Musicians as managers

My orchestra managed to startle a fair number of people the other day:

In a surprising development, principal trumpeter Mark Niehaus has been named the new president and executive director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the MSO announced Wednesday.

Niehaus succeeds MaryEllen Gleason, who has resigned after two seasons as the MSO’s executive to pursue other opportunities, according to a statement from board chairman Douglas Hagerman.

The MSO also announced a balanced budget for fiscal year 2012, which ended Aug. 31, noting that major gifts from the David and Julia Uihlein Charitable Foundation and William and Polly Van Dyke made that possible.

Niehaus taking over as the MSO’s top executive might be likened to the Packers naming Clay Matthews their president. Niehaus has been the MSO’s principal trumpeter since 1998, and has been a featured soloist, but will now put down his horn and pick up spreadsheets and donor calls.

“Mark has emerged in the last couple years as a valued board member, a valued representative of the orchestra and a really great spokesman for the orchestra,” Hagerman said. “When we appeared in Carnegie Hall, the person who stood on stage and introduced us to the national audience there was Mark.

“The reason he’s emerged as our best spokesman is you can feel the passion for the music, for the orchestra, and for the Milwaukee community every time he speaks. That same passion is critical for the orchestra to achieve all of its long-term goals,” Hagerman said.

There’s been a certain amount of “new model” talk about the appointment of a serving member of the orchestra to the CEO position. It may well be a first for a major orchestra to catapult one of its own into the top administrative spot, but in fact lots of managers were, at one point in their career, professional musicians. Clive Gillinson might be the prototypical example; he joined the London Symphony as a cellist in 1970 and, after serving on the board and as Finance Director, became Managing Director in 1984, a position he held for 20 years with great distinction before moving on to run Carnegie Hall. But there are others; one is a bassist I played with in my second orchestral job in London Ontario who went on to become President and CEO of The Cleveland Orchestra (Gary Hanson, for non-insiders). Some, like Hanson and Gillinson, became outstanding orchestral CEO’s; there are others who didn’t.

There seems to be something intuitively satisfying about the notion of someone who’s spent years working as an orchestra musician moving into running an orchestra. I’m not sure why; there’s little about playing in an orchestra that teaches much about orchestra management or leadership. I’ve encountered very few musicians who are suited either by temperament or natural ability to run an orchestra; fortunately for my orchestra, Mark Niehaus is one of those few.

No doubt it will help him to understand what life is like on stage. But I suspect his real advantage will be the credibility he’s built with key people in Milwaukee through being principal trumpet and the sense of institutional history and purpose that it’s hard to get in any way other than to spend years married to an institution the way musicians are married to their orchestras. Those are hard things to get by importing an experienced orchestra administrator from somewhere else.

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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