A Tale Of Two Cities & A Tale Of Two Music Critics

Two recent articles from music critics in Detroit and Pittsburgh caught my attention this week as they made the strikingly similar observations about their respective orchestras…


The first article appeared in the June 4th edition of the Detroit Free Press and was written by Mark Stryker; the second appeared in the June 7th edition of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and was written by Mark Kanny.

Both articles lamented the fact that their respective ensembles were moving along without the sort of artistic leadership they deserved. In Mark Stryker’s article, he shows some home town spirit by writing that the Detroit Symphony is every bit as good as the ensembles in St. Louis and Atlanta but because Detroit is without a music director the organization isn’t getting invited to perform at Carnegie.

In Pittsburgh, Mark Kanny bemoaned the organization’s decision to implement a trifecta of conductors to cumulatively serve the role that would normally be filled by a single music director. He goes on to write that only one of the conductors, Yan Pascal Tortelier, really delivered a performance worthwhile of his position.

Although it’s interesting that both writers are located in cities barely separated by 200 miles, it’s even more interesting that they had very similar opinions about their respective ensemble’s artistic merit. They both go on to state that, if anything, the artistic leadership situation at both organizations is a far cry from ideal but that hasn’t degraded artistic output or potential.

In Pittsburgh, Mark Kanny points out that all of the first stand players among the winds, brass and percussion are proving that they are not only world-class good but they continue to demonstrate regular improvement. He singles out PSO principal horn Bill Caballero as having an “astonishing” level of artistic development. Having head Bill up close and personal as well as within an ensemble setting, I concur (brass musicians have a phrase they use to describe players like Bill but it’s not something one uses in general public).

Back at Detroit, Mark Stryker makes similar statements by declaring that the DSO is “perched on the brink of greatness” and that they have “all the ingredients for glory are present except one: truly inspired artistic leadership.”

One fascinating observation from Detroit Mark is that the DSO has been slack in programming music from living composers. He goes on to write that he feels establishing a composer-in-residence might be just the thing to help give the ensemble the right artistic spark while it searches for a new music director. The issue of composers beginning to serve a larger role within orchestras as an artistic catalyst is a popular topic this month. You can read more about that subject here, here, and here.

In the end, it just goes to show that the artistic resolve among many orchestra players is stronger than ever. Hopefully, managers will be able to capitalize on this by seizing opportunities to spark organizational growth.

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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9 thoughts on “A Tale Of Two Cities & A Tale Of Two Music Critics”

  1. >From the vantage point here in St. Louis, the loss of a guiding artistic leader for a few years was felt, to my eye, in terms of the audiences. Obviously with the financial crisis that eventually blew up into the 2005 winter labor dispute, mere survival was the order of the day, e.g. programming all 9 Beethoven symphonies in the ’02-’03 season. Attendance could be quite erratic, from admittedly hazy memories of the time before Robertson’s arrival.

    But even with Robertson at the helm for his first season with some pretty impressive programming choices, including something like 15 works by living composers (at least living at the time – one of those was Ligeti) and a whole slew of pieces which the SLSO hadn’t played in years, that wasn’t enough to guarantee audiences at SLSO concerts that Robertson did not conduct. The sections and rows of empty seats were depressing to behold. Even at Robertson’s concerts, I’ve heard that on Sunday afternoons, reams of empty seats could be had.

    So for the second season, Robertson has had to cut back on the visionary programming, in terms of the subscription concerts. Only 6 works by living composers, and two of them are 90+ (Carter, Dutilleux). There are also some programs for next season that replicate concerts which were cancelled during the labor dispute. With the three concerts at the UM-St. Louis performing arts center, he can be more cutting-edge, but it helps to have the university co-sponsoring that series.

    Perhaps this simply reveals the truth in all 3 cities that America is a country where merely having a great orchestra in one’s city isn’t enough to ensure its survival. In other words, this isn’t Vienna, where they don’t even have a principal conductor, but the name of the VPO is such that tourists make a point of trying to check out their concerts while there and when they’re on tour.

