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July 25, 2006

The Need To Be Nimble

by Lowell Noteboom

Allen points out that, while the biggest musical organizations face the biggest challenges, the promise seems to be with modest, creative endeavors. He specifically mentions chamber orchestras as part of that promise. I agree.

Here in Minneapolis/St. Paul we enjoy an abundance of cultural riches for a metro area our size. The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra together serve up more live orchestral performances per capita than in any other city in the country. The Guthrie Theatre and dozens of other very fine theatres give us great choices as well. The Minnesota Opera's offerings are also of the highest quality and very popular.

In this high-supply environment, what's a presenter of classical music to do, given all that the other bloggers have already identified as the challenges? As Joshua said yesterday, we all have to bring something to the table that people currently want. No one gets a free pass just because the quality is high.

I think the answer lies in recognizing the need to be nimble and to be quick. I am fond of comparing the SPCO to a small sailboat, tacking and turning, catching the latest breeze, avoiding the approaching swell, and having fun in the process. It's not only what you do, it's how quickly you do it (the oncoming swell doesn't stop and wait until you're ready for it). Large institutions, and large orchestras in particular, find it difficult to be nimble and quick. It's a skill they must learn.

Innovation isn't so much an activity as an attitude. It's about being open to new ideas, not automatically resisting them. It's not about changing one or two things and then locking onto them as the new unchangeable tradition. It's about continuous change and adaptation. Talk to the folks in the computer industry and ask them whether the changes they made last year are good enough for today or next week.

But innovation can be risky, and fragile organizations don't have a lot of risk capital. Management and boards may be afraid to take a chance with something really new and different if the cost and/or outcome are unknown. Couple that with a large complement of folks who are locked into doing things the way they've always been done, and you find yourself with high levels of resistance to change. Remember what I said about the definition of insanity on day one of this blog?

So, besides admiring the problem, what can actually be done about it. We have been doing a lot of things differently at the SPCO over the past few years (and we definitely haven't dumbed down the product in the process). Here are just four examples from a much longer list:

1. Good-Bye Music Director; Hello Artistic Partners. 2002-2003 was the SPCO's last season with a traditional Music Director. Since that time we have been engaged in an exciting new approach to artistic leadership. From the podium its led by six Artistic Partners (Roberto Abbado, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Joshua Bell, Douglas Boyd, Nic McGegan, and Stephen Prutsman). They each are with us 2 or 3 weeks a year, and each have committed for 3-year gigs. When Josh Bell rotates out next year, he will be replaced by Dawn Upshaw for a 3-year run. The Artistic Partners conduct and perform. Audiences and musicians alike are loving the variety, the different personalities and styles and the fact that it's new and different and constantly changing.

2. Musicians Responsible For Artistic Program. When the Music Director position was eliminated, artistic programing was passd to a five-person committee, three musicians and two senior staff. They do everything the Music Director did (or was supposed to do) with respect to planning seasons and programs, selecting guest soloists (we don't need many, given all the APs already in the mix), and guest conductors. In a very real way, the musicians of the SPCO now own the programing. It makes a difference in how they feel about it, and you can hear the difference in the hall.

3. New Partnerships With Major Universities. Given the bountiful supply of orchestra concerts in the Twin Cities, we decided to take our show to another city...Chicago. We just finished the first year of a three-year partnership with the University of Chicago that brings us to that campus three times a year. We perform on their regular chamber music series, work closely with the composition students in the School of Music (performing their orchestral scores that they could never get played in the old days), and going into the local Hyde Park public schools in furtherance of the University's outreach program. It's a win-win for the SPCO and the University. We are doing another partnership with the University of Minnesota. More about that in a later blog submission perhaps.

