Fascinating Developments In The Baltimore Music Director Search

I received a several unexpected telephone calls at the tail end of my vacation from inside sources at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Each one was about the same issue; the music director search currently underway to replace Yuri Temirkanov.

I immediately realized something was up because I don’t usually receive several phone calls from different individuals in the same organization on the same day unless it’s fairly important and time sensitive, and this was no exception.

The process behind selecting a music director is one that has been covered in this weblog extensively and I’ve been quoted in newspapers across the country regarding the issue of how orchestras should go about such a crucial task. To briefly surmise, selecting the right candidate is a time consuming process that should be as inclusive as possible between all stakeholders within an orchestra organization; board members, managers, musicians, volunteers, and patrons.

That’s why I was quite surprised to hear that the BSO management is moving so quickly to select their new music director. In an article appearing in the 7/15/05 issue of the Baltimore Sun by Tim Smith, it appears that the BSO senior management want to install Marin Alsop as their new music director as soon as next week.

My sources say that members of the senior management and executive board are going to circumvent the full music director search committee and present Marin’s appointment for a vote to the full board at their upcoming board meeting on Tuesday, July 19, 2005.

The issue here isn’t whether or not Marin should get this job; she’s certainly enjoyed a successful career as a conductor and music director, but rather the process behind this suspected action.

In nearly every orchestra which has carried out the task of selecting a new music director over recent years, they have allowed a much greater amount of input from musicians and extended members of the community as compared to previous searches.

Details about the music director selection process have been sketchy ever since the BSO announced Yuri’s departure back in September of 2004. Official BSO information about the search process on their website consists of a mere 34 words (when you eliminate all the information about the outgoing music director). However, the Baltimore Sun published additional details that the BSO claims the search process would continue throughout the 2005-2006 season.

Contractual Obligations
To the BSO musicians, the music director search process was a key point during their recent collective bargaining negotiations. Issues surrounding difficulties between the players and their outgoing music director stemmed an unusually high level of interest in having a strong voice in the search and selection process. According to the BSO ICSOM Settlement Bulletin (Adobe Acrobat Reader required), the contract resulted in new language which addresses the following issues:

  • Musicians will have a greater voice in the selection of conductors, guest artists, and programming.
  • The parties agree to develop, in good faith, a structure whereby the musicians control the hiring of new orchestra members and the granting of tenure.

  • Having a strong voice and an appreciable vote (a few votes out of a dozen or no veto authority makes representation nearly worthless) in the music director selection process would be a critical component in reaching these contractual obligations.

    Baltimore recently saw the appointment of their first new executive director in over 20 years, James Glicker, and within the first year of his tenure, he had to conduct a collective bargaining negotiation. The musicians accepted a significant number of concessions (including more than $10,000 in pay cuts) on the basis of working with their new management in good faith. If Glicker and the board don’t follow though on their end of the bargain with this music director search then that’s a terrible sign for what the future may hold.

    Procedural problems
    The predicament described by sources who prefer to remain anonymous is that the search process is only in its beginning stages and candidates scheduled for the 2005-2006 season haven’t even stepped up to the podium yet. Furthermore, these same sources have said that Marin did not receive a favorable review by a majority of the musicians in conductor evaluations based on recent appearances with the BSO.

    Again, whether or not Marin is qualified to lead the BSO isn’t at the heart of this issue, she’s obviously a fine conductor. It’s the process the BSO uses to find the right candidate to serve as their mew music director which remains at the heart of this issue.

    In auditions for openings within the orchestra, there are usually a handful of audition finalists who are more than qualified to technically fill the position, but that doesn’t mean they are the right person for the job. That’s why most orchestras have a detailed tenure process for anywhere from one to three years to ensure that the musician they selected is the right choice.

    In the case of music directors, such a rigid tenure review process doesn’t exist. Instead, most organizations supplement that process by conducting a detailed and inclusive search process, which is precisely what most orchestras have been following in recent years.

    What’s the rush?
    Executive managers from the BSO declined comment at this point. However, I did speak with Jane Marvine, chair of the BSO players committee, who confirmed that all seven players who represent the musicians on the music director search committee voted to continue the search process as opposed to signing anyone at this time during the most recent meeting.

    If the remaining information which came my way earlier this week is just as accurate as what Jane confirmed and the BSO management is artificially hastening this search process then the likelihood of selecting a music director who will adequately fulfill the requirements from each constituency will be greatly compromised.

    So what’s the reason behind such an apparent rush? If the motivation behind the apparent dash to sign a new music director is fear of losing that individual to another orchestra then it isn’t worth doing without the musician’s full support. I’m willing to bet that Tuesday’s meeting will feature a bunch of business clichés such as “we have to strike while the iron is hot”, etc. If 100% of any constituency group within the music director search committee voted to unanimously follow a course of action, the full board should sit up and pay attention on Tuesday.

    In the end, this may sound like a soap opera on the surface, but in reality it’s much deeper than that. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is one of the best examples of how an American ensemble can grow into becoming a much better ensemble than conventional wisdom (meaning nearsighted nonsense) dictates. Sometimes, even in spite of itself, it’s done a remarkable job at creating a distinct artistic identify which distinguishes them from their neighbors in Philadelphia and Washington D.C.

    Unfortunately, I’ve held my breath over the past few years as the ensemble has suffered under questionable management tactics and sketchy artistic decisions. This music director search will be a critical component deciding whether or not the ensemble (and most likely the next music director) will continue their assent and enter the ranks of the finest American orchestras or slide down into artistic mediocrity.

    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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    2 thoughts on “Fascinating Developments In The Baltimore Music Director Search

    1. The Board has obviously succombed to the brash marketing of both Naxos and Alsop.TWO separate ones ! If the Board were really serious, a few of them would go to Bournemouth and chat with the musicians there.

      I dare a Board member simply to play the Introduction to the recent Brahms 1st recording to another profesional conductor and see what the response is !

      The history of the BSO must be considered.

    2. It appears to me that the Board and management are totally responsible for this “public-relations nightmare” as one news article described it. Had they followed the process, this most likely would not have happened. It appears that it is becoming industry standard for Boards and managements to do this type of end-run around musicians. This leaves the musicians with two choices, shut up and take it, thus completely nullifying “the process” and making it obsolete OR go public and risk the public not understanding.

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