The fourth and final season of Succession returns this weekend, and I’m back from a social media hiatus to share an unhinged pet theory:
Composer Nicholas Britell is a character in both our universe and the Succession universe, he has known the Roy children since childhood, and he’s getting revenge on them by satirically scoring their lives.
The idea that there are unseen characters in Succession is not new. User Thomas Flight produced a popular Youtube video essay positing that the camerawork implies an observer that is choosing what to film.
Flight suggests that whoever this unseen implied character is, they’re deeply invested in what happens to this family, and are incredibly attuned to what does, because they react to what characters say and do in the moment, as opposed to choreographing and then executing more traditional static shots.
We also know that there are characters and events that exist in both our world and in the Succession world. Governor Kristi Noem, for instance, exists in the Succession universe; she’s seen in background news footage. Bezos and Zuckerberg are mentioned a few times. In the third episode, we see that Logan Roy has framed newspapers on his office wall commemorating his newspapers’ coverage of Chernobyl, the death of bin Laden, and Brexit.
Music-wise, Taylor Swift exists in this universe, too, and yes, this is relevant. She appears in a slideshow at Vaulter headquarters, wearing a dress that she wore to the 2018 American Music Awards, which helps date the events of the show. But in a hint that her fictional career may have unfolded somewhat differently in the Succession timeline, the Long Island location where she filmed her 2014 “Blank Space” music video is, in the Succession universe, a Hungarian hunting lodge where the iconic “Boar on the Floor” scene happens.
Okay. So. Conceivably, then, Succession‘s version of Taylor Swift could be a template: some figures exist in both the Succession universe and our universe, just…in a different way.
And that’s where composer Nicholas Britell comes in.
Britell was born in 1980. I don’t think we’ve been told exactly when Kendall Roy was born, but he turns 40 in a presidential election year, which is probably 2020. (Succession creator Jesse Armstrong has, however, cheerfully admitted that the show’s timeline is fuzzy.) But it seems likely that Kendall and Britell are the same age.
According to Wikipedia, Britell went to Buckley School in New York City. In the third episode of the show, Kendall admonishes his friend Stewy, “We’re not at Buckley anymore” after Stewy steals a donut, implying that the two characters were students there, too.
Britell also went to Harvard. Who else in the Succession universe went to Harvard? Kendall, of course, who, even twenty years later, loooves talking about what he did to the circulation numbers at the Harvard Lampoon. And Kendall’s father Logan refers to Stewy as Kendall’s college drinking buddy.
The fictional Kendall Roy went into the family business, while the real-life Nicholas Britell famously worked as a currency trader at Bear Stearns when he left college. “I wasn’t happy, and I wasn’t doing what I loved. So I quit my old job.”
I’m far from the first person to point out their biographical similarities. In fact, the New York Timeswrote in 2021, “It’s hard not to think about Kendall as a failed Britell, a parallel-universe version of what he might have been if he had stayed in finance: a Wall Street bro who hides inside his headphones and disconnects from the world he chose.”
It is the easiest thing in the world, especially given the sarcastic, parodic nature of Britell’s soundtrack, to think of a fictional Nicholas Britell writing music to comment and try to come to terms with the brokenness of an old acquaintance: sometimes empathizing with him, sometimes mocking him through the music he composes.
I hear your protestation now: we can’t know if there’s a person named Nicholas Britell in the Succession universe!
Well, I’d argue that we can…because the characters in-universe hear his music.
In Kendall’s famous season two “L to the OG” rap, Britell samples Bach and then, in a meta-twist, himself…including a segment from the season one soundtrack. The track he quotes is called “Million Dollar Home Run” and it’s from a pilot episode scene in which the Roy family plays a game of baseball that quickly turns sadistic. This connection is discussed in this Youtube video essay by The Premise:
So during the show’s most iconic musical moment to-date, the characters are hearing music in their universe that until now, we’ve only heard in ours.
And beyond that, it’s music referencing a baseball game played in season one, remixed in season two while Kendall is dressed in a baseball uniform. If that’s a coincidence, it’s an awfully big one.
Do you need more proof that there’s a Succession universe Nicholas Britell? Do you think I wouldn’t come with more proof? Do you think I’m not unhinged enough to stop here? Do you? Do you?
According to the soundtrack credits, season two’s “L to the OG” recording doesn’t feature actor Jeremy Strong. No, the credit goes to…Kendall Roy himself.
Well, that was just a one-time joke, you say. In fact, it’s meta-commentary on how in-character Jeremy Strong gets! Except!
The real person and the fake person team up again in season three’s soundtrack for a performance of Billy Joel’s “Honesty,” which didn’t even happen in the show.
In season three, episode seven, Kendall Roy decides to throw a “nut-nut” party to celebrate his fortieth birthday, with the planned highlight being a performance of “Honesty” for a room that includes high-rollers like “Elon” and “Jeff.” We viewers see his dress rehearsal and how a satisfied Kendall cuts it short without ever running through the whole thing.
So what is this full performance that appears on the season three soundtrack? Is this meant to be canon? Did fictional Nicholas Britell meet up with Kendall Roy in his universe to record this? Or is this from our universe? Did Kendall visit us via the famously in-character Jeremy Strong? What is going on?
And if this performance is meant to have occurred in the universe of the show, when exactly did it happen? The performance never happened at the party proper, and the rehearsal to the party didn’t have a full run-through, either. So presumably, the Succession universe’s Britell met up with his college acquaintance to run through this song to make the recording that appears on Spotify. But when? Where? Why? There’s a whole story you could come up with filling in the gaps of what we as viewers don’t and can’t know about this unseen implied composer figure, who is constantly slipping in and out of Kendall’s story.
Of course, the alternative is that Kendall Roy really does exist in our world…not that someone named Nicholas Britell popped up in his.
Do I think the creators deliberately wove a phantom fictional Nicholas Britell into the show? Lol, no, of course not. This is just a game.
However, that said… My first fandom was the Sherlock Holmes fandom, and one of the most popular activities in said fandom for the past 120+ years has been pretending that Holmes and Watson really lived, an unhinged hobby known as The Great Game. And let me tell you, I grew up eating this entire batshit concept up.
You can’t play The Great Game with many pieces of media. But you…kind of can with Succession, given its satirical spin on the real world. Kind of. In any case, it has been such a fun lens to use when taking in this show. It has made me think about the dividing line between fiction and reality: the ways in which our reality divorces from Succession‘s, and the ways in which it very much does not. And it’s also made me wonder so much about this unseen composer character who would have watched the music-loving Kendall from a distance for so many years, given up a career in the money-driven world that Kendall is drowning in, and what he might have to say about him and the merciless high-power world that gave birth to the Roy children. You have to be a killer.
So on the eve of the season four premiere, it heartens me to think that the strongest link between the unspeakably bleak Succession reality and our own might actually…belong to a musician. Maybe music and art are useful keys to use to unlock meaning in Kendall’s story, and ours. I’m heartened by that. Or, in the words of another Minnesotan:
Perhaps at the end of the day, a composer, via his Greek chorus of a musical commentary, will be the one to finally cast our communal judgment on these terrible characters…or maybe, depending on how their stories end, grant them some kind of absolution.
