Making Sure You Don’t Forget What You Know About Peer Review

There’s a fascinating article by Peter Dobrin in the 10/18/2015 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer that casts a frank eye toward the orchestra’s current state of strategic limbo. There are a number of thoughtful items but one in particular jumped out; specifically, the issue of what the orchestra does with musicians that no longer play at the level of necessary artistic excellence.

I’d have a little more sympathy for the players’ desire to preserve the Philadelphia Sound, and high quality in general, were the Philadelphia Sound anything more than a marketing idea today. But the players’ and their union have never found it important to move along players who should retire, putting a crack in their stance as guardians of quality.

That excerpt would leave most readers with the assumption that the musicians are the final authority on whether or not any among their rank are dismissed for failing to perform at required artistic standards and in some orchestras, that is exactly the way it works…but not in the case of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Establishing An Accurate Frame Of Reference

The process for removing a musician due to artistic/musical reasons, commonly referred to as artistic or peer review, is a process defined within an orchestra’s collective bargaining agreement.

Adaptistration People 125In a nutshell, it’s complex and you can learn about the details via a pair of articles here at Adaptistration that examine the topic in great detail (What You Need To Know About Peer Review Part 1 and What You Need To Know About Peer Review Part 2); be sure not to miss the five examples of peer review contract language at the end of Part 1.

By and large, there are three primary points of contact in the process once peer review has been initiated by the music director: committee review, final authority, and (if provided for) appeals.

Dismissal committees are typically comprised of musicians but the key point of dismissal authority varies from one group to the next. For example, a committee may recommend that a musician should not be dismissed but if that authority rests with the music director, that individual is under no obligation to act on that recommendation. For reference, here’s a short list describing how 21 orchestras outlined* the peer review process in the 2013/2014 season (emphasis Philadelphia):

Peer Review CommitteeFinal AuthorityReseating Subject to Appeal
Atlanta Symphony7 musicians + 3 managerstripartite arbitration panelYes
Baltimore Symphony9 musiciansfinal appeal commYes
Boston Symphony9 musiciansMDNo
Chicago Symphony9 musicians1st time arbitration, 2nd time MDYes
Cincinnati Symphony5 musicians2 mgt, 2 un, 5th impartial indvNo
Cleveland OrchestraMD + 9 musiciansboard of arbitrationNo
Dallas Symphony9 musiciansmus appeals commNo
Detroit Symphony15 musiciansarbitrationno
Houston Symphony9 musiciansplayers comm (mus)Yes
Indianapolis Symphony15 musiciansplayers review commYes
Los Angeles Philharmonicn/aaud comm and MDYes
Minnesota Orchestra9 musiciansmgmYes
Nashville Symphony11 musiciansmus review bdNo
National Symphony15 musicianscomm if by 2/3 vote; otherwise arbitrationYes
New York Philharmonic6 musicians, MD, mgtarbitrationNo
Philadelphia Orchestra5 musicians + 5 boardarbitrationn/a
Pittsburgh Symphony18 musiciansarbitratorYes
Saint Louis Symphony15 musiciansdismissal committeeNo
San Diego Symphony9 musiciansreview commYes
San Francisco Symphony10 musiciansnon-renewal comm.Yes
Utah Symphony8 musicians + MDrev comm w/vote (60% mus, 40% MD)Yes

Out of that grouping, musicians control that crucial final authority process in 52 percent of the orchestras and out of those, 40 percent provide for reseating within a section if the process provides for arbitration.

In those instances, Dobrin’s statement would be entirely accurate but that’s not the case in Philadelphia, which uses a mix of musicians and board members in the review committee, arbitration for final authority, and has no appeal based reseating option.

Having said all of that, if Dobrin’s intent was to imply that in cases of peer review within the Philadelphia Orchestra he’s aware of, the musician half of the respective review committees adopted a protectionist stance rather than acted as impartial stewards of artistic excellence, that would be more accurate given the orchestra’s process, but even then, it would be helpful to have some examples.

To be clear, this post isn’t implying that Philadelphia Orchestra musicians are above reproach when it comes to their role within the organization’s peer review process, instead, it is designed to provide increased understanding for a topic that is anything but straightforward or uniform from one orchestra to the next.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is one of those issues within the field where it is all too easy to get sucked into black and white perspectives even though the reality is decidedly gray. Consequently, a little knowledge and broader understanding can go a long way toward marginalizing misperception.

*Per the American Federation of Musicians 2013-2014 season Wage Scales and Conditions in the Symphony Orchestra booklet.

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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1 thought on “Making Sure You Don’t Forget What You Know About Peer Review

  1. Upon achieving 52 weeks/yr employment status sometime in the ’60s, Philly (like Berlin today) had an age 65 mandatory retirement. Famous flute and oboe principals Kincaid and Tabuteau each died shortly after retirement. Evidently, the Orchestra and teaching at Curtis was their whole life.

    If memory serves, the US Govt. declared mandatory retirement a no-no. Since then, some Philly musicians (and those in other orchestras, as well) have played into their 70s and 80s with varying degrees of efficiency. In a few cases, peer-review committees have actually voted to dismiss players considered to be wrecking the ensemble. Obviously, one caveat among such committee members is the feeling, “I could be next.”

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