Category Archives: The Orchestra Business

The Baltimore Symphony: Burning Gifts and Burning GIFs

As everyone knows, our world is on fire. Sometimes literally, but always figuratively.

The Internet, in its infinite wisdom, has settled upon a metaphor to evoke the broiling ever-present destruction:

The dumpster fire.

The scholarly website KnowYourMeme.com offers the following definition of a “dumpster fire”:

a pejorative term used to describe something as a spectacular failure or disaster, in a similar vein to other colloquial terms like “trainwreck” or “sh*tshow.”

Merriam-Webster is more to the point:

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.

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Filed under Labor Disputes, The Orchestra Business

A Note On the Night of the Baltimore Symphony Lockout

Tonight the Baltimore Symphony management announced its intentions to lock out its musicians on Monday, June 17th.

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.

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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.

-E

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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.

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Farewell to Minnesota Orchestra CEO Kevin Smith

In February 2015, shortly after my mother was diagnosed with cancer, I saw I had a voicemail from an unfamiliar Minnesota number.

“Hi, Emily,” said a friendly voice on the other end.

Is that – ? I thought to myself, brain fuzzed by exhaustion.

It was.

I don’t remember word-for-word what he said, but it was something along the lines of “We’ve heard about your mom’s diagnosis and we’re all so sorry to hear it. If there’s anything we can do, let us know.”

And then Kevin Smith, the CEO of the Minnesota Orchestra, hung up the phone.

I cried.

Looking through the eyes of a normal orchestra president, this call makes absolutely no sense. Because the protocol is set, and the protocol makes sense. Your mission is to raise enough money to keep your institution functioning. To achieve this quixotic goal, conventional wisdom dictates that you spend nearly all of your time with board members and big donors: the gatekeepers of power. If anyone is poor, or has been a particularly irascible opponent of your predecessor (or worst of all, both), you don’t owe that kind of malcontent anything.

But Kevin Smith upended the rules. That phone call signaled the new calculus: if you care about this orchestra, we care about you.

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Following Up on Leonard Slatkin’s Book “Leading Tones”

Maestro Leonard Slatkin of the Detroit Symphony has just come out with a new book called Leading Tones, and bizarrely, a chapter of it is devoted to the Minnesota Orchestra lockout.

Pop some corn, kids. This is a long entry and you’ll need a snack.

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On Extinction Quotes and Watermelon Ballers

As many of you know, this weekend the League of American Orchestras is hosting its 2015 conference. Or, as it’s known in the biz, “Conference.” Yo.

Definite articles are overrated.

Definite articles are overrated.

It’s no secret that lots of people, especially musicians and rabble-rousing audience types, are wary of the League. I am, too. Everyone has their own reasons. Mine are complicated. I think it’s mainly because their organization provided a total vacuum of leadership during the Minnesota Orchestra meltdown, and that vacuum sucked. I understand that their responding would have come with a steep price. But if the organization’s mission is indeed “to help orchestras meet the challenges of the 21st century,” shouldn’t they have played a major role in addressing…I dunno, the biggest challenge of the 21st century? (That biggest challenge being, of course, the recent wave of lockouts, and in particular the organizational arson set at the Minnesota Orchestra.) Maybe I’m expecting too much. Or maybe they expect too little. Regardless, someday I’d like to go to a conference to get my own idea of what this group is, what it’s seeking to do, and how effective it is at doing it. I don’t know if I’ll make to Baltimore next year, but I do have dear Save Our Symphony friends in Detroit, and so I’d love to crash Conference 2017. (And I bet a ton of attendees will be just thrilled I’m doing so. /SARCASM FONT) But alas, until I actually go to Conference, obviously my perspective will be limited, so take this all with a grain of salt. This is very much the view of an outsider looking in.

Anywho. Like a good little orchestra nerd, I’m following the official Conference hashtag #orch2015. I noticed yesterday in the Twitterverse that two quotes were uber-popular:

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8 Non-Profit Lessons From The Minnesota Orchestra’s Cuba Tour

The Minnesota Orchestra recently returned from a groundbreaking trip to Cuba. It was the first time an American orchestra had performed there since the process of normalizing relations began in December 2014. It was also the Minnesota Orchestra standing up on the international stage and saying, in a particularly badass way, we’re back, baby.

