2011 League Conference: Peter Pastreich on Orchestra Management

Peter Pastreich, former Executive Director of the San Francisco and St. Louis Symphonies and currently Executive Director of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Peter is a well-known management consultant in the orchestra field. Peter is often asked to consult by musicians, and likes to help musicians to think about these issues.

I published an article based on his remarks to musicians at the 2009 League conference. Here are his current thoughts on the state of orchestra management, presented to a musician-only session at the conference.

The Basics

Structure – there’s something quite dysfunctional about the way orchestras operate. Normally the stockholders hire the CEO, who hires everyone else. In orchestras, the board hires the manager and the conductor. The manager has the staff and the conductor has an orchestra.

The executive director and the music director are co-equal. The CEO cannot fire the conductor. The president of the board can.

In business, each manager has 4 or 5 people working for him/her, and the manager gives feedback, meets with them on a regular basis, gives performance reviews, etc.

A music director has 100 people working for him. So the music director doesn’t review any of them – there are no job reviews. When he tries to fire them, they’re surprised. This is because there is no feedback. (Peter suggested at an ICSOM meeting that someone should be a section supervisor, and he was told that this is an anti-union idea.)

The manager hired the musicians, so they work for him too. The music director  resists doing any managerial functions, but insists that the musicians work for him. And the manager must get the board to work for him.

Good managers have to use persuasion.

Where is the responsibility? Who do you blame and to whom do you give credit? Do we need a different model?

The way orchestras work has evolved over time. It’s not the only model – most started as cooperatives or government-run organizations. Some are run by musicians. Some started as profit-making organizations, but in the end, almost all look like this model. Something in the way orchestras function is obviously working.

Musicians are frustrated – they feel they have no control over their working lives. So every three years you give it to the manager for everything the conductor has done.

The board functions as the owners of the orchestra. Theoretically these are membership corporations; the members elect the board. But this is a charade – the board elects themselves.

Who should be on the board? The best boards are representative of the community, and representative of the best parts of the community: CEOs, Assistant VPs, people with money, people with stature in the community, politically-connected people, and people who love  music.

San Antonio fired the whole board and appointed only CEOs – the result was the CEOs didn’t really care about the orchestra. So they’d appoint someone to show up, and often nobody came. Peter met them all and heard, “if they don’t get their act together.”  “They” and not “We.” They saw themselves at some distance from the organization.

A good board is a mix – it’s varied. They must that know that the orchestra is important to the community. And it’s a bad idea to have a minimum gift requirement because this excludes people who would be valuable but who are not rich. Also, the minimum gift often becomes the maximum gift. It’s best to ask board members to give a generous gift and say, “We expect you to give at least as much as you give elsewhere. “

Boards – there are two different kinds of boards: business and society.

In a business board, the chair is a business person and most of the committee chairs are as well. A society board is dominated by people who have never worked for a living. People with money. The committees are dominated by old families.

On a business board, people don’t stay on forever. They leave once they’ve served their turn in the barrel. There is a corporate and community responsibility to serve on the board.

In a society board, people stay on forever.

Business people are used to running businesses, so they delegate authority. A board president was was CEO of the May Company gave Peter one hour a week and expected him to then go run the orchestra. The society board president met with him two or three times a week and they also talked on the phone. She wanted to know everything. It becomes murky – who’s job is what?

The other odd thing about boards is that the music director and the executive director know more about running the orchestra than the board president. If they disagree, they go to someone who knows less than they do. In most orchestras, it forces the music director and the executive director to compromise, because this solution is usually better than what the board chair would come up with.

What makes an orchestras successful? How good is the board. And how good is the chair. A really good chair will bring other good people on and make good decisions.

The manager cannot sell the board on something. The only people who can sell the board is the board itself. These are their peers. A manager can sell them one-on-one. Every board meeting should have unanimous votes on everything, because the work is done in committees. Sometimes it’s not easy to have that unanimity – we’re not a democracy.

Term limits are not good. They are a form of cowardice. If someone isn’t pulling their weight, we need to thank that someone for their service and ask them to leave.

Many managers were upset when the law changed and they couldn’t force board members to retire at 62 or 65. But if you look at it, a 55-year old who doesn’t play well – in 10 years they’ll be gone.

The best presidents have been there 10 years or longer. In San Francisco the average was 15-20 years.

Managers – who shouldn’t manage orchestras? People with no experience with orchestra management. It’s a rampant idea that anyone can run an orchestra if they’ve run something else. “We need someone who knows how to meet a payroll.” The fact that one manager does badly doesn’t mean that all managers are bad.

Small orchestras may have to hire someone who’s taken a management seminar, who was an intern, etc. But s/he must be someone motivated to work in orchestras. It’s very complicated to run an orchestra.

What’s expected? The manager has responsibility for everything. Musicians need to understand the multiple pressures that the manager is under. And how difficult it is to raise money.

If you learn to sail a small boat, you learn everything you need to know about sailing. When you sail a large boat, it’s very forgiving of mistakes – it has an inertia to it.

In a small orchestra, any mistake has an immediate effect. But then, it isn’t hard to get a little boat out of the water. Small orchestras get into trouble and then right themselves.

If a big boat hits a rock, you have millions of dollars down on the bottom of the ocean. Philadelphia is similar – they’ve had big problems for a long time.

If an orchestra doesn’t have a plan, you should be worried. A real plan is one that has been developed involving board, management and hopefully musicians as well. And it needs to articulate goals.

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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