Fewer Options And More Questions In San Antonio

In a letter to the editor published on 11/26/06 in the San Antonio Express-News, the board leadership at the San Antonio Symphony (SAS) has made it clear that they have no intention of keeping Larry Rachleff and will insist on hiring a new music director that will reside in San Antonio. Unfortunately, the public letter doesn’t really resolve many outstanding questions to date and fails to demonstrate that the board reached this decision with much consideration for dynamic consequences…


One of the outstanding issues on the minds of many before the board submitted this letter is the board’s insistence on having a music director reside in San Antonio but the current music director, Larry Rachleff, only lives three hours away from San Antonio in Houston. As such, it isn’t terribly difficult for Mr. Rachleff to be in San Antonio as he’s needed.

However, the letter from SAS board chair Ken Oleson and chair-elect Debbie Montford appears to address this issue in a roundabout way by stating that Mr. Rachleff did not have his contract renewed due to the fact that “his full-time job is teaching at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University in Houston.” (the last time I checked, a position such as this is usually referred to as a professorship as opposed to simply a “teaching job”).

This “full-time job” apparently prevented Mr. Rachleff from fulfilling what the board believes are the duties of their music director. According to the letter, the board believes those duties require “…a deep understanding of and involvement in our community, teamwork with the entire staff and board and having an ear to the ground to get direct feedback from customers and non-customers alike.”

Unfortunately, there was no further definition as to what exactly constitutes a “deep understanding of and involvement in” the San Antonio community. Personally, I would be curious to know exactly what the board means by having a music director with “an ear to the ground to get direct feedback from customers and non-customers alike.” On one hand, the board members use the metaphorical reference of “an ear to the ground” to illustrate what they hope to find in a new music director but they couple that with a literal reference of “direct feedback” in the same sentence. As such, this line of reasoning sends a very mixed message.

How does the board expect a new music director to receive direct feedback? What if the new music director doesn’t like to do their own grocery shopping or sit and wait while they have the oil changed in their car? What if they prefer to dine in instead of frequenting restaurants? What if they prefer watching movies at home instead of in the theater?

Does the board plan to define how the new music director will have to interact with the community in the position’s job description? Will there be a formula to evaluate how well the music director is keeping their ear to the ground? Is there a written test to define a candidate’s level of understanding for the San Antonio community? And if so, are they going to compare this against the level of understanding demonstrated by previous SAS music directors?

Although there are no clear details in the letter to answer these questions, the board apparently understands this issue well enough to say that their definition of a music director’s role is “almost impossible to fill on an absentee/fly-in basis.” At the same time, they take the next paragraph to state that “Seeking a music director to live among us does not mean we are willing to settle for less because mediocrity is not an option.”

After reading that passage the phrase “good luck with that” came to mind. Furthermore, the board’s letter indicates that they are not only going to require a music director to reside in San Antonio but they will not tolerate a conductor that holds a separate full-time position.

As such, this partial list of conductors who hold full-time positions in multiple orchestras that are farther apart that San Antonio and Houston need not apply (listed in no particular order):

  • David Wiley (Roanoke and Long Island)
  • Joanne Falletta (Virginia and Buffalo)
  • Donald Runnicles (San Francisco Opera, Atlanta, and Orchestra of St. Luke’s)
  • Michael Tilson Thomas (San Francisco Symphony and New World)
  • Jeffrey Kahane (Colorado and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra)
  • Guillermo Figueroa (New Mexico and Puerto Rico)
  • Stephen Alltop (Cheyenne and Elmhurst)
  • Marin Alsop (Baltimore and Bournemouth)
  • Neeme Järvi (New Jersey and Hague Residentie Orchestra)
  • Paavo Järvi (Cincinnati and Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra)
  • Carl St. Clair (Pacific and the German National Theater and Staatskapelle)
  • Stefan Sanderling (Florida and Toledo)
  • Eckart Preu (Spokane and Stamford)
  • Michael Christie (Phoenix and Brooklyn)
  • Mario Venzago (Indianapolis and Gothenburg)
  • Jorge Mester (Louisville and Naples)
  • Keith Lockhart (Utah and Boston Pops)
  • William Eddins (Edmonton and National Irish Orchestra)
  • Kent Nagano (Montreal and the Bayerische Staatsoper)
  • Peter Oundjian (Toronto and Caramoor)
  • James Levine (Metropolitan Opera and Boston)

  • But more to the point, there is no indication in this current letter to shed any light on how the board has come to these conclusions; nevertheless, they owe it to the San Antonio community they serve to provide them. As board members, they retain the right to make the decisions they have, however, as stewards of the public trust, they should also be capable of justifying those decisions.

