An Interesting Challenge In Pittsburgh

The Saturday, October 27, 2007 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published an article by Andrew Druckenbrod that reported Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO) artistic advisor Andrew Davis would not return to conduct the orchestra this season, the last of his contracted tenure with the ensemble. Andrew’s article does an excellent job at bringing you up to speed on the details surrounding Davis’ time with the ensemble but looking ahead, the core of this situation will inadvertently test the PSO’s standing within he greater professional orchestra community…

Andrew’s article does a good job at framing this test by pointing out that finding suitable candidates to fill the sudden podium vacancy is the real challenge. Consequently, the ensemble’s artistic clout will be tested to the fullest extent with the final score reflected in which conductors they are able to hire on short notice.

In a round-about way, this situation serves as an extraordinary opportunity to serve as a quantifiable artistic benchmark for the PSO and in a time when the value of traditional artistic benchmarks have been questioned, how the PSO manages this challenge will ultimately influence the organization’s standing.

What the PSO has going for them is the ensemble. Musically speaking, it has been and continues to be an excellent ensemble. Ideally, the organization is going to be able to capitalize on relationships between its musicians and conductors who are artistically accomplished and have an equal amount of name recognition. If the PSO can manage to bring in name-brand conductors who also work well with the musicians to create an artistic product, then it will only expand on their already solid artistic reputation.

What the PSO has working against them is the recent appointment of a new Music Director. Although the appointment of a Music Director creates a great deal of internal stabilization, it does cut down on the number of conductors who might be willing to rearrange their schedule on short notice or cut the precious little time many of them have with their family. As there is no opportunity for a full time relationship in the near future, you have to fall back on the conductor’s existing relationship with the musicians and/or their respect for the institution.

Normally, this is one of those situations that would fade into obscurity; however, it should be precisely the sort of thing the business pays attention to. As such, it will be intriguing to see what develops.

You can likely find more on this issues as it develops at Andrew Druckenbrod’s blog, Classical Musings.

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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2 thoughts on “An Interesting Challenge In Pittsburgh”

  1. An oddly circuler argument Drew; setting up paramaters for an orchestra to prove it’s artistic clout and then stating that those paramaters can’t be met because of the impending arrival of a music director.

    I wonder whether the same questions would be asked in LA or New York given their recent MD announcements, or is there less need to prove artistic benchmarks for those ensembles because of pre-existent reputation?

    I’m not entirely certain how it is coming across as circular. For one thing, there’s nothing in the article stating that any artistic parameters can not be met; instead, it does say that the appointment of a new MD will make it more challenging. More to the point, not having the MD opening to dangle in front of potential conductors will remove one leverage point for the PSO. In turn, this will move them more toward relying more on the leverage they can muster through artistic clout and connections.

    Ultimately, if the PSO is successful in bringing in the sort of conductors defined in the article it will provide greater rewards by removing the potential argument that the only reason a conductor made last minute arrangements to fill in for Davis is because they are after the MD position. Instead, it will be based more on the orchestra’s artistic clout.

    Clout is a funny thing, groups like the NYPhil have certainly garnered a critical mass of clout they can use as needed that is different than the clout a group like the PSO can muster. At the same time, clout is hardly static and groups like the PSO can certainly use the current situation to enhance their stockpile. ~ Drew McManus

  2. I am disappointed that the measure of quality in guest conductor selection is their “name brand value.” This same misplaced logic is seen in local magazines or newspapers that select their best restaurants by readers’ choice. The sad result is that Red Lobster ends up near or at the top of the list. It is sad to think that a major orchestra’s artistic administrator and/or marketing director would be so ill informed.

    In this case, I think the name brand issue has more to do with finding someone of equal or greater quality than the individual needing to be replaced. If the PSO were simply putting together their list of guest conductors for the season, there would be a different set of criteria involved.

    In this case, if I were a ticket holder, I would be less apprehensive if I discovered that there was a replacement conductor that had a record of accomplishment as the person who left as well as some experience with the ensemble. For example, Leonard Slatkin is filling in for at least one of Davis’ concerts and that selection would fit those criteria. ~ Drew McManus

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