Junichi Hirokami: Leading From The Front In Columbus

Before everyone starts to draw parallels between recent events at the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra and what is unfolding at the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, I think it is worthwhile to point out one significant distinction with regard to the approach each orchestra’s respective music director has opted to pursue following a series of proposed budget cuts…

In the case of Jacksonville, their music director, Fabio Mechetti, decided to remain out of the press and public attention throughout the duration of the lockout. His reasons are detailed in a letter he composed in response to an article appearing at Sticks and Drones written by Ron Spigelman. Ron published Mr. Mechetti’s unedited letter at Sticks and Drones on 1/17/2008.

Take a moment to read Mr. Mechetti’s letter if you have not done so already and then read an article appearing in the 1/19/2008 edition of the Columbus Dispatch by Robert Vitale. In his article, Vitale recounts a proposal by the Columbus Symphony Orchestra’s executive board to cut the organization’s budget by approximately 25 percent, including reducing the number of full time
musicians from 53 to 31 and the number of performance weeks from 46 to 34.

Vitale then reports that Junichi Hirokami, Columbus Symphony Orchestra’s music director, offered no support for the executive committee’s proposed financial plan. According to the article, Hirokami said “Any downsizing of the orchestra would be ‘catastrophic’.” Vitale went on to report that Hirokami “placed primary blame for the symphony’s financial woes on board members, who, [Hirokami] said, have been ineffectual in raising money and community support.”

The article concludes with the following quote from Hirokami:

“If the orchestra is reduced, I have no purpose to stay here.”

According to a source inside the Columbus Symphony Orchestra Musicians, Hirokami confirmed his position by organizing a display of camaraderie with the musicians at the end of their 1/19/2008 performance. At the end of the performance, Hirokami led the entire orchestra in a long, deep traditional Japanese bow to show their respect for the audience and the greater Columbus community.

As for the Columbus Symphony Orchestra Musicians, they publicly demonstrated their outlook on proposed cuts during intermission from a concert on 1/20/2008. Ten minutes before the scheduled end of intermission, the orchestra took the stage as a group save for 22 violinists. According to Douglas Fisher, American Federation of Musicians Local 103 president and second
bassoon in the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, the 22 violinists represented the number of musicians the board wants to cut in their proposed financial plan.

“We all sat there quietly without playing a note in front of
the audience,” said Fisher. “Five minutes before the end of the intermission,
the 22 missing violinists joined us on stage as a group and the rest of us
applauded them as they entered. After we completed [Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7]
with Hirokami the orchestra received a long standing ovation and Hirokami led the
group Japanese bow.”

When asked if the musicians will reply to the board’s proposed financial plan Fisher said “We plan to respond officially at the appropriate time.”

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 “Junichi Hirokami: Leading From The Front In Columbus”

  1. There will be much respect for Mr. Hirokami. I’m not sure how a music director can get up in front of an orchestra and demand artistic excellence, when he ignored that months before when times were bad. Perhaps the decisions by each were also based on how easy it would be for the respecting conductors to get work somewhere else. Leadership from the front…….in Columbus..yes, in Jacksonville…no.

  2. In Jax the MD’s priority was his paycheck. In Columbus the MD’s priority is artistic integrity and his orchestra.

    Bravo Maestro Hirokami.

    I certainly can’t infer any motivation from Jacksonville’s music director other than what he has stated publicly but I agree that it is refreshing to see a music director who is so openly passionate about the artistic level of his/her organization. I don’t believe it is unusual for this sort of thing to go on behind the scenes but it is a healthy diversion to have it out in the open and I’m anxious to witness how the Columbus community will respond. ~ Drew McManus

