An ICSOM Orchestra In ROPA Clothing

The Grand Rapids Symphony, perched atop the pile of ROPA organizations for a number of years, has been staring its destiny square in the face.  Oddly enough, when compared to organizations at the lower end of the ICSOM budget scale (the next level up from ROPA status), Grand Rapids excels in nearly every category:

GR Virginia
Season 42 weeks 41 weeks
Base Musician Salary $33,513 $23,486
Players: Core 50 54
Players: Per Service 30 24
Annual Budget $8.5 million 4.9 million

The only thing really keeping the Grand Rapids Symphony from moving to that next level is the number of core musicians they employ.

Recently, the orchestra completed their season with its first performance at Carnegie Hall.  In “Nashvillesque” style, the orchestra had more than 1,000 people from the Grand Rapids area travel to NYC to attend the performance; according to Carol Tanis, the GR Symphony’s Public Relations Manager.

The performance gathered the attention of New York Times critic, Bernard Holland, who wrote that the orchestra ” radiated an air of optimism unusual in these dark times for the American symphonic business.”  He went on to offer comments along the lines of stating the orchestra’s real success was not performing in Carnegie but serving its greater community.

Over the past decade, the orchestra has certainly defied conventional wisdom and left the taste of crow in the collective mouths of “structural deficit” wonks by growing to and sustaining its current economic level.

The only thing standing in the orchestra’s way from continuing its progress at this point is itself.  The departure of organizational president, William Ryberg, at the end of the 03-04 season for the next managerial rung up in Oregon left them without a decisive leader for a year.  However, the GR Symphony board of directors eventually selected their own former education director turned general manager, Melia Tourangeau, as a replacement for Mr. Ryberg in April of this year.

Ms. Tourangeau, who is presently working toward a master’s degree in public administration from Grand Valley State University, recently led negotiations with the orchestra’s musicians to secure a new one year collective bargaining agreement.

This is the second such one year agreement the musicians have ratified in as much time. In general, multiple short term contracts are an indication of uncertainty about the organization on at least some fundamental levels.  It wouldn’t take much for the orchestra to make the transition into the bigger leagues of ICSOM, only a mild increase in the number of core musicians.

So what’s the hold up? That last step is a doozy; it’s a long term commitment from all constituents toward higher artistic excellence.  That yet to be obtained level of dedication was noted in Bernard Holland’s review, which gave the orchestra mediocre artistic marks,

“Inner textures can be a little swampy, and indeed, the Copland requires an intentional hardness and brightness not in these players’ vocabulary.
But if the Grand Rapids Symphony lacks the transparency and rhythmic profile of a major orchestra, no reasonable person would expect either of it. The orchestra is what it ought to be “

Whether or not the organization decides to move past the “reasonable” expectations of some is a subject of considerable speculation.  Major transitional events bring with them an inherent level of turmoil, frustration, and distress.  They also take a considerable amount of resolve and personal commitment from all of the organization’s stakeholders.

Music Director, David Lockington has removed himself as a candidate from a few music director searches in larger budget organizations in order to concentrate on his work in Grand Rapids.  What’s required at this point is an equal level of dedication from the incoming administrative leaders, the executive board members, and even the musicians in the form of insisting on longer term contracts which require developing the necessary level of artistic growth.

Grand Rapids can either rest on the laurels of their recent Carnegie appearance or use that success to propel the organization to the next level beyond “reasonable” expectations; as the folks at the Nashville Symphony have been doing ever since their Carnegie Hall appearance in 2000 (an orchestra who, not-so-long-ago, was in the same ROPA seat now occupied by Grand Rapids).

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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