Things That Make you Go “Buh?” NJSO

The 3/20/2009 edition of the New York Times published an article by Dan Wakin that compares and contrasts the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s 2008/09 and 2009/10 seasons. Of particular note is the news that the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) is using orchestra musicians to reduce overall guest artist expenditures. Unfortunately, the way the programming decisions are presented sends a precarious message to ticket buyers…

There's nothing like loaded question to start your day.
There's nothing like loaded question to start your day.

According to the article, the decision to use NJSO musicians as soloists is one component to reduce overall expenditures during the 2009/10 season.

“Instead of higher-paid visiting soloists, two orchestra members — the cellist Jonathan Spitz and the flutist Bart Feller — will play concertos with the orchestra.”

At risk here is the inadvertent message that the NJSO’s musicians are inherently lower quality than “higher-paid” soloists. Although undoubtedly not the NJSO’s intent, the manner in which this programming decision is presented comes across as a loaded question: So Mr. Executive Director, do you still think your musicians aren’t as good as visiting soloists?

Anyone familiar with the business knows that every professional orchestra maintains a variety of extraordinary musicians that are every bit as capable of serving as soloists as any guest artist. What caught my attention in this article is the mention of NJSO principal flutist, Bart Feller, who I have had the pleasure to hear in concert and rehearsals on several occasions. He produces one of the most luxurious tones and displays a refined sense of musicality of any musician I’ve heard and I’d be far more inclined to buy a ticket to hear him play over a name brand flute soloist like James Galway.

Wakin’s article serves as an excellent example for how orchestras can unintentionally position themselves in an awkward position by underutilizing their most valuable asset: the resident musicians. Although the NJSO likely had no intention of promoting some of their own musicians as anything less than excellent soloists, this instance serves as a valuable tool everyone can use to examine their own practices. Because in the end, everyone is guilty of these transgressions to one degree or another and the business as a whole will only improve by examining the good with the bad.

Ultimately, it would be interesting to examine how often orchestras have featured member musicians as soloists (excluding concertmasters) then track that data back for several years and see if there are any patterns. If anyone is aware of whether or not this data may already exist, please send in a note. Otherwise, I’m curious to see how everyone else feels.

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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