Recently I was speaking with a group of young musicians preparing to embark upon their professional careers. We were covering many of the issues that symphonic musicians must confront and exploring the important role that advocacy will play for the next generation of orchestral players. Of course, the musicians were interested in the recent, well-publicized difficulties in the field, such as last season’s spate of lockouts. I told them that, in my experience, virtually every such problem could be anticipated and avoided. I was asked, “How could the Minnesota Orchestra lockout have been anticipated?”
The question made me revisit a keynote address I delivered at the University of Michigan on March 22, 2012, titled “Danger, Will Robinson! How Hyperbolic, Negative Rhetoric is Hurting America’s Orchestras”. The speech was part of the University of Michigan’s American Orchestra Summit II, and my remarks caused a bit of discomfort at the event. The address was circulated widely on the Internet, receiving both criticism and praise. I felt on the day I delivered the address that it was my proudest moment as ICSOM chair, and two years later that feeling has grown.
It was not an easy speech to deliver. It was 45 minutes of analysis, and while the focus of the speech was to engage the field in more positive messaging, it did contain some pointed criticism. Historically, the many calls for change in our field have never been met with actual change in the tone of the dialogue. I felt that the time was right for this speech, and since I had been offered this forum, I felt obliged to stand up and make some challenging statements. I was excited and honored when I read reports later that called the speech both “controversial” and “courageous.”
I made a lot of observations and predictions in that speech, and to both my satisfaction and dissatisfaction, revisiting the address shows that time has proved the statements correct.
Right now, at this very moment, there are orchestra managements preparing their organizations for extended and unnecessary work stoppages. One in particular will be prominently in the press as early as this fall, but I don’t want to name the organization as I have hope that the management will avoid this destructive path. There is still time. But resources spent in this direction are also resources that could be spent promoting their organization.
Immediately following the speech, I received inquiries from the Minneapolis press to inquire if I was speaking of the Minnesota Orchestra. While I avoided those questions at the time, it was pretty clear that I was. This statement turned out to be even more accurate than I anticipated. Not only was the Minnesota management preparing for an extended lockout of unprecedented length, but the musicians of Indianapolis, Atlanta, and Saint Paul would also face lockouts. All were foreseeable and avoidable.
The musicians of Syracuse will accomplish what their former management could not, and I have no doubt an orchestra will re-emerge.
Since the board of the Syracuse Symphony filed for Chapter 7 liquidation in 2011 (an action I labeled “preventable” at the time in the Syracuse Post-Standard), the musicians of the orchestra have taken up the mantle, and great orchestral music has returned to Central New York in the form of Symphoria. While a lot of work remains to ensure the success of this spectacular effort, the musicians are on the path to success by moving in a direction of positive advocacy that their previous management refused even to acknowledge.
In Louisville, an orchestra that has commissioned 120 original compositions and performed over 400 world premieres which served to spread the music of America across the globe is currently functioning as an organization that employs no musicians. It is an orchestra built by the people and led at its founding by a mayor who believed in the concept of Confucianism that said that a city of high culture with happy citizens will attract wealth, business and power to the city. But now, this historic orchestra looks for musicians on Craigslist and through Facebook ads.
The promise of the Louisville Orchestra has been renewed since the time of this speech. The efforts by the previous manager and board president to replace the musicians failed. ICSOM issued statements that spread around the world in 24 hours, urging musicians and teachers to ignore the bogus calls for applications through Craigslist. Today, the Louisville Orchestra moves forward with a new CEO, and new board chair, a new music director, and a new president of their local union, all brought about through the extraordinary dedication and perseverance of the musicians of the orchestra.
Regarding media, I said:
Another manager has challenged the jurisdiction of national media contracts, appealing their lost case numerous times and spending who knows how much in legal fees. That money could have funded multiple projects that would have elevated the organization in the mind of the local and international community. Instead, money raised from donors has gone to lawyers.
Following the Michigan event, the management’s appeal was lost again.
I also issued some criticisms of the League of American Orchestras, specifically about their programming for the 2012 League Conference:
I have expressed my concern to the leadership of the League that their programming may be viewed as negative by musicians, and that the chasm may well widen.
On this point, I wish I had not been correct. The chasm has indeed widened, and that is regrettable.
Referencing negative statements by board members, I said:
The leadership of the League must speak out against such destructiveness, and when they do not, it weakens the organization in the eyes of musicians and managers alike.
Regrettably, the League remained silent throughout the Minnesota Orchestra lockout.
[I]n my writings I have called on musicians to avoid casting aspersions towards the League, and I have asked the League to issue similar statements to its members about the way they regard their musicians. While I’ve yet to hear my public appeal matched, I remain hopeful.
We have yet to hear similar public calls for a change in tone from the League leadership. But that could change. In fact, organizations with differences of opinion can always find ways to work together on shared goals. As we face some difficulties for musicians over the issue of the ban issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on items containing ivory, we would like to acknowledge the efforts put into this issue by Heather Noonan, the League’s vice president for advocacy in Washington, D.C. Musicians everywhere should thank her for her work, and we hope to find ways to work together, along with AFM Legislative and Political Director Alfonso Pollard in this effort to protect endangered species while also providing guidance and security for musicians and their instruments.
As ICSOM led at its founding, we intend to lead again into a new era of positive advocacy. To musicians everywhere, I call on you to join us in our positive message of advocacy. It is not enough to simply play your instrument. You must be among your audience, out in the lobby of your concert hall. Shake the hands of your audiences, thank your donors, and welcome them into an environment of community that surrounds every orchestra.
Since this speech, ICSOM celebrated its 50th anniversary in Chicago. Our members have clearly taken a greater role in advocacy, with the musicians of nearly every member orchestra now spreading their positive message through social networking and meeting with their patrons in the lobbies of their concert halls. Many positive things have occurred for the field, and I do think the dialogue has improved.
However, a few destructive things have happened as well, and Minnesota must serve as a cautionary tale for us all. The actions of the board and management during the lockout there were despicable, and no one in this field can afford to stand silent at such disrespect to the music of Beethoven and the people of our communities.
We must harvest the frustration that we all are feeling and use it as inspiration….We must be inspired by the challenge. And we must not hesitate to dream great dreams simply because they are hard to achieve….This is our mission, and we must join together as never before, because something precious is at stake.
The conclusion of the speech remains true for me as well, and as I meet with even more musicians, managers, patrons, board leaders, and journalists, my optimism for the next generation grows.
This judgment we make affirmatively: if we can change the tone, then we can change the future.
[The excerpts above are from Bruce Ridge’s keynote address to the University of Michigan’s American Orchestra Summit II, March 22, 2012, titled “Danger, Will Robinson! How Hyperbolic, Negative Rhetoric is Hurting America’s Orchestras”. The complete address is currently available here. — Ed.]