Lots of people who were lucky enough to be on the trip have been sharing their ideas about what the week meant. We’re all still digesting. But the people on the ground in Cuba weren’t the only ones to come away with exciting new perspectives. Eight big ideas keep repeatedly swishing around my brain like Caribbean waves along the shore…

You too can recover from disaster, because damn the Minnesota Orchestra is back in business. Their performance of the Eroica in particular was probably the greatest I’ve ever heard of that piece. It certainly far, far outstripped the intensity of their live performances I heard in April 2015 and July 2012. The Eroica was also the first symphony they played after the lockout ended in February 2014, and the difference between the two performances was mind-boggling. Can this orchestra play even better? Oh, I’m sure. But do they currently stand with the great ensembles of the world? F-, yeah. Give them a few more years and I have no doubt whatsoever that the lockout will recede into organizational history, eclipsed by fresh artistic triumphs from a new era.

One-on-one interaction is beyond priceless. Look at this photo gallery and tell me otherwise.

Twitter is an amazing tool to use during big live events to cement connections with readers and patrons. I associate Twitter more with political live-blogging or passive-aggressive celebrity feuds, but it actually works really well for documenting big live events like this tour. I’m still split about the idea of “Tweet seats.” But for a radio broadcast, where I was holed up in my bedroom and my furious typing wasn’t bothering anyone, it was a marvelous format. (And I definitely understand the appeal of Tweet seats now way more than I did.) I gained lots of new followers and had some truly meaningful exchanges with readers, including the official Classical MPR and Minnesota Orchestra accounts. That loops back to my preceding point.

At big events, non-profits need to employ someone whose main responsibility is creating content for social media. The Cuba trip was unique in that not all the responsibility for documentation was laid on the Minnesota Orchestra’s staff, since many major media outlets were toting along their own photographers and videographers. But the lesson still stands. All of my friends are sharing the Cuba pictures with all of their friends, and I have no doubt all their friends are, too. I wish it was possible to convert the value of that increased enthusiasm and engagement into dollars. But I have to believe the Orchestra at least broke even on the $1 million that Marilyn Carlson Nelson and her husband invested into this tour. Maybe even more than that, because a lot of the positive experiences we had cannot be bought…since they’re not for sale.

Speaking of which….

The greatest work of non-profits is, at the end of the day, not about the bottom line. There was a group of us who argued passionately during the Minnesota Orchestra lockout that the worst thing to do would be to regard the Orchestra’s bottom line as its sole metric of success. I hate to say I told you so, but… (Haha, KIDDING. I don’t hate saying that at all. I TOLD YOU SO.)

In future, all orchestras need to employ musician-writers the caliber of Rena Kraut and Sam Bergman. Click here to read a Rena entry; click here to read one from Sam. Yes, finding others with their talents may be a tall order, but it needs to happen. Rena and Sam’s accounts of their trip brought on countless of tears and bonded many hundreds of hearts closer to the Orchestra. I have to believe there are equally talented writers at every American orchestra who would be willing to step up to the plate. (I don’t know how – or if – it could work, practically speaking, but… If there were two candidates for a position in a major American orchestra, their musical abilities roughly equal, and one was a ridiculously talented writer, or photographer, or interviewer, or podcaster, or whatever, you might just want to go with the candidate whose talents extend beyond music-making.) (Might this be a way for young musicians to distinguish themselves as competitors in a particularly cutthroat marketplace? How do we train young artists to write well, and whose responsibility is it to teach them?)

Crowd-funded arts journalism is a potential game-changer. Yes, blogger Scott Chamberlain had the chance of a lifetime to go on the Cuba tour after readers chipped in several thousand dollars to get him there, but he also had quite the responsibility: he couldn’t disappoint the people who had given him that money with the expectation of top-notch writing. Because those people were, in large part, his friends. Of course, he disappointed no one. The roaring success of his coverage brings up an interesting question: what comes next in the field of entrepreneurial arts journalism? If a blogger can finance a trip to Cuba…can a writer make a part-time job out of creating online content about classical music? A full-time job? Soon somebody is going to try. And I’m excited to watch content creators (I don’t like the limiting term “bloggers” in this particular context) push the envelope even further. We will all learn a lot about our art from the successes and failures that lie ahead. I’m not saying that crowd-funding is a magic bullet, especially if / when the marketplace becomes saturated. But it could be a potent weapon nonetheless.

When you’re recovering from institutional trauma, one healing tactic is to find a big goal and go for it. I’m thinking about the Atlanta Symphony in particular. They’re in a process of real institutional flux right now. They’re searching for a new CEO and trying to establish an identity of stability and relevance. I’m wondering if the best thing they could do right now is spearhead a major artistic project. Easy for me to say that, obviously; I have zero idea what that project could be. The Cuba idea, for instance, never would have occurred to me, which is why I write about the arts and don’t administer them. But I think the incoming Atlanta Symphony president, whoever he or she may be, should find one. Atlanta needs (and deserves) a “Cuba moment.”