Or – not. This is Succession, after all.
In conclusion, if you didn’t like this blog entry, fuck off.
Succession returns to HBO for its fourth and final season on Sunday night.
I’m thirteen years old and I’m at Orchestra Hall for the very first time. I’m dressed in a white lace dress that belongs to my mother, and it’s too big for my frame.
I page through a program book, palms sweaty. I have the alarming feeling that, through no fault of my own, I might be falling in love with music.
My mother leans over and points out an ad. “They’re getting a new conductor this fall.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Osmo something.”
The Minnesota Orchestra plays well that night.
But…I can tell it can be so much better.
2. July 2010
It’s the week I turn 21. As a birthday present, my mother has taken me to see the Minnesota Orchestra play Beethoven under Osmo in Winona. It is life-changing. A Minnesota Orchestra violist has noticed the blog entry that I wrote about it and has written one of his own praising mine. I know that no one makes a living writing about music, but I dream about doing it anyway.
My mother and I go to dinner at my grandparents’. I may have just turned old enough to drink, but they will go to their graves thinking of me as a sick little girl who will never find her way.
“It’s even possible,” I offer after explaining my news of the week, “that Osmo – the conductor… He might read what I write.”
My grandmother lifts a bowl and announces to the table that the beans aren’t salted. Either she hasn’t heard me, or it’s her German way of letting me and my unlikely fantasies down gently. I glance at my mother for support. She smiles at me sympathetically. We begin to eat. The subject is dropped. The dream isn’t.
3. July 2012
I’ve just turned 23 years old, and my birthday present is going to see the Minnesota Orchestra play in Winona. The orchestra has a new concertmaster named Erin Keefe. She plays the Beethoven concerto like a goddess, and she looks like one, too, with her long skirt of lavender pleats. Osmo accompanies her.
The aggression of the Coriolan Overture that opens the program leaves me breathless and a little unnerved. Afterward, the musicians file out of the middle school auditorium into the thick July heat. Everyone seems so grim.
Something isn’t right, I remember telling Mom on the dark drive home.
4. Autumn 2012
I’ve started to blog about how the management of the Minnesota Orchestra has locked out its musicians. I’m too sick to go to college, so why not? I can scroll through 990s laying in bed. The proposals that have been made are draconian and threaten to destroy the entire institution, or at least render it unrecognizable, and I want to understand what’s going on.
Something hits me. I open the orchestra’s website. I don’t go to the blog. (I can’t. That has been deleted by upper management without fanfare.) But I do try to find last season’s schedule.
It’s then I realize that the Winona concert was the last time Osmo and the orchestra would perform together. My birthday present meant I’d inadvertently witnessed the end of an era.
5. February 2013
It’s so cold outside that it feels as if all of the buildings in the city must be made of ice. My mother and I have just left the orchestra performance at the Convention Center. The lockout is still ongoing, but this was a “neutral” concert brokered by the mayor and a major donor, meant to celebrate the orchestra’s Grammy nomination for their most recent Sibelius recording.
But even so, in an apparent demonstration of their bad faith, the orchestra’s president and his most prominent backers on the board have chosen not to attend.
Afterward, Mom and some orchestra friends and I find our way to a bar, the booths and stools filled and lined by patrons and musicians alike.
A figure enters wearing a coat. Even out of his standard glamorous surroundings, I recognize him.
Someone – I don’t remember who – secures me an introduction. I give the man a hug. I tear up. I don’t know what to say.
“I have read your work,” is what he says to me as the snow swirls.
What do you say to one of the greatest musicians of the age, whose work helped you figure out your own, who is on the brink of having his orchestra destroyed despite your very best efforts? Any words I can think of won’t suffice.
A group gathers around him. “Together we can do miracles,” he says solemnly.
6. October 2013
I’m 24 years old, and the lockout has not ended, and Osmo has endured a solid year of being fucked over by three people at the top of Minnesota Orchestra management. It’s clear now they have no desire to see him stay. There is no fair or timely deal offered to musicians, and so, as he promised he would do, he resigns.
I’ve come down with a cold, and I can’t see the final concerts he’s going to play with his orchestra. To soothe my lungs, I take a long bath and fill it with the hottest water I can run, and then I cry. “I tried so fucking hard,” I scream as the water pours.
My mom and I lay down on her bed and tune into Minnesota Public Radio to listen to Osmo’s farewell. After players and conductor perform The Firebird, Osmo’s soft broken voice introduces the encore, Sibelius’s Valse Triste. It’s the musical depiction of a young woman who goes dancing and realizes too late that she is dancing in the arms of death.
It breaks me. “How could they do this?” I demand of my mother.
It’s one of the few times I remember her not having anything comforting to offer.
“I don’t know,” she says.
7. February 2014
Audiences, patrons, musicians, board members…somehow, finally, with scores of people working behind-the-scenes and in-front-of-the-scenes, the lockout has finally ended, and nobody can really believe it. The terms are concessionary, but within reason. Now the audience has been left with an orchestra president we don’t like and no long-term conductor.
Osmo, however, is still present in Minneapolis, like some kind of baton-wielding ghost. Schrödinger’s music director.
It seems a difficult, if not impossible, situation to orchestrate a successful conclusion to. Egos have been bruised, and badly. These things have to be finessed. Surely an understated Scandinavian man will understand how carefully we as a community are going to have to strategize to –
“It has been said about Finnish people that no one can control those stubborn people! And I am very proud of that.” – Osmo Vänskä during the 22 September 2017 MPR broadcast
8. March 2014
I’m with my mother at the greatest concert I’ve ever been to, and the greatest one I ever will go to. Osmo has been hired for a weekend – just a weekend – to conduct another Sibelius concert to celebrate another Grammy nomination. But the audience wants more, and we only have one concert to drive the point home. So we’ve desperately banded together to dress in blue and white, the colors of the Finnish flag, in a visual attempt to convince the board to hire Osmo back. We bring flags and we bring banners. We Euro-clap in unison before the stage doors open and the musicians pour out to piercing screams of adoration. The poor staff is so frazzled, they never ordered a bouquet for the podium, so my patron activist friends order one and have it delivered to the stage door.
On March 21st, the orchestra president announces he is stepping down, and a few weeks later, the board votes to rehire Osmo.
“It will be a comeback story like no other. The enthusiasm of the audience will blow the roof off Orchestra Hall…and isn’t audience enthusiasm desperately needed right about now? If anyone took Osmo or the Orchestra for granted before, they sure as heck won’t anymore. Chapter two of his tenure could be completely electrifying for everyone. And everyone loves a good comeback story. With hard work, this could become the king of all comeback stories. One for the history books, for all the right reasons.” – Me writing about whether Osmo should be hired back, 11 February 2014
9. Autumn 2014
I’m 25 years old, and I’ve spent the last couple of years taking a real-world crash course in arts journalism, activism, and non-profit governance, with the help of the greatest group of people I’ll ever know. And somehow…we got what we wanted. We took on powerful interests, and we made ourselves so persistently annoying that we won.
I haven’t had much time to celebrate, though. My mom’s not feeling well. She has a back injury, and it keeps getting worse and worse.
