What’s Going On In Dallas?

Adaptistration People 131I’ve been out of the country for the last few days and therefore didn’t get a chance to read Michael Granberry’s article in the 11/29/2014 edition of the Dallas Morning News about the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (DSO) musicians expressing considerable concern over what is perhaps best characterized as a hostile work environment thanks to music director Jaap van Zweden.

It will take a day to process everything and I’ll likely reach out to some of the representative parties listed in the article but on the surface, it all seems very odd and I find myself scratching my head over why it became news and which party involved pushed for the story (and why). We’ll dive into all of that once I’ve had an opportunity to look under a few rocks, in the meantime, give the article a read and weigh-in with your thoughts.

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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19 thoughts on “What’s Going On In Dallas?”

  1. Well, that is interesting – guy from the local is the mouthpiece, but the players’ association is keeping mum. As you say, whose idea was it to squawk to the press?

    I am….curious about the assertion that the only time they could possibly have demoted the associate concertmaster was a half-hour before a concert. The contract must have a process in place, and could it possibly allow that? I mean, did anybody think of the morale consequences of such an action?

    Osmo Vanska and Jaap van Zweeden: compare and contrast. Vanska was also charged with improving the orchestra, which he has done, but I have not seen complaints such as this about him. So I am guessing that whatever Vanska does he does with respect.

    • I have the very same questions, it seems clear that there are a number of legitimate concerns here yet at the same time, one of my take-aways from the article so far is some confusion over what exactly the Local/musicians were looking to accomplish by going public. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

  2. This is a tough one for me. As an immigrant who also spent some teen years in the USA, I empathize and sympathize with van Zweden. The balance between being charged to raise standards whilst simultaneously navigating Americans’ general desire for being nice to each other and covering up anything negative is quite a challenge! It is a unique phenomenon I’ve not experienced anywhere else on the four continents I’ve worked as a performer and teacher: in the USA (again: generally), no-one fails at anything, everyone is the most important center of the universe, and it’s all about what I want (I’ve written about that before here.) And as long as we treat each other well/ nicely, the world is a good place, regardless of the quality of the product or service output. I am dealing with exactly the same issue with a group of community musicians I was recently put in charge of who were taught to believe they were far better than they are. Many of them don’t like the new, higher expectations either, except these players have not gone crying to the media about it (yet). As for the tenor… grow up.

    Only in the USA do we think we produce the best; we gotta BE the best; we ARE the BEST! Rah rah rah. This same issue came up with a bona-fide Broadway producer who stated on his blog that NYC is the center of the musical theater world. It was rather quickly pointed out to him that only those in the Northeast USA think that. Those in the industry in the UK, Australia, Japan, and much of Europe will agree it’s actually somewhere else, regardless of the currency comparisons.

    Interestingly, the Dallas Symphony has not really crossed my path before, except for a few years when we followed each other on Twitter. Recently I reached out to their marketing department about bringing some potential new audience members to them. After three attempts I had still received no replies from anyone, including one of the many VPs or any of those cc’d on my last communication. Nada. Eventually, I just went ahead and made an online purchase of a gift card. During checkout, I was not able to specify the recipient’s name, just a shipping address. The confirmation showed the gift card would arrive at the correct address but with my name on it. Then the email confirmation actually showed my billing address as the shipping address! The response to my follow-up came from a completely anonymous DSO Customer Service Department person who indicated they would ship the gift card to the correct address, but they still did not ask for the recipient’s name!

    Right now, it seems both the DSO musicians and the DSO admin need a bit of a whip-cracking to improve what they have to offer. Just because you think you are one of the best in the country may not mean much when it is self-declared. Many of my American guests to the UK are stunned when they experience a specific county youth orchestra in the UK that clearly produces a higher quality performance and service than a specific professional regional orchestra in the USA. Americans seem to want the foreign standards but don’t seem willing to do what is necessary to produce them – it requires too much effort and makes some folk look bad 🙁

    If there are people who don’t like being told that… well, I’m with van Zweden.

  3. Those are some very interesting observations, especially the points about ranking. I can say that is perpetuated in large part by the nature of nonprofit performing arts funding. Simply put, large and annual fund level donors want to support an institution that is winning and can quantify that in some fashion. Granted, the latter point is an entirely separate, and meaningful, discussion but it is the environment orchestras operate.

    • Stephen, you are making an awful lot of assumptions in assuming that van Zweeden is in the right and the musicians are wrong. Neither you nor I was at the rehearsals or meetings where these interactions took place. I am especially interested in the report on Lopardo, because he does not have a reputation, that I am aware of, for being unprofessional in his behavior.

      As far as people needing to be babied, etc., an amazing number of European conductors have had great success in working with US orchestras while treating them professionally: Muti, Salonen, Vanska, Blomstedt, to name just a few. That, really, is what we are talking about here – and the conductor who had the worst record of treating orchestras badly is Gerard Schwarz, who is American. (See articles about his tenure in Seattle in the NY TImes.) You must surely be aware that by and large orchestral players in the US are extremely skilled, which is not to say that there aren’t weak players even in good orchestras. There are contractual processes for dealing with such players, involving warnings and so on.

