This summary is a compilation of information gathered in studying fifteen American orchestras and three European orchestras between September 2001 and August 2002. Orchestra budgets ranged from $500,000 to $38 million. In each of these eighteen orchestras, the individuals interviewed included Board members, staff, musicians and, when available, the Music Director. I conducted a total of 105 interviews of individuals representing the eighteen study orchestras. Only eight of these interviews were conducted totally or partially by telephone; all others were on site, in person. Additional information was also gathered about several other orchestras, but, because all constituencies were not interviewed, they are not officially included in the total of study orchestras, although I have drawn several specific examples from them.
My thanks to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for their generous support, and to all who gave so generously of their time and knowledge with this project.
The areas of inquiry related to artistic leadership and decision-making included:
- 1. Identity
- 2. Artistic vision
- 3. Artistic quality
- 4. Programming – repertoire, conductors and guest artists
- 5. Personnel decisions – Music Director, musicians and staff
- 6. Leadership development
A unique identity may be an artistic signature that the organization continues and perpetuates. Although this signature may originally be associated with a particular conductor, repertoire or sound, once the artistic identity is institutionalized, the organization can preserve it by choice of performers and repertoire (Vienna Philharmonic) and allow it over time to evolve. When asked, “If you had to distinguish yourself musically and culturally from any other orchestra in the United States, what would two or three distinctions be?” only a few of the American orchestras interviewed listed a distinct artistic identity.
The Eugene Symphony described its signature in this manner, “Our artistic identity is concerned with having vision, integrity, and meaning in what we do and in communicating the passion we feel for our music.”
Distinct artistic identity can be the result of a special mission (such as the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra) in which the identity is uniquely defined by the mission.
If the artistic identity is thoroughly understood and valued throughout the organization, then artistic personnel decisions become relatively clear. The orchestra is able to choose its own members so that they continue the sound and style of the orchestra, as is done in the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics or, as in the Cleveland Orchestra, the music director makes the final selection of musicians. Similarly, the choice of music director becomes guided by the identity already in place.
Strong cultural identities recognized and valued throughout the organization were also unusual. A few of the organizations studied did have well-defined cultural identities. Some listed the manner in which they did business as their recognizable identity, for example as a cooperative, with musician-management collaboration or, in the case of Orpheus, as a conductor-less ensemble with shared leadership. One organization considers the camaraderie and friendly working environment to be an integral part of its identity. These qualities are positively regarded by the organization and are frequently mentioned by visiting conductors and soloists.
Most of the interviewees could not articulate a specific artistic vision. In many orchestras the mission statement includes a phrase such as “music of the highest quality.” Although the mission or vision statement may include such a statement of artistic excellence, it tends to lack measurable criterion from which decisions and specific improvements are made. One artistic administrator shared that she uses her own personal criteria of “putting the music first” to assist in decision-making.
The process of arriving at a vision usually involves the formation of a strategic planning task force made up of members of the board, the executive director and often representative musicians, with possible input from other members of the organization. In many cases the vision tends to be a plan used by the board while the rest of the organization neither embraces nor uses it for decision-making.
The Lahti Symphony in Finland developed its visions in a series of workshops participated in by all musicians and staff (including even the cleaning staff) and music director when available. (The Lahti Symphony has no board of directors.) The result of the group processes of team building, visioning, and group problem solving has been a remarkable success. Most of the visions created in the first group processes have manifested in less than 15 years (a new concert hall on the waterfront, international touring, award winning CDs and even a freeway connecting Lahti to Helsinki). Although the process included the music director at times, the system was not centered or dependent upon him. Yet The music director is clearly recognized as the artistic leader of the organization.
The Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, a cooperative orchestra, used a planning process that included all trustees, musicians and staff. This “bottom-up” process resulted in a consensus regarding strategic goals for the organization. The goal of artistic development included specific suggestions for how to “raise the bar and demand higher quality/play better” such as “Empower music director to demand more from players” and “Give authority to conductor to assess and improve artistic quality.”
The Cleveland Orchestra’s current vision statement was initiated through a “top-down” process originating with the staff and then gradually reviewed by the Executive Committee, full board, volunteers, orchestra and staff. The result is a description of clear core values, core purpose and envisioned future, including three Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals (BHAGS) with a description of what it would look like to achieve these.
The music director may bring her/his specific mission to an organization. The organization may then choose to make that its own vision or merely use that vision during the music director’s tenure.
Most interviewees felt that the determination and enforcement of artistic quality was the duty of the music director. Often, this was conveyed more as a default than an active responsibility.