We look at the upcoming season to distract ourselves, trying to prioritize what concerts to attend. We have to see Erin Keefe and Osmo perform The Lark Ascending, we decide, and on Black Friday, we buy two tickets. We both have a weakness for it. It’s actually the piece Mom wants played at her funeral.
“There is something very, very, very special right now going on in this community, thinking about the Minnesota Orchestra and classical music. And I think that those terrible things which have been here during last two years, they just gave us a great idea about how much we love music, and how much we need it. And right now, that’s the new normal, that the audience obviously would like to show, that we love you, that we are happy that you are back, and we are happy that you are giving music to us. And if that’s the new normal, then I’m – I’m – I’m clapping my hands for this. It’s great.” – Osmo Vänskäduring an October 2014 Minnesota Orchestra broadcast
10. January 2015
My mother has started regularly weeping in pain. She begs me to rub her back at night. The doctors are no use. Hematoma on the adrenal gland, we’re told. Wait it out. Exhausted, I tune into Minnesota Public Radio and listen to Osmo conducting an evening of new works by young composers. I email a review of every piece to an orchestra musician, too tired and timid to actually post my thoughts in public, but relieved to get to write them out for a friend. It’s one of the first times I’ve ever written about new music, and I really enjoy it.
“This is absolutely what we want to do. We want to give a connection to everyone who is going to listen to this which is written today, and we can learn something about our own future from these pieces.” – Osmo Vänskä during an MPR broadcast, 18 January 2019
11. February 2015
When my mother is diagnosed with cancer and goes to see one of the world’s best oncologists in Rochester, Minnesota, I don’t go in to the appointment where I’m assuming they’re going to discuss how long she might have left to live. I’d like to know everything else, but I don’t want to know that. I don’t know if this is selfish, but I know it’s very human. I plug in my earbuds and I sit in the waiting room, and I listen to a bootleg live performance of Sibelius 2 that I recorded off of MPR. I don’t allow myself to feel anything more beyond what the music makes me feel. But that something is enough to get through the day.
12. April 2015
In early March, when it becomes clear that my mother only has a few days left to live, I blurt out to her before the last doses of morphine send her to sleep, that the orchestra and Osmo will play The Lark Ascending in her honor. The idea seems to bring her comfort.
I remember so little from those months, but I do remember being approached and asked if they could play it for her. I said yes, and they do.
I find Osmo and Erin after the concert. (They’ve just played an ethereal post-concert Quartet for the End of Time with their colleagues. I will never understand how or why the repertoire they and their orchestra choose always speaks to what I need to hear at any given moment.) We hug. I tear up.
It’s strange. I feel like I’ve lived some of the most important moments of my life with both of them, and yet over the years we’ve barely spoken. And I don’t even feel like I need to. The music speaks on our behalf.
It’s Easter weekend, and they’ve fallen in love, and they’re getting married. Life, death, love, resurrection, endings and new beginnings all intertwined. We’ve lived it all, and we’ve lived it all to the biggest, most beautiful, most achingly gorgeous soundtrack ever composed. Amid all the heartbreak, I feel a sense of gratitude for life, and the way the two of them seize it, that I can barely speak.
“It is cleaning something inside of our mind. I’m not shy if I have tears in my eyes. It’s part of the process.” – Osmo Vänskä during the 2 October 2020 MPR broadcast
13. December 2015
It comes to my attention that a local company is selling a paper doll of Osmo. I order it, and it arrives at my new St. Paul apartment. I cut it down and prop it up and take a picture of it in the windowsill.
“Leaving the show one of the audience members pointed at the poster of Osmo and said, “There’s the hyper little man!!” I about died” – Me writing to my friends in our patron Facebook group, 18 June 2017
14. January 2016
I sit next to a new friend – a reader who I’ve recently met for the first time, who I feel like I’ve known for all my life. I’m in the front row at Orchestra Hall, and it’s after intermission, and there’s an empty seat beside me, and I want her to sit next to me. So I say “Sit with me,” and she does.
I invite this stranger, this sudden friend, back to my home for late-night tea. We trade stories about the orchestra, the music, Osmo. Our lives. I tell her to message me when she gets home.
When I close the door behind her, I’m reminded of how I don’t believe I will ever have a soulmate; I believe I’ve been lucky enough to be blessed with soulmates. She’s one of mine. (How did music end up being the thing to teach me that?) If I don’t want to be alone in life, I never have to be.
I finish the week having seen my first Beethoven symphony cycle. When Osmo finishes the Fifth, the final dash of the marathon, he lifts the score above his head to thunderous applause.
“You can always tell when Osmo’s happy with a performance… He takes his right hand and quickly sticks it under the back cover of the score and slaps it shut, as if to say, THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is how you play Tchaikovsky four.” – Brian Newhouse, hosting the MPR broadcast on 5 January 2018
15. March 2016
I am 26 years old, and my first glimpse of the auditorium of Carnegie Hall is from the stage, when I arrive for an open rehearsal and sneak in backstage with a violist. The orchestra is playing Sibelius 3 and 1, with Hilary Hahn soloing in the violin concerto.
I take my seat in the hall. The rehearsal begins.
To my ears, they sound like the greatest orchestra in the world.
But – they could still be better.
That’s when Osmo sets down his baton – and begins to clap his hands to keep time. I laugh in wonder, and suddenly, everything comes together.
“‘I just been thinking more and more about Oprah’ – what I thought Osmo was saying before realizing ‘opera’ in a Finnish accent sounds like Oprah” – Me on Twitter, 5 January 2018
16. August 2016
I’ve just turned 27, and I’ve traveled to Europe with the Minnesota Orchestra to document a tour. I’m standing at the grave of Jean Sibelius and his wife. I’ve toured their home, seen their collection of tea kettles on the shelf on their kitchen wall, photographed the phlox in their garden. I’ve witnessed the golden quality of late summer light stretch across the fields.
I’m wandering the empty corridors of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, waiting for the night’s concert to begin. I walk around and around and around, dazzled, losing track of time and space. Suddenly I hear a deep voice behind a door. I’ve accidentally wandered past Osmo’s dressing room, where he is consulting with soloist Pekka Kuusisto. I turn around.
I’m sitting in the auditorium in Copenhagen. It’s the final performance of a triumphant tour, and I am exhausted and exhilarated to my core. I have never experienced anything like this. Osmo begins the rehearsal speaking to the orchestra. I’m so far away, I cannot hear what he says to his players. It feels right, that whatever it was he shared with them, they shared it up there together, and alone.
17. December 2018
I’ve gotten the heads-up from the orchestra that there will be an announcement at the annual meeting. I’m already planning to attend. I know what the announcement is going to be. I am 29 years old, and I understand how time works.
And yet when I get home that night and see the signed Mahler disc propped up on my bookcase, with the For Emily written on it, I break into tears.
“I have no plans right now. No one knows what the future will bring. I’m just happy being here right now.” – Osmo Vänskä to MinnPost, 6 December 2018
18. September 2021
I’m 32 years old, and Osmo’s final season has begun. For several years now, my notes have appeared intermittently in the Orchestra’s program books. I write a note for the first concert of Osmo Vänskä’s last season here.
