Bad Stuff In Phoenix Indeed

Over at Abu Bratsche, Robert Levine published an article on 3/23/09 entitled Bad stuff in Phoenix which brings to light ongoing events inside the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra regarding a slew of complaints resulting from what Robert describes as “general nastiness by the Phoenix Symphony management and Music Director Michael Christie.” But once you learn more about what has transpired over the past few years, you might think Robert’s description was downright polite…

The courts may ultimately decide if Phoenix Symphony Musicians were unfairly targeted.
The courts may ultimately decide if Phoenix Symphony employees were unfairly targeted.

Earlier the same day, Stephen Lemons published an article at his Phoenix New Times blog that blows the lid off of a series of tumultuous events involving Christie and the Phoenix Symphony. All in all, Lemons’ article presents a fair and very comprehensive depiction of what has transpired along with the remaining hurdles.

What might catch your attention is how Lemons started his article. He contrasted the internal fury set in motion by Christie and the Phoenix Symphony against the idyllic image portrayed in what Lemons describes as a “puff piece” about the conductor in the Jan/Feb 2009 issue of Symphony magazine. Whether intended or not, Lemons brings up an excellent point: how can one publication publish something so gushingly positive without so much as a footnote acknowledging what Lemons describes as “legal challenges involve[ing] lawsuits, complaints to federal agencies, charges of wrongful termination, allegations of retaliation, and the charge that the symphony’s top, veteran players are being forced to take demotions or leave the symphony…”

This sort of jointly exhaustive view presented in Symphony is a good example of the factors contributing to the orchestra business’ credibility deflation throughout the greater cultural consciousness. Granted, music director/musician relations are rarely free of conflict but the best of those instances observe a close adherence to contractually defined processes and procedures that end with all parties retaining mutual respect – even if one party is dissatisfied with the results. However, based on known accounts, the situation in Phoenix is apparently moving in an entirely different direction.

Ultimately, issues like those unfolding in Phoenix have the potential to inflict severe damage to any organization. On one hand, if this were an isolated case, an orchestra would have a comparatively easy time limiting potential damage; even if a court ruled in favor of the complainant (chalk it up to a breakdown in process and technicalities). But the situation outlined by Lemons isn’t as straightforward as it depicts a pattern of abusive behavior and disregard for established policy combined with a degree of willingness throughout the organization’s leadership to tolerate and even support these actions. When lawsuits such as these prevail, it isn’t so easy for an organization to sweep under the rug.

Postscript: in the spirit of transparency, I worked for the Musicians of the Phoenix Symphony and their representative Local throughout most of 2006 on a project designed to update and modernize their system of internal governance and communication. In fact, I published an article with details about that project in an article from August, 2007. However, none of that work involved any aspect of the legal actions taken against the Phoenix Symphony and/or Michael Christie as reported in Lemons’ article.

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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8 thoughts on “Bad Stuff In Phoenix Indeed”

  1. It is about time to reveal what Michael Christie has been doing with the Phoenix Symphony: forcing out several principal players who were amazing musicians. It is funny that Christie supposes to be doing this to make the orchestra better. If Christie wants to get rid of an unqualified musician, look no farther, he himself is the most mediocre of all!

    • Thanks for the comment Pat but to be fair I don’t want things to degrade into personal or professional opinions. I think the overriding issue here is whether or not the organization (including music director) followed their peer review process and aided by local and federal labor laws. Any administration or artistic leader that abuses or intentionally sidesteps those procedures ultimately puts their own professional credibility at stake.

  2. “how can one publication publish something so gushingly positive without so much as a footnote acknowledging what Lemons describes as “legal challenges involve[ing] lawsuits, complaints to federal agencies, charges of wrongful termination, allegations of retaliation, and the charge that the symphony’s top, veteran players are being forced to take demotions or leave the symphony…””

    It’s possible that the writer simply didn’t know about all the legal stuff going on. I doubt that the management would have been anxious to have it publicized.

    • I agree that it is unlikely the orchestra’s management would offer up unsolicited details but the information surrounding some of the lawsuits have been available online for quite some time. Additionally, unless I missed something (and someone please correct me if I’m wrong), I didn’t notice any comments from musicians in the piece either. Given the degree of unhappiness among players, it seems difficult to imagine that something wouldn’t have popped up to make someone writing an article take notice.

      Of course, one can always fall back to the reasoning that a magazine like Symphony (or any service organization publication) likely won’t go looking for this sort of stuff but it comes back to the credibility issue. Engaging a reasonable due diligence process (even for a puff piece) is a necessary step in building that credibility. Then again, I could be overestimating the value that has for any service organization publication.

      If nothing else, this will hopefully be an instance the magazine can use to guide the editorial process for future articles.

  3. These kinds of articles regarding Michael Christie never avail themselves of opinions from the musicians who work for him. This is not the first such article to appear in a trade magazine, and testimonials in his favor generally come from the managers and CEOs who work with him. The fact that players opinions are absent should tell the readership of these articles something.

  4. Although the legal documents were available, unless one had knowledge that there was a dispute, one wouldn’t have searched for the pleadings. Consequently, other than privately held suspicions of strange things going on as evidenced by the gradual disappearance of players from the stage, the general public knew nothing of this. It is a shame, and troubling indeed.
    Furthermore, we the concertgoers are helpless. We want a symphony, we want fair play, we want good musicians. But we feel helpless in this struggle.

    • I don’t think patrons should feel helpless at all; in fact, they have far more influence than they usually know. I do remember several posts and/or comments at the PHX Symphony blog about these issues as they took place over the past few seasons. I haven’t looked to see if those posts are still available but they were certainly known commodities throughout those on the inside of the business.

      Consequently, even though there was plenty of material generated via the rumor mill, outlets like the orchestra’s own blog should have piqued the interest of someone at Symphony and sowed a few seeds of curiosity.

      Speaking of blogs and how patrons can get involved, if a regular patron (or group of patrons) maintained their own blog about the orchestra (concert reviews, insights, etc.) they may have been able to draw some public attention to the changes in personnel (or anything else they noticed). Trust me, orchestras pay attention to blogs about their organization so rest assured they’ll know that you know; which in and of itself, isn’t a bad tool 🙂

  5. I echo Drew’s last comment.

    On my own blog for example, a little cartoon on this topic has generated more local site traffic that I have ever seen.

    While I am a local musician (non-PSO), I am also a patron of the PSO. Imagine if patrons had their own site – and their own concert reviewers! Why should the newspaper reporters have the exclusive opinion?

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