      And there’s a huge range of ways to improve orchestras between “babying” them (which won’t actually change anything) and abusing or demoralizing them. Treating adult professionals like adult professionals, which means treating them with respect, is not too much to ask of a conductor. Again: Osmo Vanska has a reputation for being strict, and yet you don’t hear complaints like this about him, AND he has worked wonders in Minnesota.

      • Fair enough, Lisa. There are exceptions to every rule, and perhaps both Vanska and van Zweden are such, and we have both jumped on a sensitive point. Of course, we’re only referring to documented grumblings rather than what is heard backstage or in the middle of a section during rehearsals. My experience is that [generally] not everything is as rosy as we like to believe. But that’s partly my point: People just don’t want to that kind of thing admitted. I agree we should highlight and model the good examples, just as you have done. Thanks 🙂

      • Lisa – I’ve just read on Polyphonic.org some details regarding the DSO horn section incident: indeed, what a mess! If, in fact, van Zweden is ruling by fear then I cannot support that. I’m sorry if my original comment and observations made it seem I do. Maybe this situation was just a catalyst for me to express my observations that I constantly hear mirrored from other European classical music and music theater immigrants and foreign workers!

    • I can’t argue against donor-pleasing priorities, Drew! (Which begs the bigger question. Why do we still settle for this nature of nonprofit perf arts funding, despite years of talking about it?) As for the environment: why settle for offering poor services? Remove it until it can be done well. And non-existent communication with future customers is, well… just inexcusable in any environment. Thanks for engaging 🙂

  4. Alexander Kerr, the DSO concertmaster responded in the Dallas Morning News with:

    “As a concertmaster, I have worked with most of the world’s great conductors and can attest that maestro van Zweden’s style is not outside the norm of the highest caliber of leadership in the most esteemed international orchestras.
    “The author states the Dallas Symphony Orchestra respects but doesn’t like the maestro. In my experience, the most effective leaders in industry are not always universally liked because of the difficult decisions they have to make. In order to achieve the level of excellence required to be a world-class ensemble, there are times a leader needs to be tough, not unlike a successful coach of a well-organized, professional sports team.
    “There are many DSO musicians who, if asked, would have enthusiastically shown support for their music director. They would note his Herculean efforts to improve the quality and stature of our orchestra, and his work with patrons to build long-term financial stability. In today’s climate of uncertainty for many orchestras, we, the DSO, have been able to flourish artistically, while building ourselves into a stable force that will serve Dallas for years to come.”

    I think when orchestras are well paid (but also if they are professional), good qualities can come out of more democratic methods, because the players are bringing something high quality to the table and can act like a large chamber group. Some conductors are going for their own sound, but others have a way of working with what the orchestra is giving them, and create a unified vision from that. I think if members are “bullied,” it can add something fake and forced to the musical product in certain cases.

    • It’s not surprising that Alexander Kerr would jump to JvZ’s defense, since AK does serve as concertmaster at the discretion of the music director, one would expect. Plus, if nothing else, both JvZ and AK have served as concertmaster of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, if that means anything.

      What’s interesting to see is one comment to the article from a Chicago SO musician, because for the past several seasons, the CSO has featured van Zweden very heavily as a regular and featured guest conductor, such as the Britten/DSCH festival they did not too long back, where JvZ led all the concerts in that series, if memory serves. The regularity of van Zweden’s guest appearances with the CSO has made me wonder if the CSO’s upper management is grooming him to succeed Muti in Chicago. Maybe the CSO musician Is trying to telegraph to the higher-ups: “Uh, not so fast there.”

      From JvZ’s guest appearances here with the SLSO, I’ve heard varying reports that he can be very unpleasant one year, and then all charm and pleasantries the next time. I don’t think that anyone doubts that he has the chops as a conductor. But as Lisa says, it is perfectly possible to be a demanding conductor who wants the best, but w/o crossing the line into disrespectful and just plain mean behavior. That sounds as though it wasn’t the case with these recent Dallas reports.

  5. It’s not possible to assess the situation when Granberry’s article is so light on facts and so heavy on conclusory labels. A more diligent reporter would have tried to get specifics for each of the incidents. Even where more information is available, he declines to use it: “Details of the conflict and names of those involved were published in the NLRB report, which is public record.” In other words, “Do your own research, folks! I’m too busy reciting talking points from management and the union.”

  6. I wanted to make a point on another subject, which is Zweden’s extravagant claim that the Dallas Symphony is “50 percent better” than when he took over. Say what, now? I guess the orchestra was just chopped liver under Mata and Litton. Their recorded legacy is available for anyone to hear.

  7. I would love to see some Music Director statement like “Since I took over, musicians are treated 50% better or are cherished 50% more by the community they serve.” rather than some variation on “Hey, look at me”

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