Hartford Symphony: What’s Next?

Today is a big day in the Connecticut arts scene. Absent major musician concessions, tomorrow the Hartford Symphony will begin the process of “clos[ing] its doors – for good.” Today’s firm deadline has been repeated in the press again and again and again.

hartford symphony

Less clear, however: what management means by shutting down. Not giving concerts? (A lockout?) Bankruptcy? (What kind?) Dissolving? Or destroying the old organization to create a new one in its wake? No one in the mainstream media has asked.

Here are some more questions that have been bugging me:

Why was a shut-down not discussed until very, very recently? In their newly released FAQs, management claimed the reason was

because the HSO did not have a final plan in place (including a musicians’ contract) to stabilize its finances, coupled with the damage of negative publicity, a number of major donors and supporters expressed concern and advised they would not continue their significant support. This situation shortened the prospective “life expectancy” of the HSO from years to months.

Honesty: sometimes not the best policy, apparently. Also, it’s so fricking frustrating to see a Major Minnesota Mistake (TM) made again: different financial outlooks shared with different constituencies.

How many were “a number” of donors and supporters? Was the Hartford Symphony so weak that the loss of those donors crippled the entire organization? Did management know that, or were they blindsided? Who assessed the future prospects of the orchestra with these donors? In the absence of these donors, was there any discussion of a last ditch community-wide campaign to save this organization, a la the Milwaukee Symphony? Is there a consensus moving forward that even if musicians give concessions, this situation of relying on a small pool of donors is dangerous to the institution? And…unsustainable?

Almost two years ago, in March 2014, the Hartford Symphony began paying the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts to provide management services. Is it coincidence that the contract ends this summer? It could be. But in hindsight, the timing looks odd. If any of this was preordained or even worked toward, when did the planning start?

Why, in April of 2015, was music director Carolyn Kuan offered a six year contract? It lasts until May 2022! Did Hartford Symphony leaders not realize what was coming, less than a year ago? If they did realize, they were being disingenuous. If they didn’t realize, they were being dumb.

Why, in November 2015, did newly installed chairman of the Hartford Symphony board Jeff Verney say in the Simsbury Patch

“I look forward to working closely with the Board, the HSO artistic and management team, and especially our world-class musicians to bring orchestral music to ever-expanding audiences.”

That was only two months ago. Did Mr. Verney naively believe that world-class musicians would swallow enormous cuts in compensation and not resign? Did he not know closure was on the table? If not, why not? If he did, why didn’t he at least hint at it?

Why did HSO director of artistic operations Stephen Collins say that hiring a new assistant conductor is “a real investment in the value of the orchestra“? That quote isn’t from last month or last year. That is from TODAY. As in, the day before the orchestra starts to close, if concessions aren’t made. What the hell?

If the Hartford Symphony ceases to exist, what happens to the endowment? Here is a 2012 article to ponder: “Bankrupt But Endowed.” Under various legal scenarios, who would control the Hartford Symphony endowment? Does it remain in limbo? What organization gains access to it? Might the Bushnell Center get access to it?

What kind of legal expenses is the Hartford Symphony looking at as they close up shop? Who will pay those?

And most of those questions point to this one…

Is a revamped, cheaper, and more “sustainable” Hartford Symphony on its way? How about an orchestra that is smaller in scope and ambition? A pickup orchestra available to be hired for corporate events and donor parties? An orchestra that has fewer big classical events and focuses on more pops-friendly shows? (Minnesota peeps, does any of this sound familiar to you?) Based on what has happened so far, it would make sense. The Bushnell probably wouldn’t mind this turn of events, in the end. Such a group would be more useful and more relevant to what they do. When Jackie Evancho came to town, she employed a combination of recorded music and live accompaniment from Hartford Symphony players. Said orchestra could even play larger-scale classical music…once in a while.

In the absence of answers, and mainstream media investigation (which won’t occur), the people of Hartford are left with a lot of questions. If anyone involved with the Hartford Symphony wants to go on the record about anything, or wants to correct any of what I wrote, please do; the comment section is open, as it always is.

I’m not from Hartford. But I love orchestras. (I love well-run orchestras.) I love when managements and musicians are working together. I love when people set aside their egos to serve the art, which in turn serves the community, which is what all of this is about, ostensibly. And so I get concerned when entities in the field don’t answer obvious questions. It sets a bad precedent for the next dispute.