4. Taking Live Performances to the Neighborhoods. Being a chamber orchestra has its advantages when it comes to performing in smaller neighborhood venues. In additon to our 16-week Masterwork Series in the beautiful Ordway Performance Center in downtown St. Paul, we do a smaller series in each of six suburban locations all over the Twin Cities, about 24 weeks per year altogether. That may not be so innovative in itself, but our new pricing structure is. Two years ago we took a deep breath and decided we wanted our live performances in those dispersed venues to be more affordable to everyone. So, we slashed prices. Highest-priced ticket in the house in all six locations is only $25 (about half of the prior price). There's also a $10 seat, and kids get in for $5. We are selling out the houses on subscription, and lots of young parents are bringing their kids. Meanwhile, the Masterwork Series at the Ordway is doing just fine at the traditional higher prices. No one has abandoned that series for the less expensive option in the neighborhoods. It's working.

Okay, so I know that sounds like an advertising plug for the SPCO, but the point is that innovation makes a difference. And you have to keep doing it. It's an attitude and it can change your culture in significant ways. It creates energy, excitement and engagement for musicians and audiences (and boards and donors). That's what the orchestra world needs more of.

Posted by lnoteboom at July 25, 2006 07:24 AM


As someone who is serving a first term on the board of a small New York-based music group, I can understand why it can be difficult for boards of especially larger organizations to act "nimbly and quickly" when it comes to reacting to the changing world around them. In my experience, it seems that boards in general tend to be slow-moving. It is easier to talk about change instead of actually implementing what needs to be done because of the politics involved. I appreciate you sharing your creative solutions at the SPCO. Do you have advice on how boards can learn to be more nimble and quick? I'm sure there are individuals on many boards with innovative ideas, but how does that person win over the entire board to make change happen?

Posted by: Beata Moon at July 25, 2006 11:18 AM

It's worth noting that, in addition to the experimental ideas Mr. Noteboom makes mention of above, the biggest change of all in St. Paul was a shocking 20% pay cut for his musicians. The salary cut resulted in many of the orchestra's musicians having to make serious life sacrifices, and in some cases, even to sell homes and move their children to other schools. I'm not saying it won't be worth it for the SPCO in the long run, merely noting that it was the musicians' willingness to agree to that unprecedented cut that made all the other changes even possible.

It's also worth noting that many of the SPCO musicians remain firmly convinced that the changes in general have been to the detriment of their organization. Again, I'm not saying they're right or wrong, merely pointing out that, several years into their revolutionary contract, the SPCO remains a very divided orchestra.

Sam Bergman

violist, Minnesota Orchestra

news editor, ArtsJournal.com

Posted by: Sam Bergman at July 25, 2006 11:55 AM

Sam Bergman's information about the contribution of the 20% salary cuts the SPCO musicians agreed to take prompts me to ask a question about another
aspect of the changes at the SPCO--the substitution of six "artistic partners" for a single music director. When the SPCO announced this change a few seasons back, my gut feeling was that management was making a virtue out of necessity. Some of the choices are intriguing, to
be sure, but Nicholas McGegan, Roberto Abbado and Pierre-Laurent Aimard could have easily been engaged for 2 weeks a year, bringing their special
artistic gifts and tastes to the orchestra whether it had a music director or not.

What I'm wondering is, how is this working from
the perspective of the SPCO musicians? Is the
absence of a single music director (particularly
one with more long-term, specialized conducting experience), affecting the caliber of the playing at all, or has it proved beneficial? I don't have
an ax to grind here, I'm just curious to hear your

Posted by: Barbara Jepson at July 26, 2006 09:02 AM

I'm not sure if you were asking me or Mr. Noteboom, Barbara, but I'll tell you what I've heard on the subject from my friends in the SPCO. I haven't heard any complaints about the artistic partner system (that, of course, doesn't mean there aren't any, just that my friends seem not to have a problem with it,) and several of the "partners" - notably Dougie Boyd, Nic McGegan, and Roberto Abbado - are apparently quite popular within the orchestra. (The fact that the musicians did not have a good relationship with their last music director, Andreas Delfs, may or may not be a factor in this.)

I'll be interested to see what kind of programs the SPCO mounts with its newest partner, Dawn Upshaw. They ought to be in a unique position to explore some very interesting corners of new music with their flexibility and Dawn's well-known expertise in the area of modern vocal performance.

Posted by: Sam Bergman at July 26, 2006 04:45 PM

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