So let’s take a moment to appreciate what Minnesota Orchestra CEO Kevin Smith and board Vice Chair Marilyn Carlson Nelson accomplished here. They acted boldly and smartly, and they refused to act out of a place of timidity or fear. I’ve learned a valuable lesson from them both. The best way to bond a group of people together is to work toward a major goal, all together. The board gave their money. The musicians gave their talent. The staff gave their time and expertise. And together they created something far more valuable than what any one group could have accomplished on its own. And consequently, lots of healing took place. Caveat: you must be reasonably sure you can achieve your major goal. If any number of things had derailed the Cuba tour, then… Well, let’s not go there. But the potential rewards were obviously worth the risk.

Those were my big takeaways from this extraordinary weekend that all Minnesota Orchestra lovers were privileged to share.

What were yours?

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Critiquing Criticism of Season Announcements

I’m not sure how to introduce this one besides Greg Sandow recently wrote an article about the Minnesota Orchestra’s season announcement press release, and I was unconvinced by what he said. Here’s why.

Mr. Sandow begins:

I don’t mean to pick on the Minnesota Orchestra.

Of all the sentences in the English language, “I don’t mean to pick on the Minnesota Orchestra” is among the most inspirational to me.

I don’t mean to pick on the Minnesota Orchestra.

Which is why 73% of the words in Mr. Sandow’s 1385 word article are about the Minnesota Orchestra…

Or on anyone.

Okay…

But this is the time of year when symphony orchestras announce next year’s season, and their press releases…are weak. The most basic fact about classical music today is that we need new listeners. But I can’t see these press releases doing much to find those. Which to me is a serious problem.

Is there an art form where season announcement press releases attract new attendees? Seriously, is that a thing? If it is, I wanna fall in love with THAT art form, because THAT sounds like a way easier field to make a living in.

Quick question: who among my readers went to their first orchestra concert because the season announcement press release was cool? I ask because I’m trying to put myself in a newcomer’s shoes. The closest parallel I can think of: I’ve never gone to the Guthrie. Therefore, I don’t read the Guthrie’s press releases. The Guthrie is going to hook this particular twentysomething via recommendations from friends, advertisements, social media, cheap tickets, and, once I attend for the first time, a meaningful high quality experience at the theater.

Can’t we learn to talk about classical music, in a way that might make compelling, so we can people — especially people outside our world — reasons to go to our performances?

First, I don’t know what “learn to talk about classical music, in a way that might make compelling, so we can people” means. I can guess what it means but I’m not sure. Second, I don’t think a season announcement press release is the first place we should be spending our compellingness energy on. Recommendations from friends, advertisements, social media, and cheap tickets are going to give first-timers way more compelling reasons to go to performances. Make those hooks compelling first.

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Interview with Scott Chamberlain: Part 2

In the second part of my interview with fellow blogger Scott Chamberlain, we talked about his upcoming Cuba trip. Catch up on the first part here.

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Scott's logo

The famous mask…

EH: So. I’ve ignored the elephant in the room long enough. The whole reason I even thought of connecting with you in interview format is that you’re going with the Minnesota Orchestra to cover their historic Cuba tour. They’ll be the first American orchestra in the Obama era to visit. And you’ll be writing about it, even though you aren’t a professional arts writer. And I want to take a minute to talk about that.

I’ve never heard of an arts writer – amateur or professional – trying to crowdfund accompanying an orchestra on a tour. And not only trying, but succeeding. As I’m writing this entry, you’re at 55% of your goal, and it’s only been a few days. (Readers, please, if anyone has done anything like this before, let me know in the comments.) I know this project didn’t come about as some grand plan or anything like that, but obviously as I’m watching the total tick up and up, and getting excited about having a writer friend on the ground in Cuba to share his thoughts… I’m wondering about whether you think this is a strategy that arts writers will use in future to get more and better coverage of our beloved arts. I have mixed feelings about whether it could work besides for a few very charismatic people, but I’m curious what you think. Do you think your support is just a one-off thing because you developed relationships with your readers in the depths of a historic lockout, or do you think other arts writers in other times and places could do it, too? Many times I find myself wondering, “are the cool things that are happening here a direct result of the lockout, or could these cool things happen everywhere?” Do you know what I mean?

