T he University of Michigan hosted the American Orchestras Summit in Ann Arbor January 26–28. The summit sought to examine how orchestras impact cultural life in America and how orchestras and academia might partner more effectively in the future.
Participants and attendees were mainly from southeastern Michigan. U-M professors, students, and University Musical Society staff represented the largest constituency. National presenters included Henry Fogel (currently at Roosevelt University), Susan Feder (Mellon Foundation), Drew McManus (Adaptistration), Larry Tamburri (Pittsburgh Symphony CEO), Leonard Slatkin (Detroit Symphony music director), and Joseph Horowitz (writer and co-creator of the summit). It was a pleasure finally to meet Sphinx Organization president and founder Aaron Dworkin, who thanked ICSOM for ongoing support of the annual Sphinx Competition.
In the late fall, ICSOM Chairperson Bruce Ridge wrote to summit organizers about the lack of representation and input from working orchestral musicians. We were assured that this was unintentional, and ICSOM and ROPA officers were subsequently invited. Vice-President Paul Austin represented ROPA, and Secretary Laura Ross and I were pleased to represent ICSOM. The trip was particularly meaningful for Laura and me as we are both U-M alumni. We were able to visit with ROPA President Emerita Barbara Zmich and ROPA Vice-President Emerita Kathleen Grimes. Also in attendance were SSD Director Christopher Durham, SSD Benefits Analyst Joseph Goldman (also a DSO musician), Detroit Local 5 President Gordon Stump, Greg Near (ROPA delegate of the Michigan Opera Theater Orchestra), and recently retired DSO musician Paul Ganson. Paul, a former ICSOM Governing Board member at large, long-time DSO committee member, and current DSO historian, was largely responsible for saving Detroit’s Orchestra Hall from the wrecking ball in the 1970s. Paul engaged the audience with his wit and charm during the panel entitled “Sustainable Partnerships: What Works.”
Over the two days of the summit, nine different panels/presentations were offered. The schedule was full but well paced. Each topic lasted about an hour, and ample opportunities for coffee-break discussions were available. One of the unique characteristics of the summit was the attendance of university students, particularly during Pierre Boulez’s Q&A session. That session followed an electrifying performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra the previous evening. Laura and I visited briefly with CSO delegate Rachel Goldstein and CSO Members Committee Chair Steve Lester (also a past ICSOM Governing Board member at large).
Paul Austin and I participated on the panel entitled “The American Orchestra in 2010: National, Regional and Local Perspectives.” Laura passionately shared her experiences in Nashville on the “Re-Conceptualizing the Symphony” panel.
The first panel was entitled “A Brave New World: Three Case Studies.” In two of the case studies, the executive directors from the Louisville Orchestra and Memphis Symphony discussed examples of services that are not typical rehearsals, performances, or recording sessions. In Memphis musicians must participate in “approved partnership activities” in order to preserve full salary. These activities include teaching in city schools and taking on traditional staff/office roles, such as planning, development, marketing, and presenting. Musicians who choose not to participate forfeit about 20% in annual salary. The extra services in Louisville are optional and not tied to minimum annual salary. They are similar to community connection and partnership additional services already found in several ICSOM orchestras.
During the summit a couple of people expressed the notion that orchestral services should be redefined to allow for “service exchange.” They felt the definition of a service should be changed to allow “Memphis–style” activities. One reason given was that orchestras might be presenting more concerts than their communities can accommodate.
Musicians contended that available performances do not outstrip demand. While ticket sales understandably declined or remained flat after September 11, classical series ticket income for American orchestras increased 18% between 2004-2005 and 2005-2006. Equally noteworthy was that paid attendance at all concerts given by American orchestras, including chamber, youth, education, family, pops, summer, and youth concerts was also up 18%. Overall fundraising and fiscal performance likewise improved.
Musicians also contended that the current orchestra economic model still works when organizations fire on all cylinders. The Los Angeles Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony continue to thrive despite the recent recession. Ticket sales have improved in communities across the country, including in Saint Louis and Kansas City, to name just a couple. When creative programming is coupled with dynamic marketing, and when boards and managements are aligned and engaged with the musicians and conductors, orchestras thrive. When one or more of these key components is missing, an organization flounders and rarely achieves artistic success or financial stability.
An interesting presentation during the summit focused on utilizing orchestras to celebrate their contributions within their communities. Perhaps one reason orchestras achieve just single-digit overall market penetration is that there is relatively little information about how orchestras began and their early community relationships. Hopefully, the U-M summit will prove to be a springboard for new research and provide increased collaboration between academic institutions and orchestras.
A curious aspect of the summit was that Laura, Paul Austin, and I were often referred to as the union people instead of just orchestral musicians. It became clear to us that there is a lack of knowledge about our lives as professional orchestral musicians, that we are unionized, and that we are integrally involved in negotiations and contract administration. While we proudly wear our AFM, ICSOM, and ROPA hats, we are first and foremost professional musicians. The three of us took every available opportunity to share our orchestral and union experiences with students and other attendees.
We repeatedly addressed the 20-hour–workweek nonsense recently perpetuated by managers in attempts to bolster their bargaining positions. It may be difficult for some to understand just how many hours musicians spend perfecting their craft outside of rehearsals and performances. Apart from the time spent directly preparing for those services, musicians also engage in ancillary activities including commuting, bus trips, reed making, instrument upkeep and setup, as well as time spent between services and other unpaid time. Musicians willingly take on huge time commitments by serving on audition, tenure-review, orchestra, and negotiating committees. Increasing numbers of musicians serve on boards, board committees, and other activities in service of their orchestras and communities. We cannot spread the word often enough about our lives as orchestral musicians!
In response to ICSOM Chairperson Bruce Ridge’s March 2008 Senza Sordino article, “First, Do No Harm,” U-M professor and summit co-organizer Mark Clague and his graduate class have embarked on a survey of successful ideas, projects, and community relationship building strategies that are working well for today’s American orchestra. Mark’s students of Musicology 650 (History of the American Orchestra) seek contacts with North American orchestras of all sizes who have success stories to share.
It would be great if musicians from every ICSOM orchestra flooded the email inboxes at U-M with success stories. Simply email Mark and his students firstname.lastname@example.org with the name of your orchestra and a brief description of your ensemble’s success; also include the name and email address or phone number of at least one contact person. Let us work together to counter the negative rhetoric with positive, inspiring orchestra stories.
I would like to extend our appreciation to the University of Michigan, Dean Christopher Kendall, Professor Mark Clague, UMS President Kenneth Fisher, and the many faculty members and students for their warm hospitality and collegiality during the summit. Videos of the panel presentations may be found in their entirety at www.sitemaker.umich.edu/orchestrasummit using the Video Archive link.