Should I Take The Louisville Audition?

The latest round of talks in the Louisville Orchestra (LO) labor dispute has produced no changes in the standoff. According to the 11/16/2011 edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal in an article by Elizabeth Kramer, the musicians unanimously rejected management’s latest offer.

Likewise, the musicians issued a press statement on 11/15/2011 which provided additional details but in the end, it reaffirmed what the musicians have been declaring throughout the course of the dispute. At the time this article was published, the LO website includes no press statements in response to the musicians’ decision.

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UPDATE 11/17/2011 10:00am CT: The 11/17/2011 Louisville Courier-Journal reports that LO management has announced that it will no longer negotiate with the musicians.

The day after the Louisville Orchestra musicians unanimously rejected management’s latest contract offer, orchestra CEO Robert Birman said he and his team are done negotiating with the musicians for a new contract.

“I believe we are at the end of that process now,” Birman said Wednesday. “There is nothing more to give the players. If they want to work, they need to come back to work, and there’s nothing left for the orchestra to put on the table.”

This decision makes today’s post that much more relevant in light of the fact that the LO is pushing forward with their plan to hire replacement musicians as their top priority.

You can also listen to my radio interview with Joe Elliott on 11/17/2011 at 970WGTK about the latest events via the following audio player or you can download the entire hour’s segment here.  Thanks again to Mt. Elliott for devoting so much time to better understand a very complex set of issues.



In the meantime, both sides continue to dispute musician unemployment eligibility through Kentucky’s Office of Employment and Training and the LO continues to solicit applications for replacement musicians. Efforts on the latter have produced flak from officials at some of the primary resources the LO has been attempting to recruit; mainly, academia.

Cincinnati Enquirer music critic, Janelle Gelfand, posted an article at her newspaper blog on 11/7/2011 which reports that University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music dean, Peter Landgren, responded to the LO’s recruitment efforts by composing a memo to faculty which urged them to steer students away from the audition. Gelfand published the following excerpt from the memo:

“I ask that you counsel your students against taking this audition. Their future performing careers are of value to each and every one of us, and their future careers would be in jeopardy if they begin playing with this ensemble given the current circumstances. CCM is the closest world-class school to Louisville, so it is a natural that our students may be interested in or approached by others to take advantage of “this opportunity.” It is not a positive opportunity for them and their future…”

Elsewhere, one Adaptistration reader asserts that faculty and staff at Indiana University have adopted a similar approach.

Indiana University received the flyer and is responding appropriately – both the orchestra manager and conductor spoke at rehearsal this afternoon and in no uncertain terms implored students not to apply for positions with the Louisville Orchestra. Possible career ramifications of applying were emphasized. I sincerely hope students in schools across the country will be hearing the same thing this week.

I have yet to encounter any other reports but am greatly interested in hearing about verifiable accounts at other conservatories and schools of music. Is anyone aware of efforts either endorsing or cautioning against LO recruitment efforts similar to those from Dean Landgren?

Are you a faculty, staff, or administrator in conservatory or school of music? If so, have you seen the LO recruitment flyer? Would you bring the issue up with students? If a student asked for guidance and insight, what would you say and, perhaps more importantly, why?

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 “Should I Take The Louisville Audition?”

  1. OK, I’m going to discuss the elephant in the room. Symphony orchestras and conductors are OBSESSED with historical music. Orchestras are “musical museums” that do not have the contemporary connection to society that painting, sculpture, books, plays and film do. In other art forms new creation is welcomed, but in the orchestra world it is met with disdain. Every aspiring conductor and soloist wants primarily to put his or her stamp on the same historical masterpieces that have flooded symphony programs for at least the last 75 years. Yes, there is the occasional commission of a low-hanging big name, but it is telling when an orchestra that “dares” to perform as few as three works by living composers in the same season receives an award for “adventuresome programming.” Ha! Some adventure!

    Since all orchestras are performing essentially the same rep, every city no longer needs one. Better performances are available on CD or on iTunes for a fraction of the cost of attending a live performance. Insiders may get their jollies from this year’s crop of hot artists playing the same concerti, but the general public has no more interest in this that they do in seeing different casts perform plays like “Our Town” over and over. If movies were like orchestras, we would be offered mostly vintage films like Citizen Kane and Gone With The Wind. If bookstores were like orchestras, rows of shelves would be dedicated to Dickens, Longfellow and Tolstoy, with a handful of books by Steinbeck in the “Contemporary” section. All of these entities would be sure they were doing “the right thing,” all would insist that what they offer is what their patrons want, and all would spin in circles trying to “raise awareness” while they slowly went broke. There’s loads of fine contemporary concert music available – not pop, or jazz, or rock, but real art music by trained and skilled composers – but orchestras will die before they make any moves toward being culturally relevant. And die they shall!