SC: I do think it’s unusual—in fact, the co-founder Musicovation.com, a website devoted to covering news and industry trends from across the musical world, contacted me to ask these very questions.

And I have to say I’m learning as I go. Given the complexities of this tour, it is fairly expensive… even for those of us who are getting the press discount. As an independent writer, coming up with the cost of the trip seemed daunting, but a number of supporters suggested that this was a perfect fit for a GoFundMe campaign… and off I went.

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Interview with Scott Chamberlain: Part 1

Many times over the past two years I found myself messaging Scott Chamberlain:

You want to cover this one, or should I?

Scott Chamberlain, the author of the widely linked Mask of the Flower Prince blog, and I share a lot: mediums, outlooks, communities, topics, inspirations, and a passion for our Minnesota Orchestra, as well as the performing arts in general. In other words, I’m not sure why I haven’t interviewed him on the blog before. So yesterday I emailed him a list of discussion topics about the role of blogs in the orchestra world, why the [expletive] we kept writing about the Minnesota Orchestra meltdown for as long as we did, and oh, yeah, a little bit about his historic trip to Cuba. (Stay tuned for part 2 of my interview for that.) And he was good enough to email back. So without further ado –

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This is Scott's blog. It's a good blog.

This is Scott’s blog. It’s a good blog.

EH: It’s surreal to me we haven’t had a public chat yet. We’ve each linked to each other a million times, but we’ve never actually sat down for a conversation, so I feel like this entry is way overdue.

First I want to hop in a time machine back to June 2013, which was the month your blog started. It was the exact middle of the Minnesota Orchestra lockout. You were crazy prolific during that time. Why did you feel compelled to spend months documenting this disaster? For me, it was because this orchestra meant so much to me, and it was cathartic to dissect the news. And gradually it became more rewarding than anything I’d ever done, even when the news was really bad. (And it was almost always really bad.) But I was curious why you kept at it. Looking back, don’t you think rational people should have given up after Osmo resigned?

SC: The funny thing is, in many ways I fell into blogging as an afterthought. As many people know, I used to work for the Orchestra and had several friends among the musicians and the staff. So when the negotiations fell apart in fall 2012, it really felt personal. I think like many people out there, I started off thinking that this was a standard-issue labor dispute. For me that changed on November 28, 2012, when the Star Tribune published an op-ed piece by the board chairs of the Minnesota Orchestra detailing their views of the lockout. There were so many things in that op-ed that were disrespectful, and flat out wrong. I was irritated enough that the next day I posted an extensive deconstruction of it on my Facebook page.

I had no idea anyone would ever read it… I mostly wrote it just for my own peace of mind. Plus, such a lengthy rebuttal was way, way too long for Facebook. I fully expected that any attention it received would fade quickly, just like everything else on social media. But oddly enough, this post didn’t die away quietly. I watched in disbelief as my rant took on a life of its own, shared by hundreds of people I didn’t know and had never met. Within a week my number of Facebook friends had nearly doubled. (I ultimately re-posted that piece here on my blog, if you’d care to read it.)

I followed up this commentary with many others, but given their size and scope they weren’t particularly suited for Facebook. I was a fan of “Song of the Lark,” and wondered if a blog might be a better way to get my ideas out into the real world. With a great deal of prodding from my wife and other friends, I made it happen.

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Nine Symphonies

Earlier today I posted CK Dexter Haven‘s nerdy symphony challenge on Facebook. I wasn’t going to share my list publicly because my tastes feel so prosaic they didn’t seem worth writing about. (Plus, I know a lot more violin repertoire than I do symphonies.) But then Scott Chamberlain called me out in this entry and gah; hey, look what I wrote this evening.

If there ever was a time and place on the Internet for orch dorks to completely out-nerd each other, Here It Is: your chance to show off your music knowledge feathers like a displaying wild turkey.

Us

Us

The rules as stated by CK Dexter Haven:

If you had to pick nine symphonies — no more, no less — by different composers to include as part of a proverbial desert island survival kit, what would they be?  I asked myself this question just for grins over the recent Christmas & New Year’s break…

  • You can only pick one symphony per composer
  • You must choose numbered symphonies 1 through 9 only.  No Symphonie fantastique, Symphony of Psalms, Symphonic Dances, etc.
  • Once you choose a numbered symphony, you cannot choose another similarly numbered symphony by a different composer (i.e. no choosing both Beethoven’s 7th and Sibelius 7th).

So yeah. Here are my picks. What are yours? You don’t need to explain why, unless you want to. Just throw a list in the comments.

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