A Brief Detour

My apologies to everyone showing up today looking for Part 2 from A Worthwhile Concessionary Agreement but while traveling the road of acquiring some necessary permissions we have hit a few potholes; in particular, the gods of travel and digital communication have not been smiling on our venture. Nonetheless, Part 2 will be posted as soon as possible. In the meantime, I received an interesting press release on behalf of former Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (ISO) music director, Mario Venzago, containing a statement from the conductor on events related to his non-renewal…

150x150-ITA-GUY-009There’s no mistaking that Venzago’s statement is an official farewell to the ISO and its patrons (it says exactly that in the title) but it will be interesting to see if there is any sort of response from the ISO. there’s nothing up on the ISO’s media page and a quick call to their PR department inquiring about whether or not any sort of impending response is being considered has not been returned. Update, 10/21/09, 1:56p.m. CT: the ISO has indicated that they do not wish to comment on personnel matters.

In the meantime, the Indianapolis Star published Venzago’s press release in their 10/19/2009 edition and at the time this blog post was written there were 16 comments, some of which were quite passionate. If you aren’t interested in the comments, Venzago’s full statement is included at the end of this post.

In the end, it seems like the ISO’s music director mess is a solution in search of a problem at a point in time when plenty of real problems abound. After reading Venzago’s statement and recalling the ISO’s executive decisions related to the non-renewal decision, Shakespeare’s classic passage “The better part of valor is discretion” came to mind.

What do you think?


Mario Venzago, Music Director,
Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2002-2009:

Since the ISO announced the non-renewal of my Conductor and Music Director Agreements on July 30th of this year, I have, on the wise counsel of my advisors, refrained from making any formal statement and have not commented on the many things written in the newspapers – true or untrue regarding my departure as Conductor and Music Director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra last July.

After so many weeks, however, further silence on my part would be unfair to my many friends in Indianapolis who have expressed in very touching words their concern and provided me their overwhelming support during these difficult weeks. For the moment, I wish to touch only on the main events surrounding my departure and will reserve any additional comment for those who request it.

On July 30th, I received without any warning or expectation a short e-mail from Simon Crookall, President and CEO of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, informing me that my Conductor and Music Director Agreements would not be renewed for the 2009/10 season. These agreements were set to expire just 31 days later on August 31st and have indeed now since expired.  Mr. Crookall and my agent had been negotiating the renewal of these Agreements since the Fall of 2008.

Termination on such short notice is unprecedented in the world of classical music. Just six weeks prior to the start of the season and with contract negotiations still in progress, I was abruptly told that my Agreements would not be renewed, but that I would be offered the opportunity to conduct a “farewell week”. In the view of Mr. Crookall, this would be a fitting celebration of my seven years of artistic success as conductor and music director of the ISO.

For me, as you can well imagine, this news was emotionally devastating. Only one week before, Mr. Crookall embraced me at the Musical Arts Center at Indiana University in recognition of my artistic achievement. The ISO administration and I had been planning the 2009/10 season for more than two years.  I had blocked the dates and turned down numerous conducting offers from other orchestras. The dates of the concerts were set and the programs planned.  We contracted soloists, calculated costs, prepared PR materials, printed a brochure and started to sell tickets.  No reputable orchestra mindful of the costs would make changes at this critical point, unless money was of no concern. I relied during these negotiations on the good faith of Mr. Crookall and the Board and expected to be treated fairly.

After the announcement of the non-renewal, I have received hundreds of letters from ISO musicians, members of other orchestras, concert-goers, composers, people from Indianapolis and other places.  They have confided in me how shocked they were upon learning of my departure and how much they loved and respected my work.  In particular, the musicians described in touching, heart-felt words how much they loved performing with me.  I have not been able to answer all of their wonderful expressions of concern and appreciation and I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has written and spoken with me.

In conclusion, let me express the hope that the donors, sponsors and subscribers will continue to support the ISO despite this unfortunate event. Even if I am hurt and disappointed, my soul is not broken. I will never stop loving this great orchestra in Indianapolis with its sensitive, enthusiastic musicians who gave of themselves so freely, and I will always be deeply moved remembering my Indianapolis friends in this warm-hearted and peaceful community. Here and there, if only for a fleeting moment, we were privileged to have touched the stars. I thank you all from the bottom of my heart and wish the ISO all the best in the future.

Mario Venzago
October 2009

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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6 thoughts on “A Brief Detour”

  1. Whoa.

    Everything he says about the costs to the orchestra of letting him go so close to the start of the season sounds right to me.

    So either the orchestra is shooting itself in the foot or there is some kind of major issue that is not public and may never be. Some kind of malfeasance that they can’t or won’t discuss? A scandal? Something immoral but not illegal? If it’s a financial problem, it might become a legal matter.

      • I think you’re closer than not on both counts. Regardless of any proposed cuts, the costs of letting a MD go so close to the beginning of the season are, at best, complex. You have to include not just the basic costs related to guest conductor fees but everything else related to travel, lodging, and don’t forget about the enormous number of personnel hours spent developing logistics, writing and producing new PR material. But wait, there’s more; you have to include potential changes in contributions (higher/lower?) and whether or not the non-renewal decision process did any research into those variables. would it have ultimately been “cheaper” to forgo the non-renewal in lieu of a one year contract determined in advance to be the final year?

        It would be fascinating to learn exactly how much the decision really cost the organization.

  2. I also see from your previous postings that the orchestra is failing to arrive at an agreement with the musicians – so it is shooting itself in the foot all around.

    I wonder if the orchestra did something in serious bad faith – were they negotiating for guest conductors before they told Venzago they were not renewing his contract? Because the closer you get to a program, the fewer potential guest conductors are available. (See: Levine, James, though the Met and BSO both did well in covering his programs.)

    The loss of good will and potential drop in contributions as a result remind me of the Rose Art Museum situation at Brandeis. Talk about bad governance. Does anyone believe the debacle had nothing to do with Jehuda Reinharz’s decision to leave long before his recently-signed contract was up?

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