Reading Between The Lines In Detroit

Following the news that Detroit Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Emmanuelle Boisvert decided to leave her position for an associate concertmaster position at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony issues a brief statement from board chair, Stanley Frankel. Frankel’s statement could perhaps best be described as profoundly indifferent…

“The DSO learned of this disappointing loss just this morning. We thank Emmanuelle Boisvert for her many years of dedicated service and artistic excellence and wish her much happiness and success in her future endeavors with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

Retaining and attracting top talent remains a priority for the DSO at every level and under the leadership of our Music Director Leonard Slatkin, the DSO will continue to achieve tremendous artistic success while building a sustainable and viable business model going forward.”

The obligatory “retaining top talent remains a priority” phrase certainly has a hollow ring to it in light of the fact that losing a concertmaster, the primary artistic member next to the music director, to an orchestra with a traditionally smaller budget is an intense event. Make no mistake, this is a profound blow to the Detroit Symphony. It delivers exponentially more punch when said concertmaster left for a position that is considered a step down.

If you run Frankel’s message through a spin filter, it might come across something like this: So long as Leonard sticks around we don’t care who leaves and the more high price salaries we can get rid of, the better. Don’t expect a bon voyage party and don’t bother cleaning out your locker, we’ll send* your things along to your new address.

If there is any doubt behind Boisvert’s motivation, it will be washed away with the following passage from her press statement.

“This winter I performed with the Dallas Symphony on several occasions and marveled at their organization’s commitment to classical music, the intrinsic respect offered to musicians by the administration and esteemed Music Director, Jaap van Zweden, and the emphasis they place on communication and teamwork at all levels. I had planned to stay in Detroit for my entire career, but Dallas presented me with an opportunity I simply couldn’t refuse.”

In case you didn’t catch the message in the Grand Canyon size gaps between the lines, then allow me: I’m leaving because I can’t stand working for our current board and administrative executive leadership. Sticking around to make things better from the inside out is neither sustainable nor viable. I don’t care that my new gig is a step down in status (and perhaps pay), but the thought of working for this leadership team is so impalpable I took the first reasonable offer to come my way from a group that isn’t a fire to the frying pan that is the new Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

In case anyone was wondering whether or not Detroit Symphony musicians were capable of getting out of Dodge post-haste in the face of the “oversupply of musicians” and/or “lack of openings” arguments, Boisvert’s defection should pretty much put a railroad spike size nail into that coffin.

 

*C.O.D, parcel post.

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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0 thoughts on “Reading Between The Lines In Detroit”

  1. So, the concertmaster in Detroit has to take a demotion in order to switch jobs, and that somehow disproves the fact that there is an oversupply of musicians? Seems like it does the opposite.

  2. The march to a jobbing pool of musicians continues in Detroit. I am curious as to why Leonard is standing idly by, watching his orchestra being destroyed around him. Perhaps artistic integrity isn’t high on his priority list. It certainly isn’t on Stanley’s

  3. I think the point really is that someone at the top of their game and clearly experienced is more valuable than some of the greener musicians Detroit is likely to hire now. It is rather obvious that Dallas sees the merit in hiring someone of that talent level with experience. Detroit can claim they want to retain top talent, but the musicians being poached by other orchestras and universities should have been a big enough clue that Detroit has no interest or understanding what “talent” really is. There is an oversupply of musicians, just not an oversupply of experienced and talented ones.

  4. A lot of focus on Detroit – and obviously so – but what about Dallas? They are shaking thing up quite a bit with the hiring of Alex Kerr as concertmaster and Boisvert as his number two. As I understand it, Alex will be sitting CM during the 12 or so weeks that Jaap van Zweden is at the helm. One would assume that Ms. Boisvert will be leading the rest of the time.

    To me the most telling thing in Emmanuelle Boisvert’s goodbye letter was the lack of any mention of Leonard Slatkin. Reading between the lines, one might assume that she and Mr. Slatkin weren’t the best of friends. If this is the case, I can’t say I blame her for moving to greener pastures.