Whenever I attend a concert, and I know a room of 2000 people is reading what I write, and I look around and remember how unassumingly it started all those years ago, and how sure I was that I’d never make a life in music, I feel as if I can do anything. I remember the exhortation to an ad hoc group of people gathered in a bar: “Together we can do miracles.”
I always smile at the teenagers when I’m at the hall. I always wonder what their next twenty years will look like. I wonder how many moons they’ll return to this place under, how many clouds. I wonder if they’ll be lucky enough to live through a golden age, too.
“Osmo describing the mindset of a 60-year-old Sibelius composing the 6th: ‘I have done something well but could I have done it better? … Happy, and maybe sad at the same time… It gives you more question marks than answers.’ Ooof.” – Me on Twitter, 7 January 2022
19. June 2022
I’m almost 33 years old, and I’m sick. I’ve been very sick for a long time, the sickest I’ve been since I was in my late teens and early twenties. I’m not exactly sure what’s wrong with me, although I’ve had tests run, and I think I have a better idea than I did even a few weeks ago.
But it is very difficult to think, and (it hurts to say) it is very difficult to read, and (it hurts even more to say) it is very difficult to write. Maybe the doctors have finally found a reason why. Maybe they haven’t. But for a blessed couple of hours, I don’t have to think about it.
I go to MPR’s website and open the livestream. I try not to think about how it’s the last time I will do so when Osmo is music director. But I’ve imagined this moment for so many years, it’s impossible not to acknowledge the moment now that it’s here.
(I don’t remember what it was like before Osmo.)
I pick up a Kleenex.
(This is the end of an era, and it’s the only era I remember.)
I take a sip of water.
(Remember that moment in Sibelius 5 when it sounds like the swans are taking off into the sky? And remember how unspeakably beautiful it is when they do?)
Then – I listen.
Everyone associated with the Minnesota Orchestra – listeners, patrons, big donors, small donors, current musicians, former musicians, board, management; everyone – has watched their life intertwine with that of the orchestra’s over the course of Osmo’s tenure. We’ve had the privilege of growing into each other in a wild, untrammeled, unpredictable kind of way, over the course of one of the most striking, most dramatic music directorships in American history. And as we’ve grown, we’ve all learned.
I’ve learned faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these has been love. Love for a group of musicians, love for a community, love for friends, and love for music. Love for the work that brought us all together.
All of us who were lucky enough to be a part of this work have borne witness to something. Every one of us comes away from the past nineteen years transformed. It wouldn’t have happened in this specific way with any other man. It couldn’t have.
As the penultimate sentiment of the text of Mahler’s eighth says:
The ineffable / Here is accomplished.
“The most important guy on stage is the composer, not the conductor.” – Osmo Vänskä
A handful of days ago, I read that the San Antonio Symphony musicians are on strike.
This is not the first time I’ve read about San Antonio Symphony drama. I actually wrote an entry about them in January of 2018. When I heard the news, I went back to read it to try to tie the thread from then to now.
J. Bruce Bugg, you may remember, was one of that near-catastrophe’s catalysts. He is a San Antonio lawyer and philanthropist who assembled a veritable dream team to remake the perpetually troubled San Antonio Symphony.
Among his compadres in the task was a lawyer named J. Tullos Wells who, according to his law firm’s website, specializes “in union avoidance and managing relationships.” Together, Bugg and Wells teamed up to create an organization called Symphonic Music for San Antonio (SMSA) to take over managing the San Antonio Symphony.
The story gets a little complicated, as everything with the San Antonio Symphony inevitably does, but if I had to choose a visual representation of how that adventure went down, this GIF from Succession sums it up pretty well.
So the SMSA collapsed. My January 2018 entry explains a little bit about why. As for Bugg and Wells, they ultimately receded from the public story being told about the symphony, and I stopped following it as closely. Last I’d heard, things weren’t necessarily looking rosy, but they seemed to be…pre-rosy. The soil had been tilled for the roses, and the fertilizer had been bought.
The reason? An indomitable woman named Kathleen Weir Vale, who became the symphony’s board chair after SMSA blew up on the launch pad. She spearheaded a fundraising drive by inviting two friends to her house, who promptly cut a check for $200,000 and triggered a domino effect of generosity. She charmed Michael Kaiser, the orchestral world’s so-called “Turnaround King”, and spoke with excitement to the press about the board hiring him as interim executive director. And she proudly told the San Antonio Woman Magazine that after the organization’s near-death experience, she went to every symphony concert for the rest of the 2018 season.
It’s important to always remember that the product is superb. Our musicians all hold advanced degrees; they are all musical geniuses. What they do for this city is unique. And I am glad that this board understands that they – the musicians – are the art. They create the art. Who wants to live in a city without music?
– Kathleen Weir Vale
By September 2018, under Vale and Kaiser’s leadership, the San Antonio Symphony ended the fiscal year $200,000 in the black.
It felt like solid ground. And it would have been, if the turnaround had been real.
It was not real.
There’s a depressing article on the San Antonio Express-News website that charts the near-annual catastrophes that the San Antonio Symphony has somehow survived. Their routine apocalypses began before I was even born.
A few choice lowlights:
1987: Musician contract negotiations fail. Rest of season is canceled.
1992: The fiscal year closes out with $4.7 million in debt. An executive director resigns.
1998: Musicians are asked for concessions. An executive director resigns.
1999: Major gifts come through. But –
2000: Deficit of $370,000. Another executive director resigns.
2002: Deficit around $1 million. Musicians offer concessions.
2003: Bankruptcy. Another executive director resigns.
February 2004: A new executive director arrives.
November 2004: That executive director departs.
2006: A beverage industry executive is appointed CEO.
2008: The beverage industry executive resigns. Jack Fishman, the former executive director of the Long Beach Symphony, becomes CEO.
2011: Despite three years of musician concessions, the orchestra ends the season $750,000 in debt.
November 28, 2012: Fishman tenders his resignation via email, effective immediately. J. Bruce Bugg does not know why he left, but surmises to the the paper, “I suspect he resigned because he had a lot of other opportunities with other organization because of his vast skills.” He also says in the same article that Fishman leaving is not a setback.
Spring 2013: A local businessman and fundraising consultant is hired as executive director.
Summer 2013: That person leaves.
September 2013: The orchestra gives up on finding a permanent CEO. Instead, they hire David Gross, the former president of the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra, as general manager. He is later promoted to executive director.
January 2014: A slight surplus is recorded for the 12/13 season…
June 2015: A new musicians’ contract is approved…
2016: Three-year bridge period of funding is approved by city, county, and foundation sources, contingent upon the orchestra observing “changed financial practices” to avoid deficits….
April 2017: A debt reduction plan is broached…
May 2017: The symphony board meets with donors “to discuss the state of their finances”…
July 2017: Bugg and Wells start mounting the SMSA takeover.
December 28, 2017: At almost the very last possible moment, SMSA backs out. The fate of the orchestra potentially hangs in the balance, because the collective bargaining agreement with the musicians ends on December 31.
Which brings us up to January 4, 2018, the date I posted my entry on the San Antonio Symphony. I work hard, but Kathleen Weir Vale worked much, much harder. Before that entry and over the following 48 hours following it, Kathleen Weir Vale stepped up in a really impressive way. She became chairwoman of the board, and her contacts fundraised like mad, and the orchestra survived.