  2. I was struck by two points made in this blog that I thought I would comment on.

    First, the Detroit critic was concerned that Detroit was not among those invited to Carnegie Hall. I remeber a difficult and pointed debate from a half dozen years ago about St. Louis’ Carngie Hall syndrome and how it left that orchestra out of touch with it commuity. That is an over simplification, but the core point is that an orchestra is there to serve the community in which it lives and if those needs are being well met, perhaps it is a false ambition to chase the external praise if price of that external evaluation is to threaten your fiscal capacity.

    The second point is the comment, “but that hasn’t degraded artistic output or potential.” So where is the problem here? There are certainly some stellar Music Directors whose influence on their orchestras is measurable.

    But…, it is my belief that there are far more orchestras that musicians talented enough to serve as music directors for all of them. When this challenge is being faced by those among the top 20 orchestras in America how can others beleive that they will be improved by the magic baton of the latest ‘hot shot?’

    I run an orchestra that doesn’t have, nor is it seeking a Music Director. It is the musicians who maintain the standards and though our market has many other orchestras in our general budget range and all of them retain the music director model, most outside evaluators beleive we consistantly give better performances. That is subjective of course, but we are certainly musically competetive with all those others.

    The heritage and talent of the musicians plays a major role in the quality of the musical experience.

    I think we rest too much authority on the Music Director and leave musicians and composers as also rans in the mix of how classical music is made and percieved. were tehre more withthe talent to change the future of music, we might pursue that course, but we need to value our musical institutions for the quality of what they play, not the star power that they promote.

  3. Andrew Bales makes an excellent point when he brings up the Carnegie Hall Syndrome in which an orchestra ignores its first responsibility of connecting with its community in favor of chasing the rainbow of outside validation. I’d be concerned about that in Detroit if that were the case, but the the good news here is that the Detroit Symphony literally saved itself from the brink of bankcruptcy in the last decade by connecting with the community in a variety of ways, most spectacularly by partnering with the Detroit Public Schools and a medical center to build the Orchestra Place campus, including the $60 million Max M. Fisher Music Center, a performing arts high school and an office building (worth some $220 million in total urban investment.) My point about about Carnegie was simply to point out that orchestras with great artistic leadership are doing great artistic things and, in my view, the DSO has even greater potential once it identifies a new leader. As to the second point in Andrew’s post, he wants to empower the musicians and composers more and thinks we put too much authority in the hands of music directors. I also think musicians and composers should have a meaningful role in the dialogue and process. But I think its wishful thinking to believe that the musicians themselves can function as music directors. How, exactly, would that work? It’s one thing to be the Vienna Philharmonic in the most musical city in the world with your choice of the greatest guest conductors in the world and a mission focused almost exclusively on core repertoire. It is another thing to be in Detroit or any other other American city with a mission that should be far broader. It is undeniable that the most profound orchestras in America have become so precisely because of strong music directors. Levine in Boston, Salonen, in LA, MTT in San Francisco, Robertson in St. Louis, etc. It’s not about valuing star power, as Andrew suggests, it’s about valuing leadership that can nurture the musicianship of the orchestra and galvanize the community, that can develop a menu of relevant programming mixing lots of new music and compelling juxtapositions of old and new. I’m not saying necessarily that the strong music director model is the only way this can happen. But experience so far suggests it is the best way. Given that conductors in America only spend 12-16 weeks with their orchestras (it should be way more), American orchestras in general need far better artistic infrastructure — high quality artistic administrators and staff who can conceive and execute progressive ideas. Here, by the way, is where the musicians and composers can really play a meaningful role. But all of this should happen within a structure that includes a strong music director.

  4. The Carnegie point is always an interesting one and one which has been tossed around here from time to time. In addition to the community connection issue there’s the issue of how an orcehstra makes its way to Carneige: invited guest or paying renter.

    At the same time, those distinctions aren’t universal. Case in point, Nashville went to Carnegie as a paying renter but they were able to use the event as the culmination of a great deal of community outreach endeavors. As a result the majority of the Carneigie audince actaully came from Nashville. It’s tough to find a better example of community support.