    • With all due respect to your views, Stephanie:

      Is it symphony orchestras and conductors that are obsessed with it,
      or the audiences they are playing to? Your point about
      what is played by orchestras is valid, but I don’t agree with your
      rationale for why it is played. You make it sound like symphonies
      program the classics because they dig their heels in and arrogantly
      say, “We will only perform this historical stuff, not new music.”
      There’s a reason why the historical stuff is performed more: that’s
      what audiences want to hear. What audiences want to hear, they
      pay for; what they don’t want to hear, they don’t. In this time of economic
      uncertainty, and even before, orchestras pull out the classics as
      a way to generate ticket sales because, whether you like it or not,
      more people are interested in hearing another performance of
      Beethoven’s Ninth than Jeremiah Niedelmeyer’s Divurgent Paths for
      Tambourine Solo and Orchestra (latter is fictitious to make a point).
      Without judgment involved, it’s easy to say that audiences don’t really care for new
      music, at least compared to the classics, and THAT is why it’s not
      programmed more, not because symphonies are simply burying their
      heads in the sand and refusing to do it.

      The true elephant in the room is, “How do modern
      symphony orchestras adapt to contemporary society’s needs?”
      I don’t think the answer, as you seem to suggest, is to play all
      new music. You mentioned museums in an analogy to orchestras.
      If we look at art, many times there are two types of museums: those
      displaying historical pieces and those displaying contemporary
      pieces. Two different distinctions. The orchestra is an old-world
      institution, and as such, it is best-suited to playing classics from
      a time gone by. The challenge now is figuring out how to make
      that old-world institution still relevant in today’s world. Obviously it is
      relevant because there’s still demand to hear the classics, and, to a
      smaller degree, new music. It’s a little presumptuous, though, to
      suggest that orchestras just choose to ignore the newer stuff
      because, in reality, I don’t think they do that at all.

    • Stephanie, this blog post is not about orchestras in general, rather it is about the Louisville Orchestra in particular.

      The Louisville Orchestra has done more for contemporary composers than almost any other orchestra. They’ve recorded music by almost every major composer of the 20th century and are known internationally for exactly that: championing music of contemporary composers. According to Wikipedia, the orchestra has 19 ASCAP awards for “Adventurous Programming of Contemporary Music.”

      If programming more and more contemporary music were the main factor for financial success of an orchestra, the LO would be in better shape than almost anyone.

      • To be fair, Scott

        that was also during a time when the LO was actually a 50 member ensemble, which they had actually cut down to in the interest of cutting costs. The other cost-cutting factor was that by commissioning works from composers rather than spending the extravagant fees for soloists. I’m not sure which worked better in the long run, but the LO hadn’t been pursuing the contemporary music route as vigorously as it did during the late 50s to early 70s in more recent times. It could be argued that by slowly weeding out the contemporary music focus, this was a contributing cause for the financial woes of the organization.

        Coincidentally, the WPA Illinois Symphony in Chicago is purportedly one of the few orchestras actually “making money” (looks like that article is now only available via subscription) during the Depression years–it was during the period of time that it was actually commissioning and premiering new works. I believe it premiered nearly 150 works during the period between 1936-1939.

        While I question Ms. Wilson’s need to air this issue in this particular post, it’s not entirely baseless. Catherine Wichterman, in the 1998 Annual Report of the Mellon Foundation (The Orchestra Forum: A Discussion of Symphony Orchestras in the US), states in the Repertoire and Programming section:

        Unlike theater and dance companies, orchestras have been largely unsuccessful in fostering the creation of new work and in involving creators in the artistic life of the institution. Composers today find much friendlier territory in dance, theater, and chamber music. [my emphasis] Many orchestra professionals blame composers themselves for their isolation. Others blame the academy, and still others blame broadcast media, recording companies, performers, conductors, and audiences. Most agree, however, that whatever the problems in contemporary composition, orchestras (which were once contemporary music ensembles) have neglected, perhaps even abdicated, their responsibility to create an environment in which new creative work flourishes.

        which reads like a summary of was said above by Ms. Wilson minus the snarkiness and explicit finger-pointing.

      • “To be fair, Scott,
        that was also during a time when the LO was actually a 50 member ensemble”

        No, Jon, You are talking about a period that spans a half century from the late 1940’s to late 1990’s. For over 60% or of the time period, it was a larger orchestra, The Louisville Orchestra was very active with performing.and some recording of Contemporary music well through the 90’s. We were a 71 member ensemble and supplemented our ranks for these programs since many orchestral works call for a larger ensemble than the LO. In 1967, when Mester arrived, one of his first tasks was to add third winds and brass which is probably why later LO recordings sound more like a full orchestra. Later we had the New Dimensions Series devoted entirely to New Music, usually with one or more of the composers available for rehearsals. We traveled to Terre Haute annually to perform at ISU. We also had Sound Celebration in conjunction with U of L. And programmed Grawemeyer Award compositions on our classics series. Contemporary music was still a large part, but by mid 1990s we had a 45 week season, so new music wasn’t a huge percentage of our season.

      • Thanks, Julia for the additional clarification(s)!

        I must be be misremembering, or perhaps the documentary was a little unclear about the full extent fo the contemporary music focus as it focus much more on the mid to late Robert Whitney (and early Maestro Mester) years. It seemed to emphasize the turning point in the Orchestra (financially speaking) as having taken place after Mayor Farnsley pushed to have more of a contemporary music focus (1948) and especially after the Rockefeller grant (1953) which led directly to the First Edition recordings.