For the time being.
Looking at this orchestra’s history, two things are clear, even to an uber-outsider like me.
First, this orchestra is not like the others. Obviously, something about this institution – or the fundraising context that this institution exists in – is so soul-crushingly dysfunctional that hiring a stable and competent administrative team, and getting them to stay put, has been harder than finding a nanny for the von Trapp kids. And it has been this way for an entire generation. Anyone who wants to simplify the San Antonio Symphony’s problems by suggesting fixing this is going to be as simple as scrounging up more donations is going to be sorely disappointed in the long run. They need a plan for total organizational transformation. They need to bring in their stakeholders – musicians, staff, audiences, donors, community members – and they need to chart a course that, crucially, inspires buy-in from all of them.
Second, against all odds, this orchestra refuses to die. Surely that says something, too.
One of Michael Kaiser’s nicknames in the world of performing arts is the “Turnaround King.” According to his official biography, he led the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and he erased deficits at the Royal Opera House in Liverpool, the American Ballet Theatre, and the Kansas City Ballet. He’s famous for advocating a growth-oriented mindset for large performing arts organizations. His working theory is that cuts can be dangerous, and that without continual growth, patrons and donors will lose excitement and lose interest in being a part of an organizational “family.”
On July 11, 2018, the San Antonio Symphony announced that Kaiser would serve as “interim executive director” while the hunt for a permanent CEO continued.
Kathleen Weir Vale was, understandably, over the moon about his appointment:
“It is difficult to imagine a more fortuitous event for the San Antonio Symphony at this juncture than Mr. Kaiser’s assumption of the helm. Mr. Kaiser is known worldwide as the preeminent performing arts organization turnaround specialist and as such, I am confident that he will spur our organization to unprecedented heights. A major goal is to establish systematic, disciplined, best practices in our board leadership and administrative operations. Our orchestra, our community, and all of our loyal stakeholders deserve no less. We look forward to the challenge with relish.“
What’s not part of the proposal is scaling back from a 72-member orchestra or a 30-week performance schedule in order to meet its $7.2 million annual budget.
“The money’s there; the money is in the community,” he said. “… This community is very generous with contributions. If you do a good job of maintaining the level of the excitement after the work and the engagement with the individual.”
The task force also recommends hiring a full-time executive director and increasing the marketing budget from 21 to 30 percent of the management budget.
Kaiser was even more explicit in an audio interview he did for the San Antonio Report in September 2018.
He was asked outright about the need for a certain number of players. His answer:
To some extent the number is arbitrary, but the truth is, what is astonishing about orchestral music is to have a group of musicians, a large number, playing in unison. And the overtones that they generate are thrilling, that you feel it. And not only do you hear your great music, but you feel this sort of wave of sound coming at you. It’s very different from what we’re used to hearing when we just use headsets. And if you start reducing that number, it becomes easy to keep reducing that number. Because “oh, we could use a few less; oh, we could do a few less violins; oh, we could do one less cello; oh, one less bass. And as you start reducing it and reducing it and reducing it, that wall of sound is no longer a wall. And it’s not that it’s not wonderful to hear a string quartet. But you don’t want to hear a string quartet play a Beethoven symphony. And so we need to protect the size of our orchestras even though it’s financially challenging. Because we don’t want to cheapen the product.
Kaiser was also asked if he thought that enough financial support existed in San Antonio to support not just the day-to-day operations of the orchestra, but an eventual endowment drive, as well. Kaiser said yes. This was the road map he sketched out:
It absolutely is a realistic possibility! We just have to do it in a smart way. We already have about two million dollars that are not technically an endowment; they sit in a donor-advised funds, but we benefit from the income of those in perpetuity. So there is a part of a structure already in place. We definitely want an endowment; we definitely need an endowment. But an endowment drive comes after an organization feels extremely solid and the donors say this is going so well, now we want to make that very large gift that’s going to make sure this continues in the future. There’s no questioning that this institution has had some rocky years behind it. And we need to convince a group of major donors that we’re here to stay, things are on the upswing, and frankly I think that’s going to take the appointment of my replacement, of a permanent executive director, but when we do, and when we’ve gone through another year or so and people go, wow, this is really on a great trajectory, that’s when it’s possible to go for those very large gifts. Until that point in time, I think we have to focus on getting the annual gift in, making sure we are balancing our budgets, and making sure that we’re looking rock solid.
So of course the next question was, what qualities would the next executive director need to possess?
I always refer to this job as an arts entrepreneur. Someone who builds connections. Who finds ways to build audiences, who finds ways to build connections to new donors, who finds ways to build connections to other arts organizations or educational institutions or other kinds of institutions, and build these relationships that increase the size of the institutional family. I think that’s an entrepreneurial function. And so it’s gotta be someone I think who knows how to do this in an arts environment. I think one thing many arts organizations have suffered from is hiring often as an executive director someone without that expertise. They’ve been successful running something but not necessarily an arts organization. And it doesn’t mean they aren’t wonderful managers. But there are tricks to the trade and there are things to know about running an arts organization. And I hope that anyone who comes in has that rock solid knowledge and entrepreneurial zeal to go out and make connections throughout the whole San Antonio community and potentially beyond.
In September 2018, the San Antonio Symphony, under the leadership of Michael Kaiser and Kathleen Weir Vale, announced it had ended its season $200,000 in the black.
Michael Kaiser expressed certainty in his September 2018 podcast interview that some great permanent executive director candidates would emerge for the San Antonio position.
“When you’re approached by an organization that already has shown there’s a group of people who are truly passionate, who are really willing to work hard and show results and in a city where there’s so much growth and potential, that to me was extremely exciting, and I believe it will be exciting to many people who will be interested in having a permanent executive director position here at the San Antonio Symphony.”
The winner of the search was announced on November 13, 2018. His name was Corey Cowart. He had been the executive director at the Amarillo Symphony since 2015, and before that, he was on the administrative staff of the Minnesota Opera and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. He plays the trombone.
In March 2019, once he’d gotten settled, he did a joint interview with Vale for the San Antonio Report. Vale raved, “He’s an American orchestra professional executive director, who comes to us experienced, seasoned. Other people have learned on the job, but he’s got all the chops. We don’t have to wait for him to learn. He’s teaching us. He’s teaching us what to do, how to do it.”
Now is where I’m going to get nitpicky. Especially given later events, there were several moments in the interview that struck me as odd, or even alarming.
RR: A month ago, Kathleen, you said Corey has some proven strategies for marketing, so you decided not to hire a new marketing director yet.
Cowart: The most important thing we have to do is grow our audience and grow our subscription base. When you look at how critical that is, we can’t afford to get it wrong in how we execute or the things we choose to do. … We engaged a firm – CR Stager [based in New York] – to basically be our interim director of marketing, to hit the ground running as we work to build and train our staff in that capacity. They’re basically the industry experts in orchestral marketing. … We’re focused on the absolute fundamentals, and they’re the right team right now to help lead that and also to help as we bring on more staff, to coach our staff in best practices, and how to execute.