  5. I’m not certain how you arrived at that conclusion Frank. But for starters, there was no demotion in this instance. In order for a demotion to be applicable, Boisvert would have had to accept a forced reduction in rank within her own ensemble. Clearly, that isn’t the case as she made a decision to accept a position that would have otherwise been traditionally assigned as lower status than the position she held.

    Given that it was her decision, under her terms, happened so soon after the strike concluded, and clearly in response to rejecting a work environment in favor of one she finds acceptable files in the face of the conventional supply and demand argument.

    Holly touches on a number of additional points that support this position but the last item to add is it seems clear that Dallas did not hold an audition for this position and instead, made a direct offer. Although certainly not unheard of, it is unusual. But it also indicates their MD, executive leadership, and musicians saw the value in attracting this musician to the point of granting master agreement waivers. Traditionally, this is going to produce a higher expense for the organization as filling the position through a traditional audition would have almost certainly produced a lower end labor cost through competitive bargaining.

  6. Hi –
    In response to Maximus, here are the “official rankings” of the violin section at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra beginning Sept. 2011.

    Alex Kerr, Concertmaster

    Nathan Olson, Co-Concertmaster

    Gary Levinson, Senior Associate Concertmaster

    Emmanuelle Boisvert, Associate Concertmaster

    Motoi Takeda, Associate Concertmaster

    Mr. Kerr will indeed be sitting CM most weeks Jaap van Zweden is conducting, as well as during the Dallas Symphony’s summer residency at Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival – 12 – 16 weeks a season total.
    Olson will sit CM most other weeks.
    Thanks very much,
    Chris Shull
    Manager of Publications
    Dallas Symphony Orchestra

  7. Good piece, Drew. To clarify, Alex Kerr and Nathan Olsen were named co-concertmasters in Dallas. Emma will be associate, not officially on the front stand.
    And btw I just wrote about all this over at nondivisi if anyone’s interested.

  8. Love the way the DSO statement ends with those deathless two words “going forward”…the ultimate in meaningless idea-free management-speak. It’s like a nervous tic for bureaucrats on the defensive.

  9. Just as predicted. The three year contract, which can’t be sustained and is based on delusions, allows enough time for musicians to find other more promising positions in cities that are not economically distressed. The toxic atmosphere lingering after a strike cannot be pleasant to work in. The management/labor model is inappropriate for orchestras like DSO. It produces so much animosity that the joy of music making disappears. So let the best musicians find other gigs over the coming months, allowing the board to reconstitute the bad and arrive at a more realistic budget, with the musicians becoming more a part of the promotional apparatus, i.e. as revenues go up so does the income of the players, and vice versa. Or follow the example of Philadelphia.

  10. The “example of Philadelphia” may turn out to be the biggest folly of all time by orchestral managements. Risking the loss of $50 million in endowment besides injury to this orchestra’s WORLD-CLASS status and reputation is the utmost in managerial idiocy. The bankruptcy judge has yet to decide on their fate.

  11. Drew, your reaction to this latest news from Detroit is unfair and over-the-top. You are not reading “between the lines;” you are making stuff up. Even if Ms. Boisvert really does have serious issues with Detroit management, that does not make her right and management wrong. Ms. Boisvert is a great concertmaster, but she is not indispensable. No one can say this will be a “profound blow” to the orchestra until her replacement is named and has a chance to bond with the orchestra and music director.

  12. Thanks for the comment TeeJay; however, Boisvert’s departure (especially under these conditions)is undeniably a profound blow. Perhaps not as profound as if Slatkin decided to leave but profound nonetheless. In short, Detroit could bring in Glenn Dicterow or Bill Preucil to replace her and it wouldn’t have any real impact on things in the here and now.

    But if you want to take a silver lining perspective on all of this, then Boisvert’s departure could be the watershed event for a turning point toward improved stakeholder relations.

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, my views are certainly mine and mine alone. This particular post is pure commentary and regular readers know that isn’t what comprises the lion’s share of content. On the other hand, there come times when this particular tool serves as the best approach to adding transparency. And in this particular instance, I don’t seem to be the only voice in this chorus; if you haven’t done so already check out today’s Musical America (Susan Elliott’s piece) as well as what Frank Almond wrote at non divisi.

