80% Seems Like A Clear Majority

Peter Dobrin’s article from the 11/16/06 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Philadelphia Orchestra music director, Christoph Eschenbach, told the musicians he was informed that 80% of the “musicians did not agree with his artistic interpretations” and the same percentage “left concerts feeling great anger”…

The article also reports that Eschenbach learned about these statistics directly from the organization’s new president, James Undercofler. Beneath the surface quality sensation this piece brings to the public, there are a number of deeper worthwhile issues to explore.

To begin with, if what the article reports is accurate, then Undercoffler deserves some sincere credit for accepting the unenviable job of polling the musicians (or at least verifying and accepting a reasonable poll conducted by the players), taking the results earnestly, and delivering those results to the music director.

Although it isn’t unusual for other for-profit institutions to conduct managerial reviews based on employees evaluations, this is something that is relatively unexplored in the orchestra business with regard to musician/music director relationships. Musicians do evaluate guest conductors, there’s even a standard form created by ICSOM for that purpose, but there aren’t many ensembles which regularly poll musicians on issues related to artistic satisfaction they derive from working with their existing music director.

If you’ve been following the case in Philadelphia since Eschenbach arrived, you already know the players were not overjoyed with the appointment and any love shared between the two was only lost in increasing amounts after he arrived. As such, the arranged marriage has ended badly with both parties displaying a distinct level of pain and disappointment.

Nevertheless, this is a good example of how to handle an unpleasant situation. It makes me wonder how things in Seattle could have turned out at the end of last season if they conducted themselves the same way the current parties in Philadelphia have.

In the end, the Philadelphia Orchestra deserves credit for keeping the details of the survey under wraps, that’s the sort of thing that doesn’t need to go public. However, it is good to let the public know that drastic decisions as of late are not being implemented on a whim or unsupported reasoning (80% is certainly a clear majority). That alone should build an increased level of confidence among the ensemble’s 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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7 thoughts on “80% Seems Like A Clear Majority”

  1. I live outside of Philadelphia and enjoy the Philadelphia Orchestra. I think Eschenbach is an incredibly sensitive, generous and creative soul and a wonderful music director. He was just the shot in the arm this orchestra needed to forge a fresh sound and unique identity. I am very sorry to see Eschenbach go.

  2. I believe that a growing number of American orchestras fill out annual evaluation forms on their orchestra’s conducting staff. Some do it through the ICSOM form, others through their own form (which generally allows for written comments, unlike the ICSOM form) and some do both.

    This information is then relayed to management and/or board through an artistic affairs committee. Wiser managements and boards incorporate the musicians’ input into their own evaluation process, particularly around the time of contract renewal.

  3. I remember the Philadelphia Orchestra members as being rather welcoming to the idea of Eschenbach’s appointment. Perhaps they were less than overjoyed to have Rattle turn them down (politely), but the beginning of the partnership was friendly. In any case, it would be difficult for any maestro to follow in the steps of Wolfgang Sawallisch, for whom the ochesetra has the greatest respect.

  4. Regardless if the maestro is a sensitive and caring musician, if the fit isn’t right for that orchestra, it is time to open the position. Good move for Philly. There are plenty of big openings around the country for that maestro to make a better fit.

  5. I have seen Christoph Eschenbach conduct only once, in a concert in Copenhagen five years ago. At the conclusion of the concert, he stood facing the orchestra for at least 10 minutes, having the orchestra rise and sit in response to the applause, but not himself turning around to face the audience. He walked off stage without ever facing us, or acknowledging our applause. This seemed to me an enormous insult to the audience, who after all ultimately paid him his fee.

  6. If you take a look at Peter Dobrin’s past articles, and keeping in mind his strong anti-Eschenbach bias since Day One, the Philly musicians were less than thrilled at Eschenbach’s appointment. Granted, there’s plenty of blame to go around, starting with the management for making the offer to him, and to Eschenbach himself for accepting the offer in the first place with the lack of a strong rapport as it was. Plus, as far as the US goes, Eschenbach is irreparably damaged goods, because to leave a “Big Five” position so abruptly and under such a cloud is something that another US band wouldn’t want to take on.

    But with the upcoming interregnum, it’s time for the musicians to start taking charge of presenting themselves better to the community and making them, not some big name maestro, the attracting feature to the Philadelphia Orchestra. Think about it for a moment: if you compare musicians in an orchestra to local professional sports players, bet you bottom dollar that more people can name the latter than the former. The musicians themselves will have to become the “poster children” for keeping audiences coming to hear them, because they won’t have a central galvanizing music director figure to use in that regard.

  7. Last month I visited Christoph Eschenbach, whom I have know form many years, back stage at the Philly hall. He is never very excited or demonstrative, but as we discussed the evening’s performance he seemed satisfied. The Philly orchestra had offered up a beautiful dark hued performance of a Shostakovich symphony.

    I’m of the opinion that Eschenbach does not need Philly, since his commitments with Euro orchestras and festivals keep him plenty busy.
    The cited critic is woefully biased and has shown disdain for Maestro from the beginning.

    On another note, what I would really start worrying about in Philly is the bankrupt Verizon Hall and it’s mismanagement.

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