Examining Dallas’ “Bold Plan For Greatness” Part 3

Continuing where Part II concluded, this installment will carry on by examining the final phase of Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s "Bold Plan For Greatness", a 10 year strategic plan designed to move the organization to the next level…

With Phase III slated to begin five years from now, it isn’t unreasonable to expect that some of the priorities in this phase will likely change. Nevertheless, you have to have an idea of what you want before you can figure out what to do and Dallas’ final phase includes just as much detail as Phase II, if not more.

Phase III is scheduled to run from 2011-2015, and includes the following priorities:

  • Established artistic identity/sound
  • Salary commensurate with top-tier orchestras/full complement of musicians
  • Established local and regional recognitions as top musical entertainment; recognized by music community as place to develop audience appreciation
  • Expanded summer presence/possible summer home
  • Critical acclaim comparable to top-tier; invitations to top international venues and nationally syndicated radio broadcasts
  • Complete Challenge 2015 Campaign; planned giving impact realized
  • Phase III: Established artistic identity/sound
    “The Dallas Sound” certainly has a nice ring to it. Every orchestra wants to define itself from its peers and the best way to do that is by harnessing the collective talents of 100 professional musicians, each with their own unique sound and style. Once an orchestra can establish its identity that way, it becomes a self-sustaining benefit which can last for decades beyond when the original musicians of the orchestra retire.

    In order to accomplish this lofty goal, the rapport between musicians and music director is critical. It doesn’t mean they all have to like each other, but they have to respect each other and appreciate the end product they are capable of producing. Concert energy is reciprocal; the audience feels it from the stage and in turn delivers it back to the musicians, but in order for that cycle to begin, it has to initiate from the stage.

    If Dallas fails to identify and hire “the right” conductor the likelihood of them reaching this ideal is slim.

    Phase III: Salary commensurate with top-tier orchestras/full complement of musicians
    This priority is closely tied into the previous priority of establishing an artistic identity. If Dallas is unsuccessful in providing its musicians with a compensation package comparable to their peers then they can expect a continual level of turn-over among key positions in the ensemble.

    Furthermore, maintaining a full compliment of musicians will allow them to obtain a level of artistic excellence which is only capable with that many musicians. I’ve heard numerous middle budget ICSOM orchestras play every bit as well as the New York Philharmonic or the San Francisco Symphony, but the undeniable difference is the sound produced by the number of players on stage.

    The artistic product produced by a full complement of 32 violinists simply can’t be matched by 26 violinists, each playing “a little louder”. The fact that the Dallas plan acknowledges this point is a good sign.

    Additionally, this priority contains a standard of measure between orchestras rarely talked about openly, yet serves as one of the best indicators of how successful an orchestra is at becoming a real world class institution. Specifically, how successful Dallas is at remaining their players who win jobs in traditional “Big 5” orchestras.

    It takes more to keep the best musicians than simply offering a fat paycheck; they need artistic fulfillment and a happy work environment. Recently, the San Francisco Symphony’s piccolo player auditioned for, and won, the piccolo position in the Chicago Symphony. However, in the end, the musician decided to turn down the position in Chicago to remain with San Francisco, the newest member of the “Big 5” club.

    In another "Big 5" ensemble, the Cleveland Orchestra, they awarded their principal trombone position to a musician from the Minnesota Orchestra (an orchestra on the verge of “Big 5” membership, just ahead of Dallas). After a year of playing with Cleveland, the trombonist decided to return to Minnesota. If Dallas can begin to display similar signs of retention in addition to attracting new players of equal or greater ability, then they can legitimately say that they meet the criteria to become a member of the “Big 5” club.

    Phase III: Established local and regional recognitions as top musical entertainment; recognized by music community as place to develop audience appreciation
    Of all the priorities for this phase, this is one of the most vaguely described. Regardless, it will also be one of the most difficult for Dallas to accomplish. Based on Dallas’ past performance, audience development has been a real sticking point; as such, building up their average attendance figures to the mid 90% level, without also bankrupting the organization in the process, will take a great deal creativity and unconventional strategy.

    Furthermore, orchestras build audiences about as easily as the Titanic could turn on a dime. If Dallas isn’t steadily increasing its average attendance figures then they will need to take corrective action as soon as possible, otherwise, they’ll end up with the same fate as the Titanic by reacting too late. 2015 may seem like a long way off, but for this priority, it is dead ahead.

    Phase III: Expanded summer presence/possible summer home
    If the previous priority was one of the vaguest in Phase III, then this priority is one of the most quantifiable. It’s not very difficult to determine whether or not the orchestra is busy in the summer season with well attended, regular performances at a summer home or turning out a string of successful concerts as the resident ensemble at an established festival.

    Unfortunately, losing their position as a resident ensemble at the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival (as detailed in Part 2 ) will require them to find something new, but they have nowhere to go but up in this aspect of the plan and that sort of “freedom” can sometimes serve as the impetus for something great.

    Nevertheless, if Dallas is stuck playing nothing but schlocky 4th of July concerts with not much in-between, then it’s safe to say they weren’t able to follow though on this priority.

    Phase III: Critical acclaim comparable to top-tier; invitations to top international venues and nationally syndicated radio broadcasts
    Back in March, 2004 I published a brief article entitled Time To Revise An Old Joke  which briefly explains that simply playing in one of the world’s great halls does not guarantee that the organization is great,

    Violinist Jascha Heifetz being hailed by a man on a New York street. The man asks Heifetz, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" And Heifetz replies, without breaking stride, "Pay the rental fee"

    To help reiterate that point, the New York Times recently published an article by Dan Watkin which examines the differences between orchestras which have to rent Carnegie Hall and those who are invited to perform on Carnegie’s tab (I guess that means Adaptistration is either way ahead of it’s time or way behind).

    It’s a vicious cycle; in order to show your value you have to pay rent to play in the same hall that other orchestras with larger budgets are invited and paid to perform.

    Similarly, if Dallas can secure underwriting for national radio broadcasts while simultaneously retaining ownership the master recordings, then they have an opportunity to tap into the emerging online music distribution network (a component which, unfortunately, is never included in the Dallas plan). A virtual twofer; reaching a larger audience through old and new technologies.

    Phase III: Complete Challenge 2015 Campaign; planned giving impact realized
    “Show me the money”; a tired catch phrase but applicable in this case nevertheless. In order for Dallas to reach the majority of their goals it’s going to cost money. At the same time, a bold plan wouldn’t come without a bold price tag so it’s good to see some hard target goals set for 2015.
    More importantly, the organization is apparently planning to realize some dynamic outcomes from the increased giving. In fact, this is one of the only times I encountered any sort of dynamic design in the plan at all, although other aspects would have benefited greatly by using a similar approach.

    Although their endowment goals fall short of an ideal target (as detailed in Part 1 ) it will still allow the organization to withstand future dips in the economy without adversely impacting the artistic product or reaching their mission goals.

    Tomorrow’s installment will be the final in this series as it presents a summary of Dallas’ “Bold Plan For Greatness” strengths and weaknesses.

    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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