Hartford Symphony Hornbook

It strikes me I should just automate my autumn blog entries using a contract dispute MadLib.

[NAME], the CEO of the [CITY OR STATE NAME] Orchestra, has recently threatened [ASTONISHINGLY HIGH NUMBER] percentage cuts in musician compensation, because of [THE ECONOMY / “THE NEW MODEL” / A LACK OF SUSTAINABILITY]. In his role as CEO, he earns [ASTONISHINGLY HIGH NUMBER EXPONENTIALLY HIGHER THAN PREVIOUS ASTONISHINGLY HIGH NUMBER] every year, and yet has puzzlingly few symphonic accomplishments to show for it. In the run-up to the dispute, [CEO NAME] has given public indications that he is more interested in the [NAME OF HALL THE ORCHESTRA PLAYS IN or PARENT ORGANIZATION THE ORCHESTRA HAS BEEN ABSORBED INTO] than in the [CITY OR STATE NAME] Orchestra, and also has an undeniable weakness for pops shows. [INSENSITIVE QUOTE DEMONSTRATING A LACK OF UNDERSTANDING OF THE ISSUES]

In 2012 (…and 2013…), the star of the MadLib was the Minnesota Orchestra’s Michael Henson. In 2014, we all enjoyed the antics of Atlanta Symphony President Dr. Stanley Romanstein, Ph.D. (Both have since moved on from their respective organizations.) Now American orchestra lovers have a new name to learn: David Fay is the man in charge of the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, as well as the Hartford Symphony Orchestra.

The Hartford Symphony, however, is a more….recent acquisition.

*ominous thunderclap in distance*

First, let’s back up. According this biography, Mr. Fay received a bachelor’s degree in Speech Communication from Wheaton College and a master’s degree in Theater Arts from Northwestern University. At various points in his career, he was executive director of Toronto’s Pantages Theatre, Director of the Weinstein Center for the Performing Arts at the National College of Education, and President and CEO of Fox Associates in St. Louis, Missouri. He was also executive director of the Will County Exposition and Auditorium Authority, where he worked to re-develop downtown Joliet, Illinois, among other projects. He joined the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts as CEO in 2001.

If you’re getting the vibe that his resume is more theater-y and real-estate-y than symphony-y, you aren’t alone in your vibe-getting. As the Hartford Courant put it in April 2001:


So. Fast-forward a bit to our next exhibit. Here are some excerpts from a 2006 Courant article about the relationship between the Bushnell and orchestral music, leavened by my reactions in GIF format.

Reflecting on the Bushnell’s legacy of visiting orchestras, Fay said, “It appears that the economics of continuing to do it with audiences are not being sustained. They are, in fact, going the other direction.” …


Fay is enthusiastic about a January recital by 26-year-old violin virtuoso Hilary Hahn, one of the Bushnell’s few scheduled classical performances by a visiting artist next season. He gets even more animated about the prospects of new commissioned works and a symphonic concert of video game music, similar to a Bushnell program last year of music from the “Final Fantasy” video games.

“It’s about the symphonic music of today. Just like Mozart wrote for court entertainments or Beethoven wrote for any numbers of entertainment, which then became what we refer to today as classical music. Over time, it gained a stature of its own,” he said.

“In time, we’ll look back and say what are the great symphonic suites of the late 20th century and the early 21st century? Some of them will live in this entertainment or video game world but will take on a classical sense of their own. That’s where I draw a comparison to the classical composers 200 years ago.”


“Every effort that the Bushnell makes is for building new audiences for the Broadway shows. No effort was put into building or maintaining the classical music subscription base,” said a former Bushnell employee who worked at the hall until recently and didn’t want his name used. “Everyone on the staff of the Bushnell sees classical music as a loser: as a money loser, audience loser, time waster, and a sucking-up of resources.”

“The rejuvenation of classical music can’t take place without the strong support of trustees and someone on the staff who’s completely devoted to and familiar with classical music,” Suisman [a Bushnell trustee] said. “We must face the reality that employees at the Bushnell are taking on works in other areas, from Broadway to children’s shows, as well as major educational programs. The staff has their hands full.”


