Attack Of The Status Quo

Within the span of a week, two of the larger budget orchestras announced new music directors. First, the Pittsburgh Symphony hired Manfred Honeck, a 48-year-old Austrian conductor and shortly thereafter the Dallas Symphony hired Jaap van Zweden, a 46-year-old Dutch conductor…

In both cases, there has not been any immediate outcry from stakeholders over the announcements so, for the time being at least, the majority of both organizations must feel satisfied with the way the search process was implemented.

It is tough to miss the fact that both groups hired middle-age, European white guys in the face of popular top-down trends in the business pushing in the other direction. For example, regardless of all the talk about experimenting with new artistic leadership models, Pittsburgh apparently had no difficulty abandoning those experiments in favor of Honeck.

Face time doesn’t seem to be much of an issue in either group as Pittsburgh’s Honeck will eventually assume 10 weeks worth of conducting duties and Dallas’s van Zweden will eventually reach 15 weeks. Furthermore, both conductors will continue to actively work in Europe and not reside in their respective orchestra’s city.

All of this makes recent events in San Antonio even more puzzling, where that organization failed to renew their music director’s contract because he would not reside in San Antonio even though he only resides three hours away in Houston (more details on that situation here, here, and here).

The only unknown issues related to the appointments in Pittsburgh and Dallas is the sort of expectations from board executives and administrators with regard to fundraising and audience development responsibilities. For example, when Baltimore was recently looking for a new music director the former board chair and former president & CEO publicly stated that they felt that those issues were every bit as important as artistic ability.

Nevertheless, in the initial media articles and press releases, any fundraising and/or audience development expectations for each conductor are mentioned in passing or not at all. Regardless, it will be interesting to see how the impact of these two appointments will trickle down through the rest of the business.

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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10 thoughts on “Attack Of The Status Quo”

  1. “All of this makes recent events in San Antonio even more puzzling…”

    What should be puzzling here? San Antonio has taken a stand against the status quo and proposed an alternative that might lead to better artistic growth and a higher profile for the orchestra and the conductor in their community.

    The major components of that status quo — the creation and management of an artificial shortage of qualified conductors by a small number of talent managers, the practice of letting the small cadre of better-known names jet about withtout committing to an in-depth relationship to an orchestra, and the abdication of boards, conductors, and to some extent orchestra members in favor of professional orchestral management, and the dumbing-down of programs in a PR move designed to reach an LCD in an entertainment market rather than to cultivate an audience — have now been in place for a generation. The results are evident, and the need for alternatives is clear. Good for San Antonio.

  2. I think these are both very interesting hires. Yes, they defy a lot of recent trends, but perhaps it’s also a confirmation that ultimately what’s important is to hire a great musician whom the orchestra members will respect.

    As for time spent in town, van Zweden’s 15 weeks seem reasonable – can you really expect a conductor to lead more than 15 different programs in a season? That’s a lot of scores to prepare. Honeck’s 10 weeks seems a bit skimpy, and I’m surprised Pittsburgh settled for that; an orchestra of its stature should be able to demand more.

    As for the non-musical parts of the job and insistence on residing in the community, I have no problem with not making those requirements of the job. Fundraising/schmoozing, however important to donors, can be done by lots of people – but not everyone can conduct. And I’m for anything that reduces the personality cult surrounding a conductor. Orchestras that build their image around their music director, IMHO, are investing in someone else’s brand when they should be investing in their own – the 100-odd highly skilled players that comprise the ensemble. And as we’ve seen from a few recent examples, a music director who plants roots too deeply in the community can be difficult to uproot when it might be time to move on.

  3. Interesting that both of these conductors are former orchestral players. This may turn out to be a trend.

    The ‘shortage’ of qualified conductors is not artificial, it is real. Its roots are in the quality of musicianship that seeks to enter the profession in the first place.

    In developing an experienced orchestral musicians into a conductor, you get someone who has proven him or herself on many levels as a musician. There is a belief among some that orchestral players don’t make good conductors, but this is based only on the fact that SOME have turned out to be lousy conductors despite being excellent musicians. It isn’t too hard to spot the flaw in that connection.

    On the other hand, how many aspiring non-professional players turn out to be great or even marginally acceptable conductors?

    Let’s face it, it’s a huge advantage to REALLY know what it means to sit there in the chair of a player. You can’t really know unless you have done it. It is one of many advantages that a person needs to become in any way effective as a conductor.

    Perhaps some day someone will start an experimental program to train orchestral players in conducting. If 3-6% eventually turn into effective working conductors, that’s would be, in my opinion, a huge success. If it were more than that, so much the better.

  4. Slight correction on Honeck and Pittsburgh; he had guest conducted with them two times, so he was hired on the basis of two guest appearances. Granted that one has to take comments on the Pittsburgh Symphony’s blog with a grain of salt, since no musician will be so foolish as to air any dirty laundry on an internally set-up blog, the musicians, or at least Robert Lauver, seem extremely happy that Honeck will be their next MD. This contrasts completely with the major orchestra on the other side of the state a few years ago.

  5. OK, I’ll bite. You’re right that the dirty laundry won’t get dished on the PSO blog site. Especially not by me, one of the luckiest guys in the world to be sitting in this horn section. Although the number of subscription weeks that Honeck will be with us is indeed going to be 10, he’ll be taking us on domestic and international tours as well. Admittedly, I haven’t solicited opinions from absolutely everybody in the orchestra, but if you look at the video on the PSO blog of the announcement of Honeck becoming our new MD you’ll see and hear the genuine joy from us. The process and the outcome were both terrific in my opinion, and I haven’t heard anybody say that they were disappointed. To speak on the subject of the former “Artistic Leadership Model” that we “abandoned”, I believe that the flexibility of the team and the ability to find the next leader of the orchestra speaks volumes to its success. We have developed great new relationships with terrific conductors and are presently in the midst of a recording project with one of our current trio of conductors, Marek Janowski. It’s hard for an orchestra to act quickly on issues concerning the hiring of conductors, and I believe that our current model with its blend of artistry and flexibility allowed us to jump on an opportunity. We still have great relationships with the current triumverate, and a bright artistic future as well….I’d call that model a success. I speak as if the great work was mine… wasn’t. Bob Moir, Dick Simmons and Larry Tamburri made it happen. This process was clearly one in which the voices of the musicians were heard, though….I think it’s a win-win all around.

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