The HSO: The Conversation Continues

In a previous post (“Saving the Hartford Symphony,” July 9), I offered a few observations about the situation at the Hartford Symphony Orchestra.

Briefly, the situation is that the management, which is now essentially the Bushnell under an agreement struck 16 months ago, is proposing significant reductions in the number of services offered to many of the HSO musicians. The musicians, needless to say, are resisting.

I didn’t take a specific position on the contract negotiations because I don’t think it’s useful or appropriate for people not involved in the actual process to do that.

But I did voice some thoughts about the general direction of the HSO as it attempts to stabilize its finances and shape its future. Mostly I just underscored the need for the orchestra to continue to be an ensemble of high artistic standards.

To my amazement, the post generated a flurry of responses from all over the country. I took this more as a testament to the power of social media than as a compliment to my prose. But I like to think the responses also affirmed that the arts are important to people, and that even ordinary citizens, who may or may not be concert-goers, recognize that a city’s professional orchestra is something worth cherishing and protecting.

Although the vast majority of responders agreed with my assessment, a few people interpreted my piece as implying that the HSO is in decline, or that the new managerial arrangement will inevitably fail.

I don’t believe either of those things. Although I think there are dangers out there, as there are for all orchestras, I believe this organization, with the help of the community, can survive and flourish.

In the interest of keeping the conversation going in a constructive way, let me offer a few further perceptions on where I think the orchestra stands, and where we go from here.

On the plus side:

  • The orchestra is playing at a high level these days, and boasts, in the person of Carolyn Kuan, an energetic, charismatic music director who is respected by the musicians and popular in the community. The fact that she has just signed a new six-year contract shows that there is – both on her part and the organization’s – a heartening sense of optimism about the future of the HSO.
  • There is a new HSO strategic plan that, while it’s a little short on specifics in some areas, and clearly does not yet satisfy the players’ concerns (more on that in a moment), nevertheless represents a more robust and achievable roadmap going forward;
  • The incoming HSO board chairman, Jeff Verney, is a very smart, committed guy whose basic disposition is that of a creative problem-solver;
  • Even the recent social media uproar over the contract talks has demonstrated, paradoxically, that there is a healthy public awareness of and interest in the future of our orchestra. That’s critical and can’t be bought at any price.

Two items in the room-for-improvement category:

  • The now 16-month-old “alliance,” under which The Bushnell has become the de facto administrative agent for the HSO (at a hefty fee, let us keep in mind), needs to begin to show some tangible results. Apart from the recently announced 2015-16 Masterworks season – which has some very nice things in it but didn’t require a wholesale administrative retooling – the ticket buying public has not been shown very much. I keep hearing that great new ideas are just around the corner. I think now would be a good time to begin to reveal them.
  • Above all, the contract impasse with the musicians has got to be settled in a way that the players can truly embrace. How could it be otherwise? A strike, should the negotiations fail, would almost certainly be fatal. On the other hand, if a draconian (as they see it) settlement were to somehow be imposed on the musicians, the result would hardly be any better. An orchestra of disgruntled people, feeling put-upon and exploited, is not going to succeed for very long. This is not Chrysler doing battle with the UAW; it’s a group of part-time, highly skilled but modestly paid musicians who, as much as anything, need to fundamentally feel that their concerns are being respectfully heard and processed. And yet so much of the management rhetoric that I hear, expressed in memos and private conversations and even a few public utterances, partakes of the same, tired, Us vs. Them chest-thumping that we’ve heard for almost 30 years. This is, to put it charitably, unproductive. I believe a mutually-acceptable deal is very much within reach, and I simply don’t understand the needlessly confrontational tone.

Is this heavy-handed style evidence of the new management “expertise” we’ve been promised? If so, it needs work.

Hartford Symphony with the Hartford Chorale

Hartford Symphony with the Hartford Chorale

 Bottom line: For all the missteps and the admittedly complicated ledger book issues, I think this is potentially a very hopeful moment for the Hartford Symphony. There are enough smart, well-intentioned people in the mix – on both sides of the table – to find real solutions. I even think the Bushnell/HSO marriage can work, if, as with any marriage, there comes to be a sense of mutual purpose, and if necessary, a willingness to engage in shared sacrifice.

But there does have to be a certain subtle shift in tone and attitude – in the direction of a more generous, sophisticated, artistically committed spirit. It’s a good time for such a shift. The economy is humming. The city of Hartford – of which the HSO is a vibrant emblem even for non-concertgoers – is rising indeed. And, as we have seen, the HSO is an institution that people around here truly care about and root for. Those are reasons to feel encouraged about the orchestra’s future. And reasons to make sure we get that future right.

Steve Metcalf was The Hartford Courant‘s Fulltime classical music critic and reporter for over 20 years, beginning in 1982. He is currently the curator of the Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series at The Hartt School. He can be reached at

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Steve Metcalf
Steve Metcalf

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