Well. Obviously, under these circumstances, the last thing the Bushnell would ever want to do is assume management of the Hartford Symphony.

I think you know what happened next.


WNPR neatly described the partnership as, “The Bushnell would essentially take over the management of the orchestra.” The Bushnell’s contract to provide these management services lasted for two years.

Various stakeholders characterized the deal differently. The Courant article claimed the partnership occurred because the symphony was “ailing.” Interestingly, said article went so far as to discuss music director Carolyn Kuan’s impact on the budget.

Concern over the symphony’s financial stability and its limited staffing was underscored in the past two years after conductor Carolyn Kuan was appointed in 2011. Kuan, considered an innovator whose new performance and collaborative initiatives has attracted a more diverse audience and additional donor potential, has had other new ideas that have been stymied because of limited staff and money.

But a few months later, in September 2014, Kuan was interviewed by the Courant and said:

Well first of all, let’s realize that we didn’t enter this arrangement because we were ailing, or out of any kind of desperation. Attendance is up, donations are up. Having said that, we saw that a lot of what we talk about for the future – more community outreach, cultivation of new audiences and all the other ideas we have – we literally don’t have the manpower to accomplish these things by ourselves. So this seemed like a partnership that could be exciting. We thought we could complement each other. I don’t know exactly what the structure will be in two or three years, but I do believe in our ability to figure it out.

In the same interview, Kuan was asked about the biggest challenges of her tenure. She cited administrative churn at the top:

Well, as an organization we’ve been through a lot of changes in a short time. That much change in a short time was unexpected, and certainly made things more difficult.

Despite any difficulties, this April, Kuan signed a truly remarkable 6-year contract extension, as this article details. Her tenure will extend into 2022.

Soooooooooo. Sh*t’s getting weird. Let’s recap:

  • The CEO in charge of the orchestra can’t prioritize the orchestra because his first loyalty is to the performing arts center.
  • The CEO has a real passion for Broadway and real estate development.
  • Less than ten years ago, the newspaper found a former employee willing to share several juicy quotes about how the Bushnell saw classical music as a “loser.”
  • Despite this, the Bushnell recently signed a contract to provide services to the Hartford Symphony.
  • The music director is potentially (?) criticizing the local newspaper.
  • The music director is saying that, a year ago, the orchestra was neither ailing nor in a desperate position.
  • The music director has just signed a six year contract extension.

And I think you know where the MadLib goes from here.

According to this July 2015 article in Broadway World:

In 2014-15, [Hartford Symphony] Core musicians earned a little over $23,000. In 2015-16, these musicians are being asked to accept under $15,000 a year, a figure that represents a 40% reduction in wages.


They’re also being asked for more scheduling flexibility. In the case of Hartford, that phrase means scheduling services during the day, which will make it difficult or impossible for musicians to take the second jobs they need to have in order to, you know, subsist on the Earth.

And to finish, here’s one more visual aid that I stole from the satirical Woodruff Center for Orchestra Lockouts Facebook page:

hartford symphony pic

Even more sigh-worthy is the fact that when you Google “David Fay Bushnell” in an attempt to understand more about his work and career, the first result is an article in the Courant about Fay’s recent engagement and the designer ring he presented to his fiancee.

ring description


Soooo. I think I have all the information I need for now. That’s not to say there aren’t more stories to be told. I’m sure there are, and hopefully the press will dig into them. I doubt you get to a cliff like this without some amazing behind-the-scenes stories. What about Fay’s interest in real estate, and the iQuilt project that features prominently under the Bushnell website’s About tab? What are the financial consequences – positive and/or negative – of the partnership between the Bushnell and Elephant Eye Productions? The AP reported that the Hartford Symphony is thinking of creating “musical dialogues” in which “audience members … talk to musicians.” What does that offering look like? What’s the proposed “digital institute” all about? WNPR recently described what the public knows:

Speaking of things around the corner, the Bushnell – even as we speak – is quietly trying to assemble an ambitious digital “institute” that would equip the hall, and therefore its users, with state of the art technology for doing these very things and more. I’m a little startled by the price tag for this project – reported to be in the several millions of dollars – but I would be foolish to comment on, much less stand in opposition to, a bold, big-picture initiative like this without knowing a whole lot more about it. I hope that in the coming days the Bushnell will see fit to share the details with everybody.


