"Orchestrating" Solutions


Santiago Calatrava's 2005 design for a previously proposed Atlanta Symphony Center. 


It has been recently reported in national publications and elsewhere that a few of the country’s most venerable orchestras may not be able to begin their seasons as planned this year. Such is the case of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, whose efforts to renegotiate a four-year contract with their musicians has currently reached a stalemate, putting the organization in jeopardy and in a state of functional uncertainty.

It is a very uncomfortable situation for the musicians, their patrons, and the orchestra field-at-large. Bloggers and critics have been watching. The Atlanta example of a lack of adaptive management is symptomatic of the present reality of many American orchestras. 

In an economy where the arts are funded by almost solely on private support, dwindling donations affect artistic organizations tremendously.  Has the professional orchestra, as we know it, seized to be relevant to those stalwart donors and partners and to the community-at-large? 
 
The ASO has an accumulated and projected debt of $20 million dollars. During the last season,  the orchestra brought in $40 million in revenue, it spent $45 million.

When and why did management neglect to take a look at the growing deficit? I also wonder, to what extent are music directors responsible for the financial health of their orchestras? Should musicians also be analytical and critical of their organization’s own managerial practices? 
 
The next generation of musicians is learning how to run their own ensembles; opera companies, festivals, and consulting businesses, to name a few examples. Not too long ago, I spent a good four week of my life away from my score study and in a finance classroom, analyzing IRS 990 forms, running analyses of financial position, figuring out organizational solvency and liquidity rations, etc.  
 
Coming into a finance classroom was not easy, and I don’t it is generally considered “part of my field.” But given the nature of the current financial fragility and changing needs of our cultural institutions, it is imperative that musicians be more involved in "managing" aspects of the music.  In the future, all orchestras will be run by musicians, a new kind of artist/cultural entrepreneur hybrid will be making decisions in the board room with a new facility and artistry. 
 
But for now, it is time for the ASO to put the pieces back together. And I hope that doesn’t mean bringing in a major donor to save the game. That easy route would bring them back to the same place of regression. The ASO management has to show that it can streamline their budget, be transparent, and fair. Musicians, now more than ever, must continue to be active in their own communities as cultural agents (teachers, mentors, advocates). This, in hope of allowing music to become present not only in community but through community. 

Both musicians and managers can learn to co-exist, by listening to and learning from each other; and by running their organizations as self-critical and responsible non-profits. In any cultural organization, one must be always be poised to ask the critical questions, what is the current mission of our work and is it still relevant? 
 
Can we continue to make a case for orchestras?
 
When I think of orchestras, I ponder upon the idea that that as musical institutions they are meant to be microcosms of what society might aspire to be. They should continue to exist because they provide us with tangible examples of harmonious interdependence. I cannot think of any other social group whose sole purpose is to agree on something. 
 
On stage, and after a long rehearsal process, musicians come to assemble their own disparate ideas into one that is cohesive and reflective of the needs and intentions of all. And while the music plays, they adapt to changing tempi, dynamics, and to each other's sound. Agreeing, listening, adapting, and then agreeing again; is part of what makes an interpretation, a sublime experience to behold. 
 
Such examples of singular unity and beauty are extremely rare and should be valued. They should also be paid attention to more often, for in their uncommonness lie opportunities to learn how, beyond music, people can learn to work with and for each other in pursuit of excellence. As a society, we can all benefit from these artistic perspectives. 
 
As for our friends and colleagues in Atlanta, I am hopeful that they will know how to orchestrate a solution. It is important that agreements be reached, for the sake of upholding the value of such noble opportunities.

>>> Update >>>


On September 26, The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Players Association (ASOPA), said in a press release: 

"The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Players Association (ASOPA) announced that the musicians voted to accept a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) for the term of September 23, 2012 – September 6, 2014.

"In an unprecedented and extremely painful move designed to keep the music going, ASOPA agreed to every dollar in concessions that the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC) and ASO management have demanded since the lockout began on August 25. In the interest of continuing to bring music to the community and opening the season on time, ASOPA has accepted $5.2 million in concessions over a brief two-year agreement."

"The musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra have agreed to these deep concessions for one reason alone, and that is to do what they do best: continue to play great music for their public at an extraordinarily high level. They hope you will join them in support and recognition of this sacrifice by attending upcoming concerts, donating generously, and recognizing that the people on stage are the assets that must be preserved."
 

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