  13. Great comments, all. Great insight, intellect, passion….. But what would you DO about the situation with The Detroit Symphony Orchestra? Everyone has opinions on the situation but you don’t offer any suggestions on what the Musicians, Board, community, staff, should DO about this apparently small group of people systematically destroying our musicians, our community, and our Orchestra by this disrespectful, abusive behavior. A Governor, Senator, prominent local business owners, thousands of citizens, and even a couple of Board members have tried to “talk”. No one currently “in power” appears to care about hearing what needs to be said although a couple of meetings have taken place……. appears to be more “show” than an attempt to really fix the problems. Haven’t seen any evidence of change in behaviors. What do you all suggest?

    Judy Doyle
    Save Our Symphony
    (which we have not done, apparently)

  14. If you go to the DSO Facebook page, you will see a short message from me about how we are addressing the current situation. Emma’s resignation was only announced to everyone yesterday morning. It came as a shock to us all, but whatever her reasons, it is important that the institution move on. Response may have seemed late to some, but all of us needed to take in the impact and what our own actions would be. This applies not only to her departure but for others who have chosen to leave the orchestra.

    I have decided to take a more pro-active role in providing leadership during this time, not only for the orchestra but for our board and audience. It was certainly not possible during the strike, as I had to remain on the sidelines. Now that we are back, efforts in fund raising, audience development and marketing fall clearly within my province. We can already point to a number of positive initiatives that are bearing fruit after only a few weeks. Sold out houses in our home at Orchestra Hall attest to the new dynamic that is taking place. We need to build on this energy, and perhaps it will not only lure new talent to the DSO, but provide the means in which some of our members might return. We are also seeing new commitment from current board members as well as recent additions to our ranks.

    The only thing I would add is that it is difficult for many of you who are commenting, to understand what is really going on here. The view from the outside is always welcome but is sometimes not informed by events you cannot know about. Every orchestra has its own particular problems to solve. We will deal with ours in a positive and constructive way. As I told the orchestra yesterday, it will take three things to put the past behind us. Trust, Transparency and Harmony. This must come from all parties. I am convinced that the majority of the DSO musicians are ready to move ahead. The same is true for the management and board. One had to be in attendance this evening to truly understand this and see as well as hear what all of us can accomplish.

  15. Drew,

    For the musicians themselves I think Emmanuelle’s departure is a much more profound blow than if Maestro Slatkin were to leave. Slatkin has been with the orchestra only 3 years. The first year was partial, the second year he missed most of because of a heart attack and the third year there was a strike for 6 months. Before Slatkin the orchestra went 5 years (I think, perhaps more)with no music director at all.

    Emma has been there for 23 years and truly is the head of the family. She is universally respected and admired. The musicians are devastated.

  16. So your saying that in the interest of transparency both parties should have issued statements stating what they really think of one another? I’ve never seen this happen in sports, entertainment or music and for good reason: It’s unnecessary and helps neither party. It seems like the original post stirs up more divisive emotion without attempting to offer further solid information on this situation. Was that your intent or do you think there are positive outcomes by speculating on perceived disrespect that is being flung around by the Orchestra and a departing musician?

    I think Mr. Slatkin’s final paragraph is an important one. There are things that the general public doesn’t know about here, and I fail to see what the benefit is of writing assumptions about what both sides think or may not think. Seems like it is line with what you call “chicken little” thinking as all of the commentary regards negative feelings or thoughts toward the other party.

  17. Of course there are no simple solutions; it took a long time to get to this point. One thing does seem obvious to me, even as a relative outsider to the whole drama- to paraphrase Einstein, it’s silly to keep doing the same things over and over expecting a different result. Hence the title of my last post over at nondivisi.

    At the moment, the management/Board of the DSO has all the same characters saying mostly the same things and exhibiting mostly the same attitudes we all witnessed during the strike. Presumably the majority of the Board is okay with this. But until some respected leadership emerges with a fresh approach that all the parties can buy into (long-term), it seems highly unlikely that any meaningful progress will be made, despite the settlement.