Here, though, is the most pressing issue of all: do the patrons of Hartford want their symphony orchestra managed by an organization that doesn’t appear to have much expertise in managing symphony orchestras?

The answers are still out there. But for the time being, I believe that an afternoon of Googling has revealed enough information to…


Automate the MadLib!

David Fay, the CEO of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, has recently threatened 40% percentage cuts in musician compensation, because classical music is a money loser, audience loser, time waster, and a sucking-up of resources. In his role as CEO, he earns $392,000 every year in salary and benefits, and yet has puzzlingly few symphonic accomplishments to show for it. In the run-up to the dispute, Mr. Fay has given a wide variety of public indications he is more interested in the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts and its Broadway offerings than in the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, and also has an undeniable weakness for pops shows. “We have to stop being so precious about the music.”


Filed under Labor Disputes

6 responses to “Hartford Symphony Hornbook

  1. Florestan

    Let’s also remember that the Bushnell was responsible for the demise of the Hartford Ballet by denying them Nutcracker dates in December (to be fair, this was prior to Fay’s tenure).

    It was also instrumental (no pun intended) for the demise of the Connecticut Opera. When an effort was made to resurrect the company Fay said that “there will be opera in Hartford over my dead body”.

    I wish I could oblige him…

  2. Amy Adams

    1. Emily investigates Minnesota Orchestra CEO during musician lockout. CEO resigns, is currently nowhere to be found, professionally speaking.
    2. Emily investigates Atlanta Symphony Orchestra CEO during musician lockout. CEO resigns, is currently nowhere to be found, professionally speaking.
    3. Emily is now investigating another CEO.
    There’s no lockout…yet. But it’s sure getting interesting.

  3. John Patrick Thomas

    It’s one thing to know little about something and another thing not to care. The worst is to be so narcissistic that you don’t notice what the real situation is. I hope the Emily Effect will take place at the Bushnell Center. The sooner, the better. What an idiot! After concerts of music from vid games, film music, and show tune medleys, he will certainly think it daring and radical to present scores from porn movies (like an orchestra in San Francisco – very successful), right up his opportunistic and manipulative alley. Definitely an idiot.

    • jimmy

      What a self-satisfied, snide and uninformed opinion. I don’t know where to start with pointing out inaccuracies and fabrications. Just as an example the reference to classical music being a money loser was made in reference to a specific series with guest orchestras at the Bushnell. In fact not only was it a huge money loser but the HSO lobbied intensely for the Bushnell to cancel the series as it was viewed as competition and and stealing audience from the HSO.
      Real estate? Another uninformed or disingenuous criticism. In fact audience surveys confirmed that people were and are afraid of the general area where the Bushnell is situated. Trying to remedy that involves taking an active role in the community.
      Have you ever stepped foot in Hartford? What do you know about its demographics, its geography, its giving habits etc. In fact what do you know about the HSO’s history, its budget, its patrons? I don’t see you proposing any solutions to all the underlying problems faced by the HSO or similar orchestras. The best you can do is ad hominem attacks? Is it your position that the difficulties faced by orchestras today are merely the result of bad boards and bad management? I could go on and on but don’t see the point. If you’re so insightful and brilliant why don’t you put down your bow and take over any of the many orchestras that are in distress.

      • Hey Jimmy, I’m so glad to see you here and chat!

        I’m going to start from the end of your comment and then work my way back if that’s okay… Why don’t I take over an orchestra? Because one can’t go up to an orchestra and take it over, haha. But perhaps more pressingly, I’m a writer and not an administrator, and I don’t claim to be one. Articulating what is alarming from an outsider’s point of view and fixing what is wrong as leader of an organization are two very different skill sets. I’m better at the former than the latter. Also, I don’t think of myself as particularly insightful, and I sure don’t feel very brilliant.