RR: And what are a couple of those key fundamentals?
Cowart: Primarily it’s direct mail, it’s radio, newsprint, and telling people what’s actually being played.
The other thing is just getting into more radio advertising in a way that’s focused on helping people along with what the concert sounds like. As an example, not everybody may know what every Beethoven Symphony sounds like. But there’s a reason [Symphonies No.] 3, 5, 7, and 9 sell a lot better than the others. So if you help out, even with just those opening bars of Symphony No. 2, everybody’s heard that before, and it’s like, “Oh yeah, I can come to that.” So just those basic things.
RR: Where is this orchestra in five years?
Cowart: I’m not going to be egotistical enough to say I have an answer for that. It’s a question that we need to all figure out together. Being here only a little over two months, we’re still trying to figure out exactly what those questions are, but that’s with the musicians, with the board, with the other community stakeholders.
For me, at a high level, it’s that we are seen as an artistically ambitious and financially strong cultural leader for our region, whatever that needs to look like. But drilling down on the specifics of that, that’s where we need a whole lot more smart people than me in the room and talking about it.
Look, to be clear, I totally support listening to the community and taking their wishes into account, but…surely the leader of a big orchestra should be able to communicate a more compelling answer to this question than, basically, “I’ll get back to you.”
When Vale was asked the same question, she had a much more dynamic answer. (Albeit one that did not age well.)
RR: Kathleen, what does the Symphony look like in five years?
Vale: … It’s a place where the hall is filled when we perform. It’s a place where the musicians are thinking of as a destination orchestra. We have many, many musicians for whom it is a destination – very fine, world-class musicians. They’re geniuses, they’re wonderful musicians, gifted, dedicated, devoted to the city, devoted to their families, their community, their students, their audience, and my vision is to have them in a situation where they’re financially secure, where they wouldn’t dream of leaving SA.
RR: Is it a full-year performance schedule for them at that point, versus the current 30-week schedule?
Vale: I think it probably could be expanded, yes, it could be grown. They would love that. Those musicians live to play, they live to make art. They are the art, and they make the art.
Almost a year to the day of that joint interview, the world fell apart. Suddenly, with the advent of the pandemic, orchestras all around the country were forced to swim for their lives. The San Antonio Symphony was no exception. Their musicians gave back a big chunk of their compensation to help keep the ship afloat.
That said, despite the difficulties, as recently as May 2021, executive director Corey Cowart seemed optimistic about the future.
We were very fortunate to be reenergized by the recruiting of the board of directors who really stepped up in their engagement, philanthropic support, and the overall health of the organization (after the management change). Coming out of that, there was momentum being built and that’s right when COVID hit. Just like every other arts organization in San Antonio and internationally, that impacted us with millions of dollars of challenges. From concerts that weren’t happening and funding institutions that, rightfully so, were switching focus to food banks and the things that are critical need when so much of our society is hurting. We’ve had to drastically reduce our budget this year—it is less than half of what it has been historically. But we’ve been fortunate. I think 85 percent of our patrons that had purchased tickets to the cancelled concerts in 2020 chose to donate the value of the tickets back to the symphony. It’s been challenging, but we’ve been able to navigate through with announcing this next season and being back to live concerts. We are trying to get this momentum to really do the best we can to capitalize on the huge amount of pent-up demand for just doing things again and in a safe way.
– Corey Cowart
On September 13, the management team made a “last, best, and final” offer to the San Antonio Symphony musicians. Management might as well have told Michael Kaiser to go to his car, burn his car, and then take the bus and go home.
On Sunday evening, San Antonio Symphony management declared an impasse in negotiations in order to impose contract terms that would mean a reduction from 72 full-time positions (71 musicians and one music librarian) to 42, with 26 part-time musicians to bring the full complement of the orchestra to 68 members…
The musicians’ negotiating committee rejected the notion of becoming a “split” orchestra of part-time and full-time musicians. They also said no to an earlier offer of a nearly 50% pay cut and a subsequent offer of a one-third reduction in pay and health benefits for full-time musicians, and proposed yearly wages of $11,250 for part-time musicians with no health benefits.
This during a pandemic. In Texas.
Vale is quoted in the article as saying, “It’s very difficult for all, for the board, for the organization, it’s difficult for everyone. We love our musicians, we love our orchestra, we love our art. And it’s very difficult. I can’t imagine a board that loves its artists any more than this one.”
So obviously there are a lot of questions here.
What happened to Kathleen Weir Vale? Why exactly did the tenor of her statements change so utterly? (I don’t know.)
What happened to the board-approved ideological road map from Kaiser, a leader whose ideas she once embraced so wholeheartedly? (I don’t know.)
Was Kaiser wrong when he said it would be possible to fundraise for an endowment in San Antonio? (I don’t know.)
Why does nobody in this situation on the management side seem to understand that they are about to drive away many musicians, who will make more money doing pretty much anything else? (I don’t know.)
Why are they so convinced they’ll be able to get more money from a community by presenting a smaller-scale product? Have they done the extensive market studies on how their audience will react? Surely they did. Didn’t they? Didn’t they? (I don’t know.)
Why are they pursuing a permanent solution to what appears to be, by their own public statements, a situation caused primarily by Covid? Because Vale was talking about expanding the season the year before the pandemic started. Or was the “momentum” post-Kaiser all a mirage? (I don’t know.)
What is happening? (I don’t know.)
Do I have the answers? F*ck, no.
As this thing drags out, more answers may come out, and they may define their position more clearly. Until then, I feel like we’re left to guess about a lot of things.
But one thing seems clear.
If the citizens of San Antonio want to preserve a chance at rebuilding their orchestra, they – rich and poor alike – are going to have to team up and figure out yet another way for the orchestra to cheat death (again). This revolving door of leadership has got to stop spinning. The toxicity has to be addressed, and the bizarre ideological zigzagging surrounding the last few years resolved and explained. Because so many people want the music to go on. They need and deserve that now more than ever. That’s something that hopefully everyone can agree on.
Might J. Bruce Bugg have some role to play here, you ask?
Probably not. Or if he wants to, you probably want to gently dissuade him from getting involved. The other day I looked at the most recently available Tobin Endowment 990, which is for fiscal year 2018. Bugg paid himself $516,007 in trustee fees. He still claimed he spent forty hours a week working on the Tobin Endowment, despite the fact he also had several other jobs at the time, including Chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission. In addition, he was paid an asset distribution fee of $280,614 for the sale of property. So according to the 990, he walked away from the Tobin Endowment with just shy of $800,000 in compensation that year alone.
In February, he was reappointed by Governor Abbott to the Texas Transportation Commission. As one last endnote for this entry, he has gone into the coronavirus testing business, cofounding an organization called Community Labs. His partner in the venture is his buddy from SMSA, Tullos Wells. Community Labs is, like the Tobin Endowment, a non-profit.
Ten years ago today, I published the first entry of a new blog.
I named the blog Song of the Lark, after Willa Cather’s 1915 novel about a Midwestern girl who, as she grows into adulthood and her artistry, gains and loses much.
