The Perilous Analysis of Symphony Orchestra Finances

The Flanagan Report has recently been resurrected by its author, Robert Flanagan of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, as a book, recently published and currently being promoted by the Yale University Press. The promotion has not yet paid off in reviews outside our field, but is beginning to cause reactions from industry groups. The first in print appears to be a review of the book by ICSOM Chairman Bruce Ridge in the most recent edition of ICSOM’s newsletter Senza Sordino. ICSOM has kindly allowed us to run the review as an article on this website as well.

Bruce’s review could well be described as “dismissive”:

No one is going to read this book.

Well, perhaps I exaggerate. A handful of people will read this book, and maybe a few will actually make it all the way to the end. Such brave souls will earn my admiration, because reading this book is like shaving with a cheese grater.

Many people, though, will claim to have read it. It will sit on prominent display in the offices of executive directors, and they will reach for it whenever they need to point to a chart or graph, probably out of context, to support some negative claim about the future of classical music in America. Some will even engage in some “marginalia,” but others, I suppose, will follow the lead of The Great Gatsby, a character who at least knew enough not to cut the pages in the unread books that merely decorated the library in his East Egg Mansion.

My initial instinct was to ignore the book, but I decided that I had to write a review. Since virtually no one will actually make it to the end (or beyond the first five pages, really), reviews will become what the book is about, and there will most certainly be reviews written.

Bruce goes on to identify his fundamental objection to Flanagan’s analysis:

…this book seems to be written by someone who simply doesn’t understand his subject. It analyzes the state of symphony orchestras in America, but the tale is told in the unauthoritative voice of someone who sounds like he might never have been backstage at a symphonic rehearsal.

I was reading it backstage at one of my orchestra’s concerts, and when I went onstage to perform with my colleagues, I felt disoriented. Nothing I had been reading in this book seemed to have any relationship to the music I was playing–nor to the nearly sold-out audience of young and old music lovers listening to the innovative program we were presenting.

The whole thing is worth reading (and it’s a lot shorter – and  better written – than the book itself), so go read it.

Having said that, though, I think that Bruce’s review (in common, I suspect, with others in the pipeline) misses what’s fundamentally wrong with Flanagan’s analysis. But I’ll save my criticism of the book for tomorrow.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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