Pondering Recent Cuts In Baltimore

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.

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 “Pondering Recent Cuts In Baltimore”

  1. Drew, as you well know, I always feel awkward commenting on orchestral management issues, since I am not a player or an expert. However, since you’ve corralled Philip, Charles, Andrea, and Jens (of D.C.) into your discussion; I figure, why not make a stab at a comment.

    First, I think that it is exciting that the NSO and WPAS have competition, nearby, from the BSO. Cultural life in the D.C. area will only be strengthened, in my view, by the BSO’s participation. I attended the Yuri Temirkanov/Gidon Kremer concert last Spring, and I plan to attend this week’s performance of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. The BSO musicians play fine, and the BSO has some very strong classical programming.

    That said, let’s turn to the charge that a “marketing mentality leads the organization.”
    What comes to my mind is the experience of the San Francisco Symphony in the Herbert Blomstedt era, before MTT. Suddenly, in the early 1980s, the SFS revved up its marketing, started a youth orchestra, and, I believe, pioneered audience outreach and segmentation by launching Soulful Christmases, Valentine’s week romantic concerts, Pipe Dreams Concerts featuring the new organ, etc. Suddenly, the SFS had a new hall (Louise Davies Hall) and a new image as one slick, corporate machine reaching out toward every imaginable audience. (A college classmate, a musician, worked for SFS marketing at this time.)

    Back to the BSO and Strathmore, I think the problem is not so much the role of marketing in this transition period (though I do believe marketing drove the recent search), but rather the problem of an orchestra trying to maintain two homes — one an urban center and one a very wealthy suburban county. I am happy that the BSO classical concerts at Strathmore remain intact, and I really couldn’t care less about the lost Messiahs (or the afternoon chamber concerts). It’s the loss of the educational and outreach concerts which is sad, in my view.

    Did you happen to read Mark Swed’s Los Angeles Times piece on David Robertson and the Saint Louis Symphony? Swed calls Robertson’s programming the strongest in the country, and his rapport with the younger audiences and non-white constituencies is apparently quite strong. Perhaps, while trying to help the BSO through both this transition period and paradigm-shift to a State Symphony serving two marketplaces and communities, the BSO could learn from the St Louis experience, as well as the SFS experience. The Saint Louis Symphony– and the SFS and Los Angeles Phil — are currently greatly more exciting American symphonic organizations than the BSO or the NSO, in my opinion.

  2. Those are all good observations and comments Garth, thank you for sending them in. Yes, I did read the article about David Robertson in the LA Times; I also read the article in the Star-Ledger from this morning. I would agree with the bulk of your observations for Robertson and for MTT in SF, the one large difference between those organizations and the BSO now are the presence of individuals such as Robertson and MTT.

    I think the marketing push in STL and SF have much more to do with promoting the repertoire being programmed along with the concert format, which is directly related to the MD’s in both orchestras. In SF, they also benefited from having the right people in the right place at the right time; especially their Executive Director Peter Pastreich, a unique figure among orchestra managers (who I’ve written about in previous articles). In the BSO’s case, I see strong indications of the marketing leading the programming instead of the other way around.

    That’s an issue which a number of orchestras are struggling with right now and in a situation like Baltimore with their lack of strong artistic leadership (due to the lame duck MD and the marginalized musician input) and an executive leader who doesn’t possess a strong musical background it will be interesting to see how successful the organization will be with power being centered where it currently is.

    I would also agree that the loss of the Messiah concerts is nothing to be upset about and I’m glad that they attempted to keep the classical repertoire in tact for the time being.

    Eventually, the questions surrounding the issues of one orchestra, two homes will come to a head. I think it’s worth the time to consider what the BSO hopes to gain from playing in Strathmore. After all, an orchestra does not live on earned income alone…

    P.S. Garth, and any other reader, should never feel awkward about commenting on orchestra management issues. If patrons and supporters don’t ask questions and offer opinions then they’ll never realize their full potential as a stake holding constituency. One of the most intriguing aspects of this side of the industry is how much there is to discover!

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