That first entry served as a thesis statement for every bloggy thing to come. It focused primarily on my inability to decide whether I should be a writer or musician or historian or an improbable combination of all three. I was 21, and these kinds of questions held a panicked urgency. I remember feeling as if an arbitrary hourglass I couldn’t see was running out of sand.
The next ten years were unimaginable in every way. I embraced everything I loved, on the blog and off. Dreams I didn’t even know I had came true. (And to be fair, some of the biggest nightmares did, too.)
I haven’t written here since the summer of 2019. Which…isn’t surprising. I’ve just had nothing to say, or else I’ve never felt that I was the best person to say it. For a while, I chalked the silence up to personal busyness. Then I was horrified anew at the constant devolution of social media and everything connected to it. Then the pandemic struck, and like the rest of you, I watched the field that I thought would always be my ballast sink beneath waves, unceremoniously. That was when I really felt the silence, and the sheer size of the ocean.
I knew everyone else was in their own lifeboat, some leakier than others, watching the wreck at the same time I was. Even so, I didn’t really want to reach out. It hurt to see others hurt. I think I thought the least painful way out would be rowing to shore by myself, and trying to forget that the sinking had even happened. I rowed a long way. I’m good at lying to myself.
I filled up the silence with other sounds. Did other things. Became another person, or at least a variation on an original theme. Made other friends. Fell in love in a new way. Wrestled with realizations. Wrote more than I’ve ever written on the blog. This time, it was all fiction.
I didn’t thrive, by any means, but I survived. Surviving in these times is not nothing. However, the faster the needle mark on my upper arm fades, the more intensely I’m panicking to find a purpose. When you step out of the darkness into the light, what exactly will you be looking for?
Because the brutal truth is: in this year of crisis, I didn’t need music in the way I always assumed I would. What I needed was the love it made me feel, the spirit of connection, the camaraderie of it. And there’s such a lot of love in the world, and there are so many ways to find it.
The forced break, and everything that happened during it, has also opened my eyes to how much in this field is so deeply, fundamentally broken. I need to think long and hard about where I want to invest my self. I need to think about where I’ll be useful, and where I’ll be happy. Ideally, somewhere I’ll be both.
(This doesn’t mean I’ve fallen out of love with music. I haven’t. And it wouldn’t be fair to make any sweeping generalizations about my future when I haven’t been to a concert in two years. I just… When it comes to understanding what drives me to get out of bed in the morning, I don’t want to impose any false horizons.)
Now that I think about it, it feels – again – like an hourglass I can’t see is running out of sand. The further away I get from her, the more I relate to that 21-year-old from 2011, slowly understanding that what she should feel and what she is actually is feeling might be two paths splitting apart.
I wish I could go back and tell her the hourglass never existed.
And I wish I could know it still doesn’t.
Long story short, I’m not sure what’s next. I’m closing my eyes tight, trying not to be afraid of what I might see once I open them. Then, eventually, I suppose I will embrace what I love, whether that be something in music, fiction, non-fiction, history, politics, activism, the woods, who knows. Doing what I loved worked out nicely for me this last decade, truly. Most people live a lifetime without seeing the adventures I saw in my twenties alone, nearly all of which I wrote about here, and I’ll always be grateful I was so lucky. Starting this blog not only made my life livable; it probably saved it. It was the single most consequential decision, and the single best decision, I’ve ever made. And that wasn’t because of the art. It was because people are good.
So maybe everything will work out over the next ten years, too. I’d like to think so. I’ll try to keep coming back more regularly to share if it does. In the meantime, I spend too much time on Twitter, so if you really want intermittent updates, you can catch me there.
In that first entry ten years ago I quoted Lady Leonora Speyer, Pulitzer Prize winning poet and concert violinist, who in 1919 said in an interview, “The bird, the wind, the sea, the heart of man, all sing: the musician writes down the melody, the poet the words; the song is God’s. If you have a message and can give it, and can reach another soul with your singing, then all is indeed right with the world.” Especially emerging from this pandemic, when so little seems certain, when there’s just an exhausted desperation to cling to anything that even sounds like wisdom, I hope she’s still right. I think she is.
“The past closes up behind one, somehow,” Cather mused in The Song of the Lark. “One would rather have a new kind of misery. The old kind seems like death or unconsciousness. You can’t force your life back into that mould again.” Then, decisively: “No, one can’t go back.”
Even after my blog updating petered out, whenever I’ve been able to, I’ve been working on a very big project. I’ve been too quiet about it and too coy, and I shouldn’t have been, and I apologize for that.
It’s a profile of composer Louise Bertin, whose relatively obscure story is worthy not just of a blog entry, but an entire HBO miniseries. It spans two generations of political upheaval, media dynasties, wealth, poverty, Romanticism, revolution, disability, Paris, Victor Hugo, Hector Berlioz… Her story is a key to so many other kinds of stories. My attempt to do her life justice has resulted in an obsession with late-eighteenth and early nineteenth-century France, which is a time and place that I hadn’t been that interested in before, and consequently, the background reading necessary to understand has taken a long time, just because I just have so much to learn and synthesize. But I promise that the entry has been percolating, and I have dozens and dozens of pages of retyped color-coded notes, and pounds and pounds of (expensive) books. It will not be a short entry. To tell the story I want to tell, I’ll probably need the word-count of a novella. We’ll see. In any case, expect that…sometime in the next decade. I hope so sincerely that you’ll find it worth the wait.
Comments are off because I have a backlog of them to answer and I’m not up to adding to the pile. Take care of yourselves, friends.
That moment came during a landmark episode of The Colbert Report, the long-running show in which Stephen Colbert played a satirical caricature of an idiotic cable news pundit. This particular episode discussed how Stephen’s father, Dr. James Colbert, had just been hired as a hospital administrator when he became involved with negotiating an end to the infamous 1969 Charleston hospital workers’ strike. During that time, Dr. Colbert worked – successfully! – with activist Andrew Young to reach an agreement. Nearly forty years later, in the shadow of the WGA strike, Stephen interviewed Young in-character on his show. Video:
The whole interview is interesting (if dated in certain ways…), but a couple of Young’s quotes lodged their way into my brain and have stayed there for over a decade.
“I was mayor of Atlanta and cities all over America were striking,” he said. “But a Teamster union organizer told me, ‘Strikes are never about money. Strikes are about respect.'” Young also said, “What your father did was be reasonable, and be humble.”
Strikes are never about money. Strikes are about respect.
Be reasonable, and be humble.
Lately much of the discourse surrounding the ongoing Baltimore Symphony lockout has centered around money: shaming of musicians for wanting to be paid a certain amount of money, concerns that money has been spent or distributed unwisely, tut-tutting at donors for not giving more money. And don’t get me wrong: God only knows, money is important! An orchestra can’t function without money, and a lot of it. The role of money should not, and cannot, be ignored here. Everyone, keep following the money!
But! If the Baltimore Symphony administration focuses on money and the bottom line at the cost of everything else – ignoring politicians’ and donors’ and customers’ and citizens’ concerns over governance in the process – that orchestra’s future will be a small and bleak one.
an utterly calamitous or mismanaged situation or occurrence : DISASTER
Needless to say, the Baltimore Symphony lockout is a dumpster fire.
