SAS Board To Rachleff: Let’s Just Be Friends

Things are moving along at a healthy pace in San Antonio, if you haven’t been keeping up these past two weeks, here is what has happened so far…

  1. After a series of closed door meetings, the SAS executive board decided to not renew music director Larry Rachleff’s contract after next season.
  2. In a public statement, the executive board declared that their decision was influenced primarily by a desire to have a music director who would reside in San Antonio. Mr. Rachleff, who resides in three hours away in Houston, would therefore be ineligible for a contract extension unless he relocated to San Antonio.
  3. After learning of the decision, the SAS musicians quickly organized a public statement in support of keeping Mr. Rachleff and used public and internal lines of communication urging the executive board to reconsider their decision.
  4. In response, the board chair and chair-elect submitted a letter to the editor of the San Antonio Express-News offering some further insight behind their decision and reaffirming their position not to renew Mr. Rachleff’s contract due to his decision against relocating to San Antonio and refusal to leave his full-time professorship at Rice University’ Sheppard School of Music. However, they did state that because there was such “concern” among the public over losing Larry they wanted him to come back as a principal guest conductor for their classical series.
  5. Several days later, the Express-News published an article including quotes from an interview with Mr. Rachleff where the conductor states that he is unable to return as a guest conductor due to his other full-time obligations.

It is difficult to look at this situation and not see parallels to the disastrous set of events that transpired at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra last season. In that fiasco, the decision to cut short the crucial artistic process of selecting a new music director was made in direct contrast to requests from the musicians to allow the established process to run its course.

In the end, certain members of Baltimore’s executive committee forced their collective will onto the artistic component of the organization and the general board members with disastrous results. When the dust settled, the board chair, president & CEO, and general manager left the organization sagging under the burden of accumulated debt, negative press, and fractured internal relationships. As a result, Baltimore has very little room to move but up.

In San Antonio, it seems as though the same storm is brewing: the executive board is imposing a decision that the musicians, patrons, and general board members are questioning without providing any evidence that they attempted to seek advice and counsel from knowledgeable sources. Furthermore, the SAS doesn’t have as much of a cushion as Baltimore did to marginalize any negative impact from this controversial situation.

Nevertheless, in an apparent effort to dig up out of the public relations firestorm that came their way, the SAS executive board offered Mr. Rachleff an opportunity to return as principal guest conductor. They might as well have said “let’s just be friends” since the offer has about the same level of sincerity.

As such, Rachleff cunningly used the executive board’s mantra against them in a politely formed public statement: sorry, I have too many other full-time commitments.

In the same article, the Express-News writer, Mike Greenberg, points out that current SAS concertmaster Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio told him that due to the executive committee’s decision she was “definitely trying to leave” the organization. And with concertmaster openings in locations such as Oregon, Seattle, and Nashville just to name a few, she has several options that just might take her away from the ensemble.

And don’t forget about the rest of the ensemble; many of them considered Rachleff’s tenure as one of the ensemble’s brightest aspects since it emerged from bankruptcy. As such, how many of them won’t take advantage of the first opportunity to get out of San Antonio as well?

The SAS opera isn’t over by a long shot. At best, we are only at the end of Act I.

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 “SAS Board To Rachleff: Let’s Just Be Friends”

  1. The SAS board has their collective heads up their a**es. If Mr. Rachleff were from Europe, they wouldn’t force him to relocate to San Antonio as a condition of employment. It would be absurd, and so is what they’ve done in this sad state of affairs. They could at least say, maintain a residence here (as our Viennese MD and Hungarian Resident conductor do) and pay for it, if they need “local presence” – but for the love of Pete, he’s only three hours away BY CAR!! I’m dumbstruck by the idiocy of this situation.

  2. This situation seems peculiar to me. On one hand, I understand that San Antonio isn’t a LARGE city and can really benefit from more interaction in the community with a conductor…but is the relationship always that instrumental to the financial and artistic well-being of an orchestra? It depends on MANY variables. What I think is crucial is for this orchestra’s board to start re-evaluating WHY they made this decision? Was it financial? It’s so hard to tell whether a conductor LIVING somewhere really has that much impact on the financial well-being. If that was their main concern–perhaps they should focus more on their development and marketing teams? If there is an excellent leader (like Rachleff) leading the orchestra and the orchestra sounds good–the musicians are happy–etc. Could the board be passing the buck? Also, maybe the musicians , themselves, need to do more outreach? Do people in the community know all of them?! This could effect everything–especially if the musicians have strong relationships with people in the community and talk about how great their conductor is, etc. A conductor/music director’s job isn’t fund-raising it? I want to know which conductors are required to fund-raise, etc…live in the community and see some numbers and results from them living there!

  3. I can’t believe Stephanie hasn’t left already!! Having seen Rachleff conduct many times and having talked with many students at Rice University who work/worship with him regularly I can say that this is a HUGE mistake for the SAS! So what, They need someone who can fund raise on a full-time basis. . .They also need quality musicians (which Rachleff can certainly bring). . .and an artistic product that the city can be proud of. . .Chicken or egg??

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