        “Is your position that the difficulties faced by orchestras today are merely the result of bad boards and bad management?” It probably comes across that way, especially if you haven’t been a long-time reader, but no. After three years of watching the Minnesota Orchestra in both its worst and now best hours, I can identify the warning signs of bad boards and bad management. If I can do nothing else in my labor dispute blogging, it’s Identifying Similarities To Minnesota. Warning signs can include high pay for executives, a lack of training in the art form, a lack of appreciation for the art form, uncomfortable relationships between the halls and the orchestra, orchestra members feeling disrespected, sudden massive demands for huge cuts, etc. I promise those are not criticisms merely for the sake of criticisms. Those are criticisms borne from watching a very similar movie unfold in both Minneapolis and Atlanta.

        “I don’t see you proposing any solutions…” No, because I haven’t had the time to write about Hartford. Each entry I write involves days of research and discussion, and as you can see by my more recent entries, I’ve been working on other projects, as well. Plus, specific solutions require – as you rightly mention – a more detailed knowledge of what is happening on the ground. However, the first step in creating a dialogue to solve these problems is to identify the problems. But here are the Cliff’s Notes of what I WOULD suggest… 1) Embrace a culture of inclusion and appreciation (the Hartford musicians clearly don’t believe that’s in place, and I agree with them…I sure wouldn’t be feeling respected by my employer if they smacked a 40% pay cut on me with no warning). 2) Involve the stakeholders in a more dramatic way, taking notes from what happened in Minnesota. 3) Explain in more detail why these cuts are needed so suddenly, when Caroline Kuan discussed last year how well things were going financially. (And if things were so dire, why did they sign such a long-term contract with Kuan? There are any number of potential good reasons, but they haven’t explained it, and that quietness surely must be disconcerting for donors. Is this an organization that has a plan or know where it’s going?)

        Bottom line: it’s tough to tell what’s really going on here. It’s possible that the deficits are at least partially manufactured. In Minnesota, I heard from well-placed sources that certain big donors were actually asked not to donate to make the deficit more dramatic for negotiating. I would not be surprised if something similar is happening in Hartford. When that kind of situation happens, trust is broken. Trust is really the main key here. Trust is hard to gain, on both sides. It may take an outsider like Minnesota’s Kevin Smith figure to come in and look at the books and really understand what’s right with the organization. I could write a whole blog entry about that; like I said, it’s a time issue on my part, and identifying the problems always comes before offering suggestions for solutions.

        I think there’s a difference between taking an active role in the community and being financially tied up in real estate deals. I also submit that if the CEO’s expertise is in urban redevelopment, that’s what he should focus on, and he shouldn’t be dictating the HSO. Those are two drastically different fields. It’s not fair to the people of Hartford to hire a jack-of-all-trades to do this work, especially since the challenges are that much more acute for an orchestra with a small budget.

        In retrospect, I could have been more clear about the classical music being a money loser being in the context of that series of guest orchestra performances. But implicit within the Bushnell’s criticism is that orchestras themselves are money losers. Your mileage may vary on that interpretation.

        Nobody has all the answers, but I hope at least by talking with an outsider like me and verbalizing the points, you gain a clearer understanding of what your thoughts are. Do you know of an audience organization forming to help support the Hartford Symphony during this tough time? If not, I encourage you to look into starting a Save Our Symphony chapter; it did wonders rebuilding in Detroit and Minneapolis during similar management / musician issues. I assume you’re on the ground in Hartford? What do you recommend? Are you afraid about how many people might quit the symphony if the proposed changes in the contract go through? What are your thoughts about the artistic direction the HSO is going in (ie emphasis on pops concerts, etc)? Looking forward to continuing the dialogue here.

  4. Jimmy

    I do not have the time to engage in an extended back and forth so I will keep this short and it will be my last response.

    You claim to be a writer but a more accurate description is you are a polemicist. A writer would take the time to understand their subject and get the facts right. Clearly you have done neither.

    You claim you are identifying problems based on your perception of certain superficial similarities between the Hartford Symphony and others you have commented on. You assume that superficial similarities mean a similar pathology. This is a very shaky foundation for the criticisms you levy.

    If you get around to actually doing your homework I think you will have to correct many misstatements and will owe numerous apologies. Meanwhile I suggest you move on to subjects that you have taken the time to research.

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