A new vague proposal (threat?) floated in the Baltimore Sun on July 10th is, to my eyes, a potential game-changer. And not just for Baltimore, either: for managements, musicians, donors, and patrons all over the United States.
If what Chris Bartlett, the chair of the Baltimore Symphony Endowment Trust, proposes in this article comes to pass, a philanthropic Rubicon will have been crossed: a blazing dumpster fire fueled. And across that river, and beneath that trash, lay myriads of unsettling, unnerving unknowns.
I want to preface the rest of this with my opinion. To my mind, a lockout is the most horrifying, corrosive form of labor dispute. It does not pave the way to a stronger, healthier organization. It is symptomatic of breakdown. Thought of charitably, it is an admission of failure: a confession of incompetence. Thought of less charitably, it is a form of arson meant to quickly transform an organization, or to score political or social points.
That interpretation rings especially true when a lockout happens at an orchestra. An orchestra’s reason for being isn’t to make money, but rather to improve the lives of citizens. The music is the product. Therefore, you cannot lock out an orchestra without simultaneously locking out audiences, the entire justification for the organization’s existence. This simple fact makes orchestral lockouts especially serious and grave.
Because a lockout is such an unspeakably extreme last resort, it is the responsibility of any management team to broadcast the severity of the situation calmly and consistently over a period of years, and then, more importantly, to respect stakeholders and to search tirelessly for equal partners to help fix problems with.
Based on the facts currently in the public domain, that is not the path that the Baltimore Symphony chose to follow. They’ve snubbed the (to my eyes) reasonable requests of Save Our BSO, a group of audience advocates, and many of the Baltimore musicians found out about the upcoming lockout via social media rather than in-person. Obviously, these stakeholders are not being respected and treated as the equal partners that they are.
Until the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra canceled its summer season, few people outside the nonprofit’s administrative offices realized just how precarious its financial situation was.
Well, um. I guess this blog entry is over, then, right? Honestly, that information is all the information we need to know. It’s strike one. Based on that fact alone, the current leadership is either inept, unfit, or untrustworthy (or all three). Before they reached the cliff, they were apparently unaware of what was going down financially (how?) or unwilling to build bridges with stakeholders to problem-solve (why not?). To my mind, both possibilities are disqualifying, and they signal a need for resignations. Honestly, the Sparknotes version of this entry ends here.
I wrote a Twitter thread about this and thought I’d adapt it for an entry, in case these sentiments would be helpful to anyone who isn’t on Twitter.
Here’s a message for the Baltimore Symphony musicians and audience advocacy group Save Our BSO on the night that the Baltimore Symphony lockout begins…
These kinds of tactics have been used before, and a decent chunk of us in the classical music twittersphere and blogosphere have watched it happen (and not just in Minnesota in 2012).
Musician supporters are not fighting sheerly for the livelihoods of musicians, as important and indeed as sacred as those are. We are fighting for the preservation of the life-changing blessing of orchestral music that has changed (and in some cases maybe saved) our lives.
What’s happening in Baltimore is awful governance. Baltimore deserves better. Any community deserves better.
I don’t know how this will shake out, and the uncertainty is terrifying, especially for those directly financially and professionally affected by it.
That said, folks will be alongside you to celebrate or to mourn, as the occasion requires.
Keep your allies posted, as best you can, about what the most overwhelming things happening are. We will do our best to help, and to share any wisdom that we happened to accrue while enduring orchestral labor disputes of our own.
We who advocate for the transparent, responsive governance of American orchestras must push back against this failure.
Know that this is deeply, deeply personal for so many of us, whether we’re musicians or patrons.
That knowledge will not pay musicians’ bills. It will not temper the pain of having to leave their families for weeks on end to take sub gigs to survive. It will not secure stable organizational leadership. It will not make the board listen to desperately worried sick patrons.
But I hope that in some small way the knowledge that you are not alone will comfort you. I hope it comforts you to know that you are right to care, and to sacrifice as far as you see fit, and to know that you are not alone.
You are not alone.
Blessings to all. Keep in touch.
Friends, please stay up to date on this situation! The Baltimore Symphony Musicians’ website is here. The Save Our BSO audience advocacy group website is here. From there you can follow those groups on social media.
If you feel moved, please support transparent governance however you can, whether by reading articles online about the dispute (this helps show the press that people care!), or by liking and sharing social media posts, or by donating money, or by sending letters or emails of support, or by considering doing whatever else these groups suggest the public do. Those are the best ways to help right now. And good thoughts and a few prayers wouldn’t go amiss, either.
Signing off with the hope that American orchestral governance as a whole improves, and soon. There are so many smart, creative people in this field. I hope we can build a future where we can avoid these heartwrenching situations entirely.
Imagine, if you will. A non-profit dependent on the trust of the community it serves. The product they push isn’t a product at all; it’s an experience created by people. People who have worked themselves to the bone from childhood to perfect their craft. Imagine, if you will, a decision seemingly pointing to deliberate destruction.
*perches coolly on the edge of a desk*
This non-profit is the Baltimore Symphony in the year two-thousand-and-nineteen AD. April twenty-four: management announces a summer season of concerts. May twenty-five: the state government approves $3.2 million to carry the organization through financial trouble. May thirty: the organization’s leadership burns every bridge, to every stakeholder, for reasons yet unknown and unknowable.
*drags on cigarette*
Ladies and gentlemen, you don’t have to imagine. Because…
Well, I didn’t get an entry up here this month, partly because I’m generally a dumpster fire of a human being, but also because I’ve been trying to juggle some other projects…
I wrote this essay for the Minnesota Orchestra about Amy Beach ahead of their April 13th Inside the Classics show, which will feature a performance of the Gaelic Symphony after intermission. GO TO THIS. Or just buy a ticket for someone else. If you’re interested in hearing the work of historical women, then you need to buy tickets to hear the work of historical women. Tickets are here.
I wrote the program notes for Missy Mazzoli’s beautiful piece These Worlds In Us, which was performed by the Minnesota Orchestra this month. The concert is past, but if you want to read them, click here for the PDF.
I was the pre-concert speaker at the Hill House Chamber Players’ March concerts. I’m also scheduled to return April 29th and May 6, when I’ll be wrapping up their season of trios by looking at the heartbreaking history of Shostakovich’s second piano trio.
I’m also penning the program notes for this summer’s Lakes Area Music Festival concerts. In the meantime you can mark your calendars to make a pilgrimage up north, den; the festival lasts from August 2nd to 25th.
Plus I had a bad spring cold (ugh), and I’m assembling taxes as a freelancer (also ugh).
Blogwise I found two women that I really, really wanted to write about, and I invested huge chunks of time into researching both of them…only to realize that both deserve more time than what I have to give them. But I have lots of notes written out, and I promise I’m going to track down the research material (thank you for helping out with the cost of that, my dear generous Patreon supporters!) and assemble their stories, even if it takes a longer than usual. This summer I’ll have been writing regular blog entries about women for two years (!), so maybe it’s good to mix the timing and type of profile up a bit? We’ll see, I guess!
So anyway, I just wanted to check in. I’m not dead. Stay tuned; hopefully I’ll have more soon, and maybe I’ll catch you in-person or in written form at one of the above events!