When the orchestra members can see a direct entrepreneurial connection (the better we play, the more tour dates/media contracts, the more we get paid), there can develop an internal culture that rewards musical risk-taking in performances and artistic achievement (Vienna Philharmonic).
Only a few orchestras have developed systems in which the musicians of the orchestra can be involved with decisions relating to artistic quality. In Orpheus, members of the ensemble will go into the hall during rehearsals to listen and then make suggestions to the group. Also, after performances, the players continue the discussion of what worked and what didn’t, so as to enhance the quality of future performances.
The Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra has made archival recordings of concerts available on their website. Access to the recordings is limited to the performers for study purposes so that they can personally hear the concert in order to improve future performances. During the 02-03 season, they planned to institute group listening sessions a week after performances so that the group could discuss issues of artistic quality.
The Colorado Symphony Orchestra is perhaps the only American orchestra in which musicians elected by the orchestra sit on an artistic committee that discusses artistic quality and makes personnel decisions. Indeed nine of the thirteen members of their artistic committee are musicians.
The most common response to the question, “List five factors that limit the artistic quality of your orchestra,” was money. Therefore I have separated this list into two separate categories: limiters that could be significantly changed by spending money, and those that are not dependent upon financial expenditures. All replies are listed in order from most-often to least-often mentioned. (To be included in this list, the limiter must have been identified in multiple organizations.)
- More musicians/larger orchestra.
- Attracting and retaining better quality musicians.
- Attracting conductors and guest artists of higher quality and name recognition.
- Venue/Concert hall acoustics, availability and consistency.
- Longer season/Entire orchestra playing together more.
- More rehearsal time.
- Touring and recording.
- Attracting and retaining quality staff.
Other limiting factors less easily changed by spending more money:
- Lack of communication within and between all constituencies.
- Lack of leadership. (Most often noted within the musician constituency).
- Difficulty terminating musicians with deteriorating skills.
- Poor relationships of Music Director to other constituencies.
- Lack of individual responsibility – lack of awareness that quality comes from within, not without.
- Location – difficulty attracting conductors and artists, and size of donor base and audience.
- Lack of artistic vision.
- Lack of articulated and required standards.
- Lack of focus in committee decision-making.
- Audition and tenure processes.
- Guest conductor and artist choices inappropriately influenced/controlled by Music Director.
- Insufficient musician participation on committees.
- Unsupportive environment/Musician attitudes/Culture of “Us” versus “Them.”
Although not listed as an artistic limiter, a recurrent concern was that the music director was unavailable to spend sufficient time in handling responsibilities off the podium and in the community.
The programming process varies among orchestras, and seems to be determined by the individuals involved. Programming decisions are most often done by a combination of the music director, artistic administrator, general manager and executive director. The smaller the orchestra, the more likely it is that the music director plans the majority of the programming, with the administration (artistic administrator, general manager or executive director depending upon the size of the organization) handling the actual booking of artists/conductors and considerations of their programming choices. In larger orchestras, the music director may program or have input into only his own programs. Or the music director may participate in and be responsible for all facets of the programming of the entire institution (such as Leonard Slatkin with the National Symphony). For this kind of total responsibility to be successful, the music director must remain in close contact with the administrators so that decisions can be made on a timely basis. Because of the impossibility of totally separating economic from artistic considerations in programming, most organizations include marketing in the programming discussions at some point in the process.
When there is a rapport between administrator(s) and music director, programming and guest artist and conductor discussions become exciting and stimulating. When other constituencies, such as musicians and marketing, are brought into the discussions, there can be greater understanding and excitement about the choices made.
When the music director has control over the choice of guest conductors, the organization has the potential to be unprepared for the next music director search, because the orchestra may not have seen potential successors during the current music director’s tenure.
While some organizations emphatically state that the best programming is done by a single individual, other organizations have developed systems of programming by established committees. Programming committees are made up of staff and/or musicians (and, in the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, also board members) either with (as in the Lahti Symphony and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra) or without (New Jersey Symphony Orchestra) the inclusion of the music director on the programming committee. When programming is done by committee, the difficulties of the process, time involved, communication challenges, and lack of unified focus are often mentioned as issues.
Rarely was a connection drawn between programming and the artistic improvement of the orchestra. When this does occur, it is most likely the result of the artistic direction established by the music director. This direction can be established and clarified during the music director search process.
The process of choosing a new music director always includes a search committee generally consisting of the executive director, board members, musicians, and often the general manager or artistic administrator. The process can be lengthy, involving a large number of potential candidates conducting concerts and even soliciting audience input, as in the recent search by the Oregon Symphony. Or the process can proceed relatively quickly by having the search committee draw up a short list of candidates who then conduct concerts in close proximity to each other, as has been done in the Eugene Symphony.
