Lame Duck?

With the recent brouhaha in Seattle over the tenure of their music director, one of the central issues reported by the Seattle Weekly was the music director’s concern over being a lame duck. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to adequately wrap my mind around why that issue is such a concern…

The only concrete restrictions and outgoing music director has are those related to limitations on tenure review and artistic review. Typically, these restrictions are in place during the first and last years of a music director’s tenure.

However, these limitations aren’t across the board in every ensemble and I’m not aware if they exist in Seattle or not. For outgoing music directors, these limitations prevent them from retaliating against musicians on their way out and for incoming music directors, this prevents unfairly targeting musicians for removal until after they get to know them better.

Any other issues of ineffectiveness on behalf of an outgoing music director are purely perceived. You can always say they’ll have less influence on the administration to do bigger works they prefer but if they already have a good relationship with management and board and are popular with the public, they have pretty much free reign.

For example, look at Chicago where they performed the 9th symphonies of Bruckner, Mahler, and Beethoven for the final round of concerts featuring Daniel Barenboim as music director. It could even be argued that Barenboim didn’t have an “ideal” relationship with managers but he still left with quite an artistic splash.

In fact, good marketing and development staff can turn the event of an outgoing music director into a bonanza for the organization with “last chance to see the conductor” promotions. As such, I’m rather concerned over the sincerity of what any music director might consider as lame duck issues.

If any managers out there encounter a music director expressing concerns over these issues, I suggest you ask them specifically what they’re referring to and if they would be willing to take those concerns public. If they can’t articulate what they mean and baulk at the idea of taking them public then I would be concerned over issues of sincerity.

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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3 thoughts on “Lame Duck?”

  1. Perhaps we might look at it from the purely artistic viewpoint: when a director extends his/her contract, one assumes that the director has “more to say” with the orchestra – there is more exploration to be done in purely musical terms and that there is further musical growth to be experienced. The orchestra apparently has given him a vote of no-confidence and apparently feels that, for them, this journey is over. It might be the harshest form of lame-duckness that a director could find themselves in: an orchestra that is unwilling to listen anymore, and is biding its time until the director’s contract is up. I think it shows real temerity on a director’s part to continue under these circumstances.

  2. The above commentator is correct; Seiji Ozawa experienced that very thing in Boston, and it is uncomfortable to watch. This happens time and time again because the thought of finding a new music director is so daunting, managements usually choose not to face the task it until it is absolutely unavoidable.

    BTW, when Sergiu Commissiona left the Houston Symphony in the 80’s, his goodbye kiss from management was Gurrelieder!

  3. In an article in the Seattle PI, July 14th, entitled “SSO survey shows how deep the musicians discord over Schwarz has become”, the last paragraph reads—“He said two weeks ago in an interview that in three years, everyone can consider whether he should leave the orchestra at the end of his contract, which may be his way of saying perhaps he will say his goodbyes then. What he wants to maintain at the moment is his authority and ability to make decisions.”
    I find the last sentence to be quite telling. What Schwarz is saying, is that he wants to continue conducting the SSO to maintain “his authority and ability to make decisions”, NOT to explore other musical ideas, NOT to challenge himself or the orchestra to new musical heights, NOT to give the orchestra more recording opportunities, NOT to tour the world and show-case the Seattle talent, NOT to present new and exciting programs of modern music etc. IT IS QUITE CLEAR THAT THE ONLY THING SCHWARZ WANTS— IS TO MAINTAIN POWER OVER HIS MUSICIANS AND BOARD!
    One can only guess, judging from his poor musical decisons over the years, that perhaps this has always been his motivation from the beginning.

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