The recent decision by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra management to eliminate several performances from their Strathmore Hall concert schedule came as a disappointment after reports that their inaugural concerts last season had sold so well (for those who are unaware, the Baltimore Symphony began performing concerts at a second venue, the brand new Music Center at Strathmore, during their regular concert season). The news came as just another cloud in an already dark sky for the organization…
Publicly, the BSO’s decision to cancel their Strathmore performances was due to low ticket sales, which would seem like a justifiable reason under just about any circumstance. Nevertheless, the real questions to ask in this situation would be centered on why the BSO decided to schedule those concerts and who/what guided the process to design the programs in the first place. Or, as one reader put it in an email to me a few days ago, “who’s really in charge of the BSO”?
That’s a good question, and a pretty loaded one at that. If you had to make a decision based on the actions and public decisions coming from the governing leaders of the organization, it would appear that the institution is being led firmly by forces with a strong marketing perspective.
In order to make sense of that conclusion, you have to go back a bit in recent BSO history and, perhaps unsurprisingly, much of it intersects with their partnership at Strathmore. During the construction phases of Strathmore, the BSO’s financial situation was fluctuating. As a result, the number and type of concerts they planned for the new venue followed a perpetual on-again, off-again pattern…
In 2003, the BSO hired James Glicker to run their marketing department and shortly after his arrival, the BSO board of directors tapped James to be the organization’s new president & CEO. With the bulk of his experience in for-profit marketing, James was decidedly an outsider to the world of orchestra business.
In an interview with James from April, 2004 (a few months before he took over the reigns as the BSO’s new executive leader) I asked him how he planned to change the BSO’s fortunes. At that time, the vast majority of the discussion centered on marketing driven concepts and PR centered ideas.
Since that time it appears that a marketing mentality has continued to lead the organization. Once the ticket sales for Strathmore’s initial season sold well, the BSO planned a full court scheduling blitz. Unfortunately, it appears that the orchestra’s marketing department was overzealous with their projected sales figures and the BSO ended up cutting 11 concert events from this year’s Strathmore season.
So we come back to the original questions, “who is in charge” and “what are the motives behind those decisions”. Based on the almost bulimic nature of how the organization has planned concert events and conducted major institutional decisions, it’s not hard to imagine that those with a predominant marketing focus are firmly running the show.
Consider that the BSO’s management is being run by a professional marketing executive with little orchestra business experience, the artistic leadership has been in a “lame duck” condition as they move out an old music director and await the arrival of his replacement, and based on the way the organization conducted their music director search it’s safe to say the musicians’ input on organizational direction is “marginal” at best.
When all of these events conspire together, the result is a perfect environment for any constituency to conduct a power grab. In Baltimore, it appears that the marketing professionals have stepped into that power void and are firmly running the show. It isn’t a common event for a single component within a single constituency to have so much power within an orchestra and much like the federal government, things can get awfully spooky when one party runs too much of the show at any one time.
Keep your eyes on Baltimore, it will undoubtedly turn out to be one heck of a case example when things are said and done. A case example for “what” exactly is yet to be seen, but there’s a worthwhile orchestra business study in there somewhere.
Postscript: for further information about the BSO’s cancelled Strathmore concerts and related issues, please read Philip Kennicott’s article in the Washington Post from 11/08/05, Tim Smith’s article in the Baltimore sun from 11/09/05 (don’t miss the part about expected ticket sales for a new concert hall at the end of the piece), and a post by Charles T. Downey at the ever sharp ionarts, a weblog about culture in the Washington D.C. area.