  18. I think you hit the nail on the head here Frank and Slatkin’s comment below should be just as applicable to all stakeholders but what this latest incident demonstrates is the folly in forcing a different result from the same equation.

  19. I agree with the sentiment that Slatkin’s comments are quite apt, especially the parts regarding constructive language and learning from the past so as not to repeat it. I also like his reference to “Trust, Transparency and Harmony” but in this instance, the public statements completely fail to meet any of those sentiments.

    Ideally, in a labor dispute one of the silver linings stakeholders can hope to achieve is whatever root sources of the problems have been removed so the healing process can begin in earnest. But in Detroit’s case, it doesn’t appear as if any of those issues have been resolved. As such, and metaphorically speaking, the settlement may be functioning as a band-aid over the wound but that won’t do anything to address the infection.

    Boisvert’s sentiments come across clearly as to what she diagnoses as the infection and as a result, she’s removing herself from the root damage in favor of a healthier collective. With regard to Frankel’s statement, the core problem is their continuing position that the musicians are expendable but not the music director. Consequently, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone to see how this fails to fit within what Slatkin defines as Trust or Harmony.

    So regardless of how much effort Slatkin puts into the healing process, he won’t get very far if these root problems fail to respond to that treatment. As a result, denial will likely lead to contributing to the infection spreading at an accelerated rate.

  20. I completely agree with the band-aid over the wound comment. Appears the root of the problem has not been really resolved. However, transparency, trust and harmony are built (or in this case rebuilt over long periods) and not done with PR statements airing even more grievances between two parties who have just gone ten rounds in a very public way.

    The 2 main questions I was trying to get at were:

    1) How does either party be transparent in their PR statement without making the situation worse?

    2) What information would a PR statement with transparency actually contain?

    Thanks,
    Steve

  21. I think it might be more helpful to take less of a black and white perspective on this Steve, meaning if “A” doesn’t work then the opposite option must be correct.

    It is as much the motivation behind the statements as the statements’ content. In this case, deconstructing the statements demonstrates that the fatal problems we’ve been discussing in the article and these comment threads continue to persist. Attempting to cover that reality with PR spin only denies the sort of Trust, Transparency, and Harmony I believe Slatkin was defining (although Leonard, if you’re reading this, please feel free to jump and say otherwise).

  22. Hi Drew,

    Fair enough.

    I just want to know what a productive alternative to the statements issued might look like. How would you suggest the release of this information, given the current situation in detroit, be dealt with in a more constructive way?

    Thanks,
    Steve

  23. It seems to me as though you’re still looking at this as though there is some sort of elusive formula capable of producing some sort of correct answer that would allow either party to compose press statements that produce what you’re referring to as a constructive dialog. But that’s precisely the sort of black and white perspective that doesn’t apply to this situation. The issue at hand continues to be the absence of any sort of justifiable authority to make any sort of statement beyond one of honest recognition disingenuous.

    Until that changes within the institutions leadership, it is unlikely to expect any substantive improvement.

  24. Dear Stephen, if you had suffered through the strike, watching some of the finest musicians in the world – your co-workers and employees – reduced to performing in cafes in efforts to keep fed and in practice while well-fed management laid seige and waited out the strike, you would know where that animosty and resulting enhanced comradery originated.
    While it takes effort on both sides to mediate resolution, one would expect leadership to at least give the illusion of suffering alongside the ranks. Slatkin was neutral, if he spoke at all, during the strike.

    I watched Emma and Slatkin in several online non-strike related interviews and videos and only one seemed consumately devoted to craft and co-workers… The other seems devoted to whatever product is being pitched. Boisvert was ever approachable, professional and enthusiastic about the city, constantly mentioning Detroit, and not just motivated by allegiance to an exorbitant though well-earned salary paid out by unemphatic paymasters.

    -WL Bush

  25. This was some of the best and most informative reading I have done on this issue in five years! I’m bookmarking it and I encourage you to keep it online, even after the participants have moved on; such is its historic relevance.
    Thank you, Drew McManus, commenting board members and Musical Director Slatkin. -WL Bush

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