League Conference: Atlanta Symphony's War Room

Friday afternoon was for Symposia – six simultaneous sessions, each repeated once.

“The Atlanta Symphony War Room: A New Approach to Collaborative Decision Making” featured Robert Spano, music director, John Sparrow, vice president for orchestra initiative and general manager, and Charlie Wade, vice president of marketing. Again, my notes may not be verbatim but hopefully catch the true gist of what was said. They described how they make programming decisions collaboratively, now with one 6-hour meeting 8 times a year. For more details about the War Room, see the League’s publication Fearless Journeys: Innovations in Five American Orchestras.

Charlie Wade: People often ask us, “How do you program? How do you decide what to play?” They think that we get together, scream and shout at each other, and then put it together.

Pre-war room: I saw a chance to grab the wheel when [Yoel] Levi [music director from 1988 to 2000] left – but what to do? I wanted to get out of the pattern of the music director teaming up with the artistic administrator and deciding what to play.

We had a need for data – we had lots but we didn’t know how to process it all – how to make it work as a team. We wanted a collaborator; a music director that would still make decisions but who would also consult with the rest of the institution. So we started on a process.

Robert Spano: The institution had done a lot of work to define the ways in which it wished to work. This was in line with the way I had worked in Brooklyn. Usually there were 5 or 6 of us then; now there are often 12 people in the War Room. Initially it was just senior management and me, but now we often add the personnel manager, the librarian and others. The name “war room” came from the movie Dr. Strangelove where he shouts, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here – this is the war room!” I called it that because we needed to fight.

The perspective at the table is that we really want the program to satisfy all agendas, not just one. It’s an interesting puzzle to find a balance in the course of the season where all those things are being addressed – or in the following season. We get into each other’s business – we tell the others how to do their job. Each person must be the authority for the perspective they’re supposed to represent at the table. Will it sell? Is this an artistically satisfying program? Are we keeping musicians in shape – getting the vitamins from the music? What’s good for the audience? Should we pander or go for excellence?

Data about what sells in our town for our audience is valuable for being part of the decision-making. It’s not that we don’t do things because they won’t sell – we just don’t do them all the time. The people who do show up are really passionate. For a St John Passion, there are people who’ve waited 6 years for us to do it – so it must be part of our diet. But we must strategically place things.

Charlie Wade: In terms of living composers, the music director brings in a list of new music and says, let’s do it over time, introducing a work by xyz composer and build on that – gaining traction. We have to allow time for the connection. Often in the past, when a program didn’t sell, the artistic administrator would accuse marketing of not caring about this program. There was no sense of understanding the audience, which fostered an us/them mentality. The War Room takes the emotion out. Marketing provides credible information to the process – not anecdotal but real data.

Robert Spano: We’re learning what sells – we’re doing some composers who have become well known, so we have different issues now than 8 years ago. The focus on tickets and sales is important, but so are the development, education, and personnel manager concerns. Also librarian issues. We have a shared vision because it’s a shared process – we make  the decisions together so we can’t blame anyone.

John Sparrow: Energy being finite, how do we waste as little as we can? Everyone owns the decision-managing resources. The goal is good decisions that satisfy both artistic and revenue objectives. Say we want to cultivate a relationship with another community and do a run-out. Timing takes care of lots of issues. Over time a $20,000 run-out becomes a $40,000 run-out – I make sure the information is thought about.

Robert Spano: I begin the season by rehearsing for a week without concerts; we look at new repertoire, read things we don’t ordinarily perform, and hold sectionals. This forsakes revenue for that week but it’s important artistically. John books revenue gigs around this week.

John Sparrow: The structure of the week is Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Thursday, Saturday, or some other configuration. It’s an open discussion. Sometimes I’ll come in and announce, “I have this opportunity but is it the right one?”

Robert Spano: Sometimes I’m the one asking about fiscal responsibility.

Charlie Wade: Robert has minor in Marketing! A colleague asked, “What are the rules of the war room? How far can I go? When do I know when I’ve overstepped the bounds?” (Robert: When food gets thrown at you!)

John Sparrow: We’ve inherented a sense of trust in each other. It’s evolved over time. All three of us have been there for a decade.

Robert Spano: If you’re trying to model this, we started by spending a lot of time together. It used to be two days, but now it’s never more than six hours. It’s an investment that’s worth it.

The Fiasco! We had a failed experiment in the first season, in November. We hired a video artist to create a piece to go with the Vaughn Williams Sea Symphony – he is very creative. The art community thought he was brilliant. The piece was very busy and there was no water. There was a crying baby, babushkas, and members of audience shown with “You shall die – revolt!” superimposed. People were streaming out of the hall at intermission! So we thought we needed a meeting. (!) But no one could point a finger and say, “What the hell are you doing!” because we’d decided on it together. And because of the publicity, we sold out the next two nights. Next time we did something like this, we managed the artist very carefully. The learning curve was steep, but we created a response to the media crisis and there was no fall guy.

By the way, we did the Sea Symphony because of a chorus member – collective knowledge of repertoire is essential.

Other comments from the session:

Plan 3 years out!

One of the three was “attacked” by an John Adams fan at a Walgreens in the north Georgia mountains – he was upset that they weren’t programming enough Adams!

The business school at the University of Western Ontario as written a case study on the Atlanta Symphony’s War Room.

BHAG = big hairy audacious goal

In response to a question about a music director that won’t collaborate, Robert replied: It’s ridiculous for a conductor to work in a vacuum – you just must make him collaborate. I often hear that “we’re” the problem. I’ve talked to musicians about the concern that programming was affecting ticket sales – turns out the conductor had not spoken with the marketing manager. Robert talked to this particular conductor and he was very open to having this conversation. We should work in concert. Force the issue.

There are no board members or musicians in the war room. But they have other ways of interacting with them.

Charlie: It’s messy enough as it is – we can’t bring in more people. We’re getting enough input from them through other forums.

About the author

Ann Drinan
Ann Drinan

Ann Drinan, Senior Editor, has been a member of the Hartford Symphony viola section for over 30 years. She is a former Chair of the Orchestra Committee, former member of the HSO Board, and has served on many HSO committees. She is also the Executive Director of CONCORA (CT Choral Artists), a professional chorus based in Hartford and New Britain, founded by Artistic Director Richard Coffey. Ann was a member of the Advisory Board of the Symphony Orchestra Institute (SOI), and was the HSO ROPA delegate for 14 years, serving as both Vice President and President of ROPA. In addition to playing the viola and running CONCORA, Ann is a professional writer and editor, and has worked as a consultant and technical writer for software companies in a wide variety of industries for over 3 decades. (She worked for the Yale Computer Science Department in the late 70s, and thus has been on the Internet, then called the DARPAnet, since 1977!) She is married to Algis Kaupas, a sound recordist, and lives a block from Long Island Sound in Branford CT. Together they create websites for musicians: shortbeachwebdesign.com.

Ann holds a BA in Music from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and an MA in International Relations from Yale University.

Read Ann Drinan's blog here. web.esm.rochester.edu/poly/author/ann-drinan

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