Things That Make You Go “Buh?” – San Antonio

In an unanticipated announcement, the beleaguered but plucky San Antonio Symphony announced that they would not renew music director Larry Rachleff’s contract after it expires following the 2007-2008 season. Unfortunately, the reasoning behind the abrupt decision released by the orchestra’s administrative leadership only leaves more questions than answers…

The decision comes as shock due to the fact that the organization has only recently emerged from going dark in 2003 due to bankruptcy proceedings. As such, the decision to willingly throw a fragile organization into a period of instability by replacing a music director who is well liked by the musicians he conducts is baffling.

Some answers were provided via a San Antonio Express-News article published on 11/07/06 and written by Senior Critic Mike Greenberg. According to that article the San Antonio Symphony’s (SAS) president and CEO, David Green, was quoted as saying one of the paramount reasons the executive board decided to not renew Rachleff’s contract was because he wouldn’t relocate to the San Antonio area.

Green was quoted in the article as saying "My thought is that San Antonio would most benefit from a music director who lives here." The article goes on to add that Green went on to say that "a full-time resident music director…could benefit the orchestra’s marketing, fundraising and audience development."

All things being equal that’s not an unreasonable argument; in fact, that issue was one of the topics examined during Adaptistration’s inaugural month in an article entitled Fly-In, Fly-out, Music Directors  However, in this particular case, things may not be what they seem.

For example, I wouldn’t classify Rachleff as a "Fly-In, Fly-Out" conductor. The fact is that although he does not reside in San Antonio he does reside in Houston. When I first read about the organization’s decision I thought to myself "Texas is a big state, and I’m not 100% certain as to how far apart Houston and San Antonio are from one another so maybe they are unreasonably far apart."

To alleviate my uncertainly, I simply glanced at a globe and sure enough, Houston and San Antonio look like they are pretty close. For additional details, I programmed my Microsoft Streets & Trips program to calculate how long it would take to drive between the two cities and it reported that the 197.1 mile trip could be accomplished in approximately 3 hours, 19 minutes.

The result is that Rachleff doesn’t live all that far away. I can say from personal experience that it can take that long to drive from Baltimore to Washington D.C. in bad traffic conditions but conductors and musicians in the Baltimore-Washington corridor travel that route on a weekly basis without problems (as do a few million other commuters).

However, the Express-News article goes on to report that David Green pointed out the organization’s previous music director, Christopher Wilkins, did live in San Antonio during his time with the organization and he thought that circumstance had a better impact on the organization. The article quoted Green as saying "Christopher Wilkins did a great job of being part of the community, and I think we’re missing that."

Based on the information in the article, it seems clear that the decision to not renew Rachleff’s contract was influenced heavily by his refusal to relocate to the San Antonio area. But what about the orchestra’s past? Did the fact that Wilkins resided in San Antonio have that much of a positive impact? Was Wilkins’ presence inconsequential and, instead, the institutional problems rested squarely with the executive board and executive administration?

At best, answers to those questions are arguable but the fact remains that during Wilkins’ tenure the organization was able to narrowly avoid bankruptcy in 1998 and shortly after Wilkins eventual departure, it succumbed to bankruptcy. As such, the historical precedent Green relies on in his comments to the Express-News fails to support the decision to not renew Rachleff’s contract.

In fact, it would be easier to assert that the organization finally tipped over into the bankruptcy after Wilkins’ departure due to the fact that there was no music director. And unless the organization can find a suitable replacement Rachleff in the space of one year, that’s precisely the position the organization will find itself once again.

No Comment (mostly)
I contacted the SAS offices to request an interview with David Green; unfortunately, the organization’s Vice President of Marketing, Carolyn Bacon, said David had nothing more to add that wasn’t already published in the Express-News article.

I did ask Carolyn Bacon if I could submit some follow-up questions to Green, specifically about his example of Wilkins. I pointed out the same material above with the regard to the organization experiencing severe financial difficulties even when their music director resided in town and Susan said that neither she nor David Green were with the organization during those times and therefore couldn’t comment. Unfortunately, that didn’t prevent David Green from referring to Wilkins in his earlier comments to the Express-News.

At the time this article is published I have yet to speak directly with David Green in order to find out more about the reasoning behind this decision or exactly how the organization plans to turn to their advantage what would otherwise be a period of instability at a point when the organization is least prepared to manage it.

Hey, Isn’t This supposed To Be All About The Music?
Of course, you could assume that the board may have been responding to complaints that Rachleff was not up to the artistic level the organization required. That input would come strongly from the orchestra’s musicians, audience feedback, and critical review.

Regrettably, the Express-News article reports that according to Brian Petkovich, a bassoonist and chairman of the players association, "The musicians all love what Larry does on the podium. The orchestra has been in a period of financial insecurity. We’re just now coming out of that, and now we’re going into a period of artistic insecurity."

