I like waking up in the morning to a (pleasant) surprise and that’s precisely what happened when I went scrolling through the morning arts news (via Arts Journal music news, of course) yesterday and read an article by Peter Dobrin about the Philadelphia Orchestra’s decision to hire James Undercofler, the Dean of Eastman School of Music, as their new president & CEO…
Before I go any further, let me state now in the spirit of full disclosure that Jim Undercofler is a current board member for and a driving force behind the development of Polyphonic.org, the orchestra musician website which I currently serve as Senior Editor & Research Principal. Having said that I’m sure all of Adaptistration’s regular reader’s certainly realize that I’m the antithesis of a corporate shill and anything positive I have to say about Jim is unrelated to my professional relationship with him.
Given the Philadelphia Orchestra’s recent history of stupendously bad decisions and poor executive leadership, I can’t begin to express how encouraging it is to see Jim Undercofler take over the reigns of the venerable institution.
For one thing, Jim can certainly accept a lion’s share of credit for helping to pull the Eastman School of Music out of its academic malaise. He’s a proven fundraiser in a market that’s every bit as fierce as the orchestra world (if not more so) and has demonstrated that he’s forward thinking enough without actually crossing the line into reckless insanity.
Eastman’s Institute for Music Leadership is another one of Jim’s projects (more disclosure, I’ve been invited to lecture there on a multiple occasions). Serving as the first of its kind comprehensive program designed to prepare music students for the non-artistic realities of their career choice, the IML program has been the source of some really fine work (which I’ve written about on two separate occasions here and here).
As a matter of fact, I went digging around in the beginning of 2004 looking for music schools which prepared their students for the non-artistic realities of orchestra life. After contacting representatives from Juilliard, Eastman, Oberlin, Peabody, Indiana University, Curtis, Northwestern, Rice, University of Michigan, Cincinnati, and CIT to see if they offered any sort of comprehensive non-artistic training only Eastman offered something which fit the bill. I published an article about that process shortly thereafter in February, 2004.
Peter’s article in the Philadelphia Inquirer announcing Jim’s impending arrival at the Philadelphia Orchestra isn’t merely a puff piece (that’s not Peter’s style); instead, it does ponder the environment Jim will walk into when he officially takes over on August 1, 2006.
For example, the article points out that Jim has never dealt with negotiating a collective bargaining agreement (CBA); an event the Philadelphia Orchestra hasn’t had a great deal of success with in recent decades. The organization’s current CBA expires at the beginning of the 2007-2008 season and if the organization follows tradition, that means they should begin to negotiate somewhere between three and nine months after Jim’s arrival.
Nevertheless, given the act Jim has to follow, I can’t imagine that labor relations in Philadelphia could get much worse. One would have to posses Odyssean resolution to deliberately make labor relations much worse than they’ve been in recent years, and although I believe Jim is a determined individual, I sincerely doubt his ambitions lie in that direction.
At the same time, he will have to understand that his predecessor didn’t exactly make his job easy with regard to musician-management relations. Musicians aren’t known for casually offering up a clean slate for new managers to work from and they have long memories. The old adage “sins of the father” come to mind and any good executive leader walking into an ugly relationship will undoubtedly realize that there’s going to be some necessary reparation to pay, regardless if the perceived sins were on their watch.
Perhaps one of the most effective methods for creating a new, healthier relationship between the executive leadership and the musicians will involve directing institutional effort and resources toward programs where both parties retain control over how they communicate with each other. Ideally, creating a program outside of traditional province which clearly functions within the parameters of immutable labor and nonprofit law is a direction the new Philadelphia Orchestra would strongly consider.