  3. What is going on in Columbus now, happened also in Jacksonville about a year and a half ago. At that time, the board was considering reducing the number of weeks from 37 to 28, reducing guaranteed services for musicians, eliminating all guarantees for extra players, reducing health insurance, reducing weekly wages, in short, reducing $700,000 from its annual budget in artistic and some other administrative cuts.
    Through a more “silent” approach to the problem the now vilified leadership of the JSA was able to convince the board to address the orchestra’s financial problems in a manner that would not sacrifice the artistic quality of the orchestra. This approach included replacing the chair of the board, sharing the pain by increasing bridge funding among special donors, which would match cuts in artistic expenses.
    The board accepted these concepts and worked in several different models that would bring the JSA into a healthy financial situation while maintaining the artistic integrity of the orchestra.
    That’s why we were able in Jacksonville, contrary to Columbus right now, to preserve the same number of weeks, the same number of musicians, the same weekly salaries, the same service rates for extra players, health insurance and a few other things. The whole point was exactly to do everything possible to contain expenses without affecting too much the well-being of our musicians.
    In that regard my position was exactly the same as Maestro Hirokami’s, the only difference was that I preferred to do it in-house. I respect other people’s opinions about this, and I don’t blame them for being misinformed about the facts, but I still believe that the way I proceeded was the right one.
    Even though we did experience an unfortunate series of events until an agreement was reached, this agreement, however painful, preserved these basic needs for our wonderful musicians and, at the same time, gave the JSA an opportunity to address its financial woes so that the orchestra can aim for a brighter future.
    I hope that the Columbus Symphony can reach a similar agreement with its musicians as it tries to reorganize its finances so it can keep its long tradition as one of the finest orchestras in the US.

  4. FM brings up good points, but I have to question who the “we” is that he mentions in regard to a “unfortunate series of events”?

    Certainly it wasn’t any of the management that got paid through the holidays who suffered. Certainly it wasn’t FM, who was still getting his 190,000 paycheck, while his “wonderful” musicians were fending off attacks from their own board about their kids at Christmas!

    These are events that will shape the future of the JSO for years. This just isn’t some three month work stoppage and while FM thinks of the past few months and his actions, perhaps it would be more prudent to think about the almost 60 year JSO history that just went down the drain because a few people were sick of doing their jobs. How great would all those unknown Liszt pieces that we are forced to hear sound if the violin section stopped practicing for a year? How come a lame executive director and development staff continue to suck up an enormous amount of money when it is clear that they can’t do their job?

    I must ask you Mr. Mechetti, how can you know pain and suffering when you haven’t taken the podium in Jacksonville since mid November and in that time have made more money than most JSO musicians make in an entire year? How will you ever step in front of those musicians again and be respected when you turned your back on them when they needed you the most?

    I would like to hear from some JSO musicians! I bet their idea of pain during this negations is a bit different from Mr. Mechetti’s!

  5. What Junichi has done that is extraordinary is that he has engaged the public so that they now have a say, and now are equal partners in the decisions that will effect future. He has asked the audience if they are willing to compromise! Brilliant move!

  6. While I aplaud the MD of the Columbus symphony for his public actions, I do believe that Fabio Mechetti prevented such drastic actions from ever being taken by the board in Jacksonville. The situation in Jacksonville can be broken into two key decisions, made at two different times. The first was the decision to cut the JSO to a per service orchestra. The second was to cut expenses by 1.4million, with the musicians taking cuts for half of that, and some mystery donors making up the rest.

    Being one of the founding members of the Friends of the Jacksonville Symphony(FOJS), I can attest to the facts of what might have happened in Jacksonville had Fabio Mechetti not intervened before the board ever made the even more catastrophic first decision described above. Perhaps the MD in Columbus doesn’t have the clout with the board to stop them as Fabio did here, I don’t know (And I mean no disrepect to Maestro Hirokami, I believe his actions are extraordinary). It is common knowledge here that Fabio did stop that first decision.

    The other facts that aren’t public are the extraordinary work that Fabio Mechetti did here in Jacksonville during the lcokout, in supporting the formation of the FOJS, and in convincing management that the FOJS was not a threat to their fund raising. The lockout of the JSO musicians (by their own admission) would not have ended without the emergence of the FOJS, and the FOJS would not have emerged without the support of Fabio Mechetti. While all of us admire Maestro Hirokami, Maestro Mechetti was no less influential in resolving the situation here. Many of us here would have wished for more vocal public support from Fabio (as well as the mayor and others), his actions behind the scenes were none the less crucial in helping to come to a contract resolution. I hope that people don’t think ill of him, simply because he worked behind the scenes.

    Kevin Chase
    Founding Member
    Friends of the Jacksonville Symphony

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