        I hadn’t known there was a significant number of recordings made during the 80s-90s. I just looked at the list of the First Edition Recordings, but it still looks as if the bulk of them were made during the 50s-70s (which obviously isn’t necessarily reflective of the economics of the live situation).

        I do remember the ‘Sound Celebration’ series and other efforts to revitalize the contemporary music focus but was saddened that that series had been dropped by the time I’d moved back to the area. And I was so pleased to hear the LO became the orchestra in residence at the New Music Festival in Terre Haute after the ISO dropped the ball (we students at the time heard it was primarily because the musicians hated doing the new music thing). I think I might have said “hi” to you at ISU sometime during the mid 90s.

        So it seems like the LOI just couldn’t figure out how to make the expanded season (and expanded full time ensemble) work for the long term and decided the new music couldn’t be a significant portion of any plan for sustainability?

  2. I’m sorry, but that is like saying that art museums are no longer valid because you can see images of the great paintings online. And don’t you wish some of the great old films would be shown in theaters? You can’t bottle art and have the same experience as seeing an original, or hearing it live. That is a view that completely negates the value of artists everywhere. Yes, orchestras could and should play more contemporary music than they do. But what is wrong with being a museum? I can’t stand this notion that orchestras deserve to die just because they are dealing with old works of art. They are great pieces of history that deserve more than an mp3 file and whatever speakers you happen to have attached to your computer.

  3. As a Louisville Orchestra musician, I would still like to read a response to some or all of the questions posed by Drew. Any faculty members out there reading this that care to address the issue of endorsing or discouraging or downright forbidding auditioning under these toxic circumstances?

    • Jenelle commented later in her (Cincinnati Enquirer) blog post mentioned that at Rice University the flyers were taken down:

      “At Rice, teachers took down flyers advertising the Louisville auditions.”

      Which kinda begs the question of who thought it was a good idea to put them up in the first place?

      • That is a good question and I can say that by and large most placement offices at conservatories and schools of music are not always aware of the highly charged nature of labor disputes within the orchestra field. As such, when a call comes in, they post it.

        What this brings up is perhaps a related issue along the lines of how well faculty and staff at these institutions communicate. Are there any faculty out there who approached their staff colleagues and/or administrators about how the organization should handle these sorts of situations?

      • I know at the small department where I teach, the head of the music department sent out notices to all the faculty requesting we urge any of our students in the area not to take the auditions. And no fliers go up on the official bulletin boards without prior approval so none have shown up.

        But as I said, we have a very small department, and we’ve shown our support of the musicians and have had the pleasure of having many of them amplifying our orchestra here.

        I also understand that University of Louisville across the river also has had a similar policy with regards to this. Obviously both schools are very close to the situation and have faculty that are (or rather, were) in the LO, so this shouldn’t be a surprise.

  4. I am mystified. Why are y’all talking about what kind of music you think symphony orchestras should play? Drew has written a post about a major symphony orchestra attempting to replace all of its musicians and asks whether people should audition for it. I would certainly tell my students to stay far, far away, for three reasons: it’s deeply unethical to take the work away from the present LO musicians; it would be tantamount to cannibalizing their own future careers because what is to stop every lazy/incompetent board and management from using students, and then there will be no orchestra jobs with living wages—not to mention a crazy little thing called the Unfair List in a highly unionized industry; and the LO board has treated the present musicians as serfs (have you checked out the one-toilet-backstage-only clause?), so how do you think they’re gonna treat *you*?

    You should know that I am a violinist in the Louisville Orchestra. Or in what *was* the Louisville Orchestra.

  5. Stephanie….You sound very young and the product of a total lack of cultural exposure either at home or school! Symphonic music has been trivialized by (pardon the oxymoron) “pop culture.” Are you, as was asked above, a bitter failed musician or just the product of a deprived environment?

  6. To answer the question posed: I am adjunct faculty (violin) at the University of Texas in San Antonio and a member of the San Antonio Symphony. One of my students called my attention to a LO flyer posted on the wall, having been sensitized to the issue by reading earlier FB posts regarding the LO management. I removed the flyer and destroyed it. A few days later the office staff forwarded an email from the LO management soliciting student musicians. I immediately hit “reply all” with a strongly worded statement that I did not recommend this audition and would actively discourage any students from applying. My email was immediately followed by another “reply all” email from the university orchestra conductor supporting and agreeing with my statement. While UTSA is not a major music school, I hope and expect that my colleagues in more prominent conservatories are doing the same.

  7. Regarding repertory.

    I think Steph has a point. I have been working as a professional cellist for 19 years and I have seen along these years how contemporary music is treated as “The Ugly Duckling” of music, starting from school orchestras.

    Not only many conductors seem to be obsessed with the “classics” but most of classical trained musicians are too as well. Contemporary music is often neglected right from school, reinforcing the pathetic concept that modern music is just “weird”. There are great LIVING contemporary composers that deserve a chance to present their works. Playing the music of contemporary composers should be part of the mission of symphony orchestras, especially when they get government money.

    No one denies the great value of the past masters, but there is a lot of talent out there waiting for a chance.

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