  5. Having served as an associate conductor at two major orchestras and now a music director of a regional orchestra and a ballet company, what strikes me as too over simplified by the the observers in Detroit and Pittsburgh is the fact that they feel the need for the same thing, a star music director. This is simply a case of wanting what they just had i.e Jansons and Jarvi. Firstly, the problem is the assumption that everybody needs the same thing, an all powerful artistic presence in the form of a music director. I actually think that is more appropriate now in a regional setting than it is in a major city, not just because I am one though! The point they are missing is that the needs of an orchestra are secondary to the needs of the community, and the focus should always be just that, what are the needs of the community from it’s cultural institutions? Is it cultural enrichment, education through music, economic development, quaity of life etc… Work those things out and shape the artistic needs around those needs to achieve not just the right direction, but the “true” direction. You will then be equal partners and the artistic plan and direction will form as an organic process (just like a great work of art does) in sync with the community’s needs. The “traditional” model does not work everywhere, because of so many differences between situations. Not to get cute here, but if grass needs to grow in Phoenix, it needs to be watered alot more than the grass that needs to grow in Seattle. If Music and Art are organic both for the audience and the artists, you can apply the same logic I feel with every aspect from the “quota” of new music, to the need for a star on the podium. Lastly to the point of the musicians being noticed, isn’t that of vital importance? I think it is wonderful that without the “star”, the musicians are becoming the stars. Remember the Knight Foundation observed that an average turnover of an orchestra admin and music director is 7 years, but for an orchestra it is 30 years. If the musicians in the orchestra are now the primary focus with their virtuosity and musicianship, then that is the most likely reason that the audiences return and grow year after year. The musicians are the true stars, and will develop the most meaningful relationship with the audience, since they are all community citizens together. That is my mission here (Springfield MO), to make the musicians the stars and to grow “with” the the community. It is no coincidence that our audiences have grown by over 50% in two seasons, and our community outreach programming has grown by the same amount. Ron Spigelman

  6. To add to what I said yesterday:
    By Pittsburgh trying the MD triangle, and with St Paul and their artistic partner system, they are each trying something innovative and new, you know like a composer might do with a new work. It is puzzling to me that with these bold approaches, how the critics are being somewhat contradictory. They are essentially saying, we need to not change the status quo of the all powerful music director presence, but oh yeah do more new and innovative music! Maybe they are worried their publishers might want to try the same thing….good idea if you ask me! If ticket sales are up in Detroit, maybe if there is a rotating critic pool, they might sell more papers!
    Ron Spigelman

  7. Ron Spigelman has misread my comments. I am not interested in a “star” conductor. I am interested in strong artistic leadership, whether that comes from a traditional organizational model or newly designed ones. However, let’s remember that the Pittsburgh model was not undertaken in the spirit of innovation. It was implemented because the orchestra could not find a music director it liked and, in the end, established a troika as a fall-back option and touted it as “innovation.” Now, perhaps it will work to produce a more inspired and forward-looking aesthetic profile, but it has not done so yet and I’ve yet to see indications that it is championing more contemporary music or creating an orchestra more tied to its community. A slightly different model that does seem to be working extremely well is in Atlanta, where Robert Spano does his thing as music director while Donald Runnicles has an enlarged role as principal guest; the conductors focus on different repertory but Spano has primary responsibilities for overall artistic direction. I am less familiar with the specifics of the St. Paul model, but what I do know is that it seems tailored specifically for the uniquely flexible role and function that orchestra has always had. Which, of course, is the point. Everybody is different. Detroit shouldn’t import San Francisco or LA’s programming. It needs to invent its own. I have said over and over in print that an old-school port-of-call star like Furbeck de Burgos would be a horrible choice as music director, and that simply the ability to lead an orchestra artfully through Beethoven and Mahler is not enough anymore. It is all about establishing a vision and weaving the orchestra truly within the civic fabric of a city. Every orchestra has different tradition and should respond to the contour of its audience in a different way. Ron is absolutely right that an organic artist directiion must grow from these seeds. But, to continue this not particularly elegant metaphor, it will not grow by itself and it will not grow by proclamation or by committee work. It grows from ideas, will, ambition and execution. In other words: leadership. The ideas and programs, from the broadly defined goals down to the nitty gritty details of individual concert programs, have to be created by somebody or some mechanism, and, as I said in an earlier post, the orchestras that do it best are all distinguished by strong music directors. (Again, a star is not needed. I’ll take a “no-name” like Mark Wigglesworth over a star like de Burgos any day of the week in this context because with the former you’ll get someone who will get inside the community and orchestra to do the hard work and with the latter you’ll get “rent-a-maestro.” Of course, you still have to satisfy the aesthetic soul of the musicians — see Baltimore — so it’s tricky.) And by the way, these are not just the orchestra’s needs; they are the needs of the audience. If you do it right, there really aren’t distinctions between the needs of the audience and the needs of the orchestra. A great example at the grassroots level is the Plymouth Symphony here in metro Detroit, a small orchestra that has thrived since its music director Nan Washburn, with the blessing of the board that hired her, began focusing on contemporary American music and new music, with premieres and recently written repertory at nearly every concert. We have to remember that orchestras, particularly major orchestras, speak to a diverse audience and have a responsibility as well to the art of music. An orchestra is not just a custodian of the past; it is a vehicle with which to reinvent the future, and if an orchestras like the Detroit Symphony don’t take the time to do their part in their own way that relates to its own community, then what’s the point? To respond to another point of Ron’s, I want to point out that I have been focused on new music and other artistic issues because Detroit already has honed its other programs. To cite one example, the orchestra has one of the country’s most ambitious education programs, including at least three student training orchestras, as well as two student jazz bands, which to go back to the notion of developing an organic mission, reflects how important jazz is to cultural soul of Detroit. The $200 million Orchestra Place redevelopment campus that I spoke about in an earlier post has dramatically reshaped part of Detroit’s urban landscape. The point in my original article was that the Detroit Symphony is firing on every cylinder except for its artistic one. The good news here is that we only have to fix that issue and not reinvent the entire mission. Finally, I’d be happy if the paper instituted a rotating critics’ pool. I could use a free night every now and then.