    The board’s letter goes on to list some of the accomplishments they’ve been able to achieve since the organization has emerged from bankruptcy. Unquestionably, they rightfully deserve every bit of credit for those accomplishments. As such, this makes their decision to not renew Mr. Rachleff’s contract and this subsequent letter even more baffling.

    In the end, it would be preferable if the board would have refrained from submitting this letter to the San Antonio Express-News in order to allow for as much leeway as possible to explore every possible option after receiving input from all of the organization’s stakeholders. Sadly, this letter prevents much of that discussion from taking place and even restricts the options at their disposal. It would be a shame to see the organization risk falling into institutional instability over such a thing, but now that distasteful option has replaced many of the more palpable options that would have otherwise been at the board’s discretion.


    Postscript: Oddly enough, after all the time the board letter spent explaining that they want a music director to be in a position to receive “direct feedback from customers and non-customers” there is no telephone or email contact information on the SAS website for any of the board members. There is telephone and email contact information for the administrative staff and even resident conductor, David In-Jae Cho, but if you want to offer any direct feedback to board members, you’re out of luck.

    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 “Fewer Options And More Questions In San Antonio

    1. To me, this is another example of lack of cohesive vision and throwing out the baby with the bath water by the SAS BOD. Firstly, they fail to realize that Mr. Rachleff is undeniably recognized as one of the most gifted conductors around, and, along with Mssrs. Gustav Meier, Ken Kiesler, Daniel Lewis and Otto-Werner Mueller, a leading teacher and mentor of young conductors. I know of no conducting student who would turn down a chance to study with Mr. Rachleff at Rice. Indeed, the conducting program at Rice is a model program. In addition, Mr. Rachleff is in demand internationally as a conductor and pedagogue. The SAS BOD has no idea what they are letting go, and if they do have an idea, then their actions are senseless.

    2. The orchestra has every right to insist upon pursuing its individual ideas concerning the best interests of the group as a whole. That it’s better for the m.d. to reside in the community within which he/she works is just a no-brainer. It’s always better for the orchestra and the audience, as it encourages avenues of accessibility that cannot be developed by peripatetic m.d.s. The latter appear elitist, unobtainable, and just flying in for the money. Money is of course, always a consideration for orchestra and conductor, since travel expenses are usually defrayed by the orchestra. Using the list Drew posted, imagine what that may cost. I was recently on a flight from L.A. to Chicago, coincidentally shared by A Famous American Conductor. He sat in 1st class, which is also a usual accommodation for conductors. (Good thing, too, because I know for a fact that during these trips they are just looking at the scores they are to conduct shortly for the first time. This is standard s.o.p. in the conducting biz, and it filters down into performances.) It ain’t cheap.

      I rather like the idea of possibly seeing the local m.d. at the local pub or restaurant, at the movies, just pursuing life in town with the people who support his organization.

    3. I agree with “jW” to a certain level. It would be great to see a maestro at the local pub, or in the mall, but let’s face it, this is San Antonio, not a bigger budget orchestra. San Antonio is trying to maintain a certain artistic level, and the only feasible way to do that is 1. pay the maestro richly for living in San Antonio (and look the other way when he/she takes the inevitable 2nd job that they will be flying to), or 2. Do as every other low to mid-level symphony, and pay for a quality maestro to fly in for a set amount of weeks.

      I also have one more opinion, it seems in the last 10 years, there has been more of a trend for boards to use their maestro for fund raising. If I am not mistaken, the job of maestro is primarily to conduct a quality artistic product, and the board should be responsible for raising the money.

    4. The decision not to renew Larry Rachleff’s contract was made by the executive director and the executive committee. The entire Board did not even have knowledge of the action until after the fact. The members of the orchestra have voiced very strong opposition to this decision. Anyone in the orchestral field knows that practically unanimous support of a conductor by the orchestra members is unheard of. Yet no weight is being given to the orchestra’s viewpoint. The possibility of attracting a conductor of Larry’s abilities for a contract that entails only 12 subscription concerts is highly unlikely. This decision represents a mighty step backwards for this orchestra at a moment when they were poised to take huge steps forward. And for the record, Larry has raised something like a million dollars for his Rhode Island orchestra, which is much farther from Houston than San Antonio is.

    5. Lindsey is correct: by all accounts, the decision to renew Mr. Rachleff’s contract was made by the executive board.

      The distinction between the general board and the executive board is made clear in the article I published on Friday 12/08/06.

      Thanks for helping to clarify that Lindsey!

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