Since that interview, the SAS musicians have released the following statement:

"The musicians of the San Antonio Symphony are deeply disappointed and disturbed by the symphony board and management’s inability to reach a compromise with Larry Rachleff concerning his residency in San Antonio. Unfortunately, this impasse will result in 2007-2008 being Larry Rachleff’s final season as music director. Larry Rachleff’s artistic leadership has been the greatest motivation for the musicians to remain committed to the Symphony through the bankruptcy period. He has been invaluable in restoring the musicians’ sense of pride and place in the community through personal integrity and artistic tenacity. Even though the musicians have made many financial sacrifices, our belief in the orchestra’s ability to meet the highest artistic standards has not diminished. In fact, the artistic connection and growth Larry Rachleff has achieved with the orchestra in spite of the Symphony’s difficulties, has been astounding. Larry Rachleff has passed over opportunities to work with other major orchestras so he could build on the artistic excellence he recognized in our orchestra. To reiterate, the musicians of the San Antonio Symphony are disappointed and disturbed by this recent announcement, but remain unified, and dedicated to the pursuit of artistic excellence in our community."

Furthermore, I contacted several members of the orchestra myself, who wish to remain anonymous, and they all had similar opinions as those expressed in the public statement.

It’s difficult to notice that at no point in the Express-News article did David Green refer to the artistic accomplishment or artistic stability of the ensemble; instead, he focused his comments on a music director’s ability to benefit with marketing, development, and ticket sales.

Given his current position that there is nothing more to add to what has already been reported in the Express-News article, it’s difficult to believe that he or the executive board considered the deep artistic ramifications of their decision.

At the time of this article’s publication, there is no mention of the organization’s decision to not renew Rachleff’s contract on their website. Hopefully, that’s a good indication that they may be willing to reconsider their decision.

I feel confident that the SAS executive board will have the governing fortitude to do exactly that in light of the extended organizational response. As such, I’m equally confident that all institutional stakeholders would be willing to consider this incident a learning experience so long as the executive board reconsiders which course the organization will set after taking into consideration the views by their musicians, the full governing board, and their patrons.

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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5 thoughts on “Things That Make You Go “Buh?” – San Antonio

  1. I’m very interested in the results of your investigations in this matter (hopefully we’ll see some answers that make sense), but it seems that again, we are seeing the troubled outcomes of situations in which musicians have been left out of the conversation. One question that comes to my mind is whether there is a musician (or musicians) on the SAS Executive Committee. We have something of an unusual situation in Colorado where there are two musicians serving in that capacity here, but it isn’t unheard of.

  2. Good questions. I would add that if there are SAS musicians who are allowed to sit in on executive board meetings, are they voting members or are they there as observers. Furthermore, if there were musicians present during meetings where the executive board discussed not renewing Rachleff’s contract, was their opinion solicited and were they allowed to caucus with their fellow musicians in order to determine what the majority of musicians felt about the issue?

    If the answer to any of the above questions is negative, then I don’t think the executive board would be justified to say that they adequately or appropriately consulted the musicians in this issue.

  3. In forty years of San Antonio symphony attendance, I say it has never sounded better. And the thanks go to Conductor Larry Ratleff. It appears that he is being blamed for the administration and board’s failure to raise money. That bodes ill for our orchestra.

  4. I live with a long time member of the orchestra (princ oboe). The orchestra is completely demoralized by this capricious decision. Not mentioned in the above commentary is the last line of Greenberg’s article:

    ‘[David]Green said the 2008-09 season likely will be occupied by guest conductors trying out for the job.

    “If you’re not prepared to move to San Antonio, don’t apply,” he said.’

    This is a requirement for what is effectively a part time orchestra? (26 weeks down from 39, courtesy of the board-initiated bankruptcy.)

    Rachleff has offered many concessions but will not give up a tenured position in Houston–and can you blame him?

  5. As music director of various orchestras in Michigan, California and Texas over a number of years, I have always felt that, as a rule, it was important for a conductor to live in the community where he (or she) is conducting. But sometimes there are exceptions to rules, and in the case of the San Antonio Symphony, it is a huge mistake to let Larry Rachleff go just because he wishes (for good reason) to remain in Houston at Rice University. Where is the Board in all of this? Far too often Boards of non-profit organizations are too concerned with the ease of the bottom line rather than supporting the philosophy of the organization – which in this case is providing the highest quality musical performance possible. Larry Rachleff is doing this. He is extremely gifted, loved by the orchestra, and admired by his colleagues throughout the country. Let’s hope the music lovers of this fine city wake up and demand proper action on the part of the Board and Administration.

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