  8. I wish papers hired multiple full time critics too, as well as dedicated cultural reporters, investigative cultural reporters, and more. Such progress would be a sign that classical music is indeed getting better.

    Notwithstanding discussions of individual critics, media coverage of the performing arts is a canary in the mine shaft for the performing arts. Right now, I think our collective canary is looking a little sleepy.

  9. Mark,
    Points taken…very elegantly put by the way! It was wonderful to read your insight and of how passionate you are about Detroit. The DSO is definitely the envy of many orchestras and one of the star cultural institutions. With an organization so innovative and so positively entrenched in the fabric of life in the city and in the region, their search is akin to finding a curator…..that can also paint! It is very difficult to find that person, and the example you gave of Atlanta is definitely worthy of exploring. MD searches are so often focused on finding the “one”. That is why I am great admirer of Pittsburgh and St. Paul, recognizing their current needs or at least making a concerted effort to. I have not heard of Detroit’s goal with their search, but with everything else going so well, they want to be as thorough as possible I am sure. The deeper issue here is why music schools are so slow on the uptake in regards to the new artistic landscapes?. What are they doing to train the new “Music curator”? Eastman has made a very good start, but current affairs in music are largely being blocked out by the yellowing 20+ year old notes prefessors are still using. I started a class here ar Drury University (Drew wrote about it in March) called audience connections. Every week the students look up several blogs and we debate current issues in the arts. The class is an elective and there were only 5 in the first group (I hear that is going up significantly the next time round), yet they might be the only 5 in the whole department (teachers and students alike) who have heard about RAND, the Knight Foundation, this blog, Buttsinseats, ArtsJournal and many other outlets and issues we covered. That is what scares me. You can bet a new precedent set by the Supreme Court would make it into a law student’s class or at least in their social circles the very day it is made public. Music students on the other hand…have to go practice! They don’t have time for current affairs. Schools need to address this, so that students are not just well equipped to deal with the reality facing them, but also to be able to advocate and effect change to make the arts relevant with the knowledge of the world around them, instead of expecting the world to revolve around them! I am trying to find the time to write a book on this and related topics (don’t worry I have someone who I can work with on my clunky writing style!). By the way Mark Wigglesworth as a student was two years ahead of me at the Royal Academy of Music in London. He truly is dynamic, thanks for clarifying what you would prefer from your MD.
    Ron

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