Regardless of how this week turns out, the Hartford Symphony is on the verge of major change. Doesn’t the community have a right to understand how?

11 Comments

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11 responses to “Hartford Symphony: What’s Next?

  1. drmarksays

    Hartford CT only has a population of 125,000, of which 30% live below the poverty line. The population is also skewed towards the young. It is the second poorest city in the US, on a per capita income basis.

    It seems to me that this is a community that would be best served by an entirely amateur orchestra, or a combination.

    Regretfully, I would have to say that keeping and paying for a fully professional orchestra in that community would be a stretch.

    Amateur orchestras can perform well. I was on the board of the GFSO in ND and made a lot of good broadcast with them. The Bemidji Symphony is outstanding, and Bemidji is a very small community to have a symphony orchestra.

    • Even if Hartford can’t pay for a symphony, that doesn’t excuse the bizarre moves from their management, like talking up an assistant conductor competition the day before closing the orchestra begins, or hiring a conductor at a (presumably) relatively large salary for six years, or telling different constituencies different things about what the finances of the organization look like…

    • Burt Rubenstein

      Greater Hartford is the largest metropolitan area in Connecticut with a population of 1,212,381 (Wikipedia). The Masterworks series seem to be about 70% full (4 concerts per series). Some Pops concerts (e.g., Holiday, Disney, etc.) are completely full. And yes, there is a big difference between a professional orchestra (and HSO is a very good regional orchestra — check out the resumes of the players) and a community orchestra.

    • sarct

      That’s true of Hartford the city, but not true of Greater Hartford. Those of us who live here are used to traveling into the city (such as it is) for culture, and there are many quite wealthy suburbs within a 20-minute drive. There is also a well-regarded music school (the Hartt School of Music) in the city, where many of the HSO musicians work in some capacity. There’s no reason that Hartford County can’t support a professional orchestra — with some vision and leadership from the top, which has apparently been lacking for quite some time now.

    • Meg

      IF we want to hear amateur orchestra we can visit high school concerts. Seriously. State or city are not paying a dime for “keeping” of this professional orchestra. So I am not sure what you are talking about. It is a heritage. Arts is heritage. It should be preserved and supported. Attitudes like yours are exactly the reason why arts are looked down upon. Let’s get rid of Wadsworth athenaeum and start visiting school arts shows. Who needs professional art if you can have amateur art shows. Who needs professional sports team. Let’s have amateur ones, let’s pay the $15,000 per year and ask them to be grateful and happy. Seriously…

  2. Burt Rubenstein

    Where is the board of trustees? Why are they saying and doing nothing? They are the stewards of the orchestra.

  3. Amy Adams

    What kind of lame long-range vision do they have at the Hartford Symphony?

  4. J B Dart

    Thank you for voicing the questions that many of us who have been following this situation from afar have been thinking. It does not make sense (1) for management to extend AND increase Carolyn Kuan’s contract when the possibility of a shutdown appeared possible, (2) for Carolyn Kuan not to comment on the situation or to try to facilitate a solution because if the orchestra dissolves, she would be waving her baton at an empty room. Either her contract would be null and void (the smart thing to do for a Board having all those Esqs) or she is going to get a sizable payout (because of a contractual clause) if the orchestra dissolves. In either option, Kuan appears like she doesn’t give a hoot about the musicians she leads. In other recent orchestral labor negotiations around the nation, conductors have very vocal and supported “their” musicians. Obviously by her lack of actions, HSO’s musicians are NOT her musicians in Kuan’s eyes.

    Since extending Kuan’s contract at a higher rate, looking to hire an assistant conductor and giving raises to the administrative staff is not logical for an organization on the verge of bankrupsy (there has to be at least one accountant or financial person on the Board!), the only logical answer is that the BOARD has agreed to a new scenario where the music will be played by semi-pros like students from Yale, Hartt and some of the other colleges in the region. I’m sure others can come up with other equally possible scenarios all which reinforce the thought that musicians will play music and not support each other because they love music so much that the opportunity to play is enough.

    I hope that my conclusions are incorrect and that someone (from the Board, management or Ms Kuan) can officially correct me.

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