended the concert.  I suggested that they bring Benjamin Zander out to help with the process.

I was so moved by the process that I came home that evening and wrote an Op-Ed piece and sent it to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Even though I was greatly relieved when the Saint Louis Symphony management and the musicians came to agreement on labor issues two weeks ago, I am one of scores of Saint Louis Symphony supporters still smarting from wounds inflicted on the orchestra’s musicians by a tone-deaf management during the two-month long dispute. But help is on the way! The musicians have devised a remedy for all of us: music!  On Sunday evening, they invited the esteemed conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, Benjamin Zander, to lead them along with some thirty of their colleagues from fourteen orchestras including the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the symphonies of Chicago, Cleveland, and Philadelphia, in an unforgettable concert at Manchester United Methodist Church.

The Maestro had an agenda: he laid out a musical model for reconciliation, making the case for why our orchestra is essential to the lifeblood of our community. Exhorting the audience to bring their own travails to the higher plane opened up in the music, Maestro Zander conducted from the heart, guided by a prodigious, humanist intelligence. Rarely, if ever, have we heard Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Elgar rendered so exquisitely and with such poignant relevance to the current fractured trust between the players and management. As reported by Michele Munz in Monday’s (March 14) St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “During the performance, people did not cough, whisper or fidget.  When it ended, the audience leapt to its feet “

The musicians clearly know that this expansive public gesture serves as a catalyst in the process of healing.  Their genius lies in understanding that healing is necessary if they are to proceed in unity towards achieving the orchestra’s potential on all levels.  What, then, is the counterpoint remedy for management and the Symphony Board of Trustees? This was a two-sided dispute after all. Cultural leadership involves more than a bottom line preoccupation with swelling the endowment. Some have complained in reports in this newspaper that better management communication with the musicians, and with the public, was needed.  As a minimum, the Board needs to rectify their one-sided support for management and make some public gesture of solidarity with the musicians, following Maestro Zander’s lead and spelling out the value of this great orchestra as a dynamo in our cultural life. Until that happens, we are left with the sickening spectacle of management intimidating and publicly humiliating musicians through suspension of  healthcare and other insurance benefits.

The symphony’s development office says it would like us to move on. We should. But you cannot paper over significant ruptures in the fabric of trust built up over the years between a public that loves music, the musicians who provide it, and the management into whose care we entrust them through our support, financial and otherwise. The management and the Board must take on the difficult, soul-searching task of paying more than lip service to the notion of respecting their employees.  They are our musicians and we admire and value them.  The audience made that abundantly clear at Sunday’s concert.

Why, we might wonder, did some thirty distinguished musicians and a renowned conductor travel to St. Louis at their own expense to play alongside their St. Louis Symphony colleagues?  “Solidarity,” said Maestro Zander. He did emphasize that this particular configuration of musicians had never happened before.  What is clear in this profound gesture of individual musicians is that when one orchestra is threatened, all orchestras experience a collective vision of decline and eventual extinction.  The audience, too, glimpsed that vision on Sunday.  The musicians were playing for their lives as artists, and our hearts opened up.

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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