The degree of musician determination in the selection of a music director varies from the Berlin Philharmonic, where all the musicians discuss and vote on the candidates, to input into the search committee’s decision by musician-elected representatives.
Generally, orchestras lack a vehicle for regularly reviewing or making suggestions to the music director. Only one orchestra had established formal (through the Artistic Advisory committee) and informal (through meetings with the Chair of the Orchestra Committee), systems of feedback to the music director from the musicians.
Music director feedback, if it exists at all, tends to be given informally by the executive director (the general manager and the artistic administrator may also be involved) when issues arise. Although the board technically reviews the music director at renewal intervals, board members tend to feel musically inadequate and require guidance and education to deal with any issues relating to the music director’s performance, both on and off the podium. The Seattle Symphony has an Artistic Advisory committee that now consists of board members, musicians, staff and the music director. They discuss all matters artistic: programming, guest artists and conductors, new projects, aspirations of the musicians and music director, etc. The discussions between the musicians and board members have familiarized the board with the terminology and created greater confidence in talking about matters of artistic quality.
The process of auditioning musicians is usually clearly specified in the collective bargaining agreement (CBA). The European system of choosing finalists who then play sometimes extensive trials in the orchestra seems to work well in choosing players who fit in both musically and personally in the organization. One European orchestra member shared that generally the person who had played the best individual audition was not the person chosen to fill the position after the trial period. In the London Philharmonic the trial period can be quite lengthy and, for a section string candidate, may include sharing a stand with every member of the section before a decision is made.
A few orchestras do ask the candidates about other interests in the audition application. In the Cleveland Orchestra auditions, the music director often talks with the candidate who appears to be the winner before the job is offered.
Probation periods are beginning to successfully include peer feedback with appropriate monitoring. Such feedback enables the player to improve his/her skills and have some guidance in working through the probationary period successfully.
Dismissal proceedings, while clearly stated in CBAs, are difficult for all involved. All the European orchestras studied had a mandatory retirement age, and all felt that this was helpful in rejuvenating the orchestra, allowing players to move on gracefully with dignity, and allowing the musician and the orchestra to plan ahead. Some orchestras have developed cultures in which colleagues (such as the Orchestra Committee chair) suggest that a player take some time off to improve his/her musical skills or get appropriate therapy or assistance. The London Symphony Orchestra offers the possibility of reducing the workload over several years down to a minimum of fifty percent of the orchestra’s workload, so as to provide the option of a gradual move towards full retirement. Recently there was one instance in the London Symphony Orchestra where a unique exception was agreed for an outstanding individual who was still performing at the peak of his powers. This musician’s contract was extended for two years beyond his turning sixty-five.
In only one American orchestra studied, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, does the responsibility of the dismissal process originate in the Artistic Committee made up of music director, elected musicians, trustees and staff. However, the actual system and procedures used continue to evolve.
One artistic administrator felt that only 10% of all conductors are comfortable with the dismissal responsibilities that come with being music director.
Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony, related his way of talking with players who might appropriately retire. “I sit down with a player casually and say: ‘You’ve been here a long time. You’ve contributed much to the organization. I will not make you leave.’ Then I tell them a story about my mother. She called me one day and told me she would be retiring after the John Williams sessions she had scheduled. I asked her why – she still sounded great. She said she never wanted people to talk about how she used to play.” All the players to whom the music director related this story chose to retire.
The Lahti Symphony allows players to move down from principal positions and retain their principal pay for the remainder of their careers, providing that there is an open seat.
Most leadership responsibilities of the music director and musicians are expected rather than stated. In contrast, leadership expectations of the administration and board are usually more clearly spelled out. While the board chair and vice-chairs may have clearly-defined roles, other board members generally do not have as clear an understanding of their roles. The leadership potential of the musicians as section leaders and as committee representatives is often the least understood and actualized.
In response to the survey question, “Who has a stated or expected leadership responsibility? For example, music director, section principals, senior staff,” only a relative few interviewees added the board, board leadership, and musician committee leaders to this list. This suggests to me that the full leadership potential of board and musicians are at best only partially utilized.
While many interviewees felt that some form of leadership training would be beneficial, only rarely was any training, guidance or support available. The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra sent the concertmaster to media training in which he received coaching in dealing with questions, as well as practice in front of the camera. This concertmaster is now an outstanding ambassador and does an exceptional job representing the orchestra in a variety of situations.
 One European orchestra studied did not have a board of directors; therefore the interviews were of music director, administration and musicians only.
 The NJSO does not currently have a music director. The Artistic Planning committee is an ongoing experiment, which may or may not continue when there is an artistic leader in place.