The Music Director's Place

There has been a growing trend over the past ten or fifteen years, more prevalent in small or mid-sized orchestras than in the largest ones, but true in some of those as well. This trend has been to change the "reporting structure" of symphony orchestras. The traditional structure, still in place in the majority of orchestras, is that the music director and the executive director (that latter title may in some places be "president," "managing director," or something else) both report to the board, usually through the board chair (sometimes called "president" - am I confusing you yet?). The new trend is to have the music director report to the executive director. I presume this has come about because boards and their chairs feel they don't have the professional competence, experience, and/or knowledge to "supervise" the conductor. Another reason, perhaps, is that the conductor is often out of town guest conducting, but we still don't have a tradition of guest managing, so the executive director tends to be "home" year-round.

The problem with the trend is that I don't believe it - or at least, I don't believe that it means what it says. In management parlance, one employee reporting to another means that the supervising employee has the freedom to hire or fire that employee. Certainly a smart executive director will bring certain board members into the process of hiring, let us say, a development vice president. But their role will be advisory, consultative. And if the executive director feels that the development vice president is doing a bad job, he will fire the development VP and take sole responsibility for that decision.  But if you believe that an executive director has sole power, or even substantial power, in the hiring and/or firing (or non-renewal) of a music director, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. The hiring is done with a search committee, which a capable executive director will surely influence but hardly exercise strong power over. As for firing, I cannot imagine an executive director in the orchestra field making that decision and merely informing the board of directors.

Without those crucial elements of a supervisory relationship, how can it be said that music directors now are more commonly reporting to executive directors? They simply are not, and I don't care what any piece of paper, or computerized management flow chart, may say.

On the other hand, it must mean something. Why would this change have happened if it had no meaning? Perhaps the meaning is subtle and largely psychological - to give the executive director a bit more power in the relationship, to balance out the strong personality of a conductor/music director. Perhaps the meaning is that the board now thinks it is off the hook. But I don't see how it is.

I am sometimes asked, usually by less experienced orchestra administrators, some variant of the following: "If I and my music director cannot agree on an issue, at what point is it appropriate to bring it to the board to resolve?  And should that be the whole board, or just the chair or executive committee?"  My answer is always the same: "If you are at that point, the chances are all is lost."  The relationship between a music director and executive director is not often written or spoken about in public, though it is a constant thread of management professional-development seminars, orchestra conferences and meetings, etc. It must be a pure partnership - one like a marriage. My wife and I may disagree on occasion - but our friends don't know when, and over what. We find a way to resolve it. Privately. So it is, or should be, with executive directors and music directors. They must find a way to resolve those issues, without going to the board for arbitration. Once that starts, it means the relationship is doomed.

And the interesting thing to me is that that has always been true - both in the traditional reporting structure where the two are equals on the organizational chart, and in the new structure where, on paper, the music director reports to the executive director. I continue to be a bit befuddled, because I continue to not see that the changed structure has any substance to it at all.

April 28, 2008 10:25 AM | | Comments (4)

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I visited many orchestras this season, and have worked with many during these searches. My findings say that, depending on the budget size of the orchestra and the staff size, this situation has varied. Some EDs have a specific personality that lends toward their being involved in either a large role, or, allowing a board to vote on new MD choices. Some EDs are more hands-on, more agressive in a positive way, or less so. Some allow the powers given to those to do specific tasks. When there is no General Manager, or Director of Ops, or Artistic Admin, the ED carries a double duty, which renders him/her with more power to assert in other areas, including MD searches. I agree with Henry. An ED will ultimately work closely with a new MD and should, therefore, be permitted to vote in certain situations, unless it is that orchestra's laws for the ED not to (are there such 'laws'?) In my opinion, aside from a voting committee, search committe etc, if there is one for a particular orchestra, those who will work closest with a new music director should be permitted to be part of this process of voting for someone they will work closest with.

On the special relationship between executive director and music director, I am reminded of a quote from Sir Rudolf Bing in "5,000 Nights at the Opera":

"A thousand aspects of life are involved in theater management. There is no artistic decision that is not at the same time an economic one, no financial decision that does not have bearing on artistic standards – and every decision involves human elements."

I also recommend a recent article in the Detroit Free Press about Leonard Slatkin's view of his duties at the DSO:

http://www.freep.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080330/ENT04/803300508/1035/RSS04

One thing I wonder about is what should be the organizational structure and responsiblities of the artistic staff beyond the music director? (Or does such a need even exist?) If the music director in town for only 12, 13, 14 weeks of the season, what role should the staff pops conductor, resident/associate/assistant conductors, composer-in-residence, and even concertmaster play "in loco magister" (in place of the maestro)?

By the way, does a professional athlete "report" to his coach? The coach has the authority to tell him what to do on paper, but that's not always the case in reality. And in any case, the coach has no power to hire or fire the player. Maybe it's yet another interesting parallel between the sports and music worlds.

Long ago and far way I held the very post that you describe. I was the first to hold the post in the manner you suggest. I was the imported staff President to a major company with a resident, and highly prized, artistic director. The elevation of my post appeared at first to be a somewhat arbitrary act by the hiring panel. In all my jobs previous to this I was either equal or, more typically, I worked at the will of the artistic leader.

In my everyday workings I worked to support the interests of the organization which I found almost universally in sync with those expoused by the artistic leader. Over time I learned how important the authority reversal could be. Not in the daily activity but in public perception, and even more dramatically in donor relations.

It was acceptable, even somewhat sexy, for the artistic leader to be aggressive and challenging. They can demand of the organization items that might be difficult to deliver. The Board and donor’s social relations with the artistic leader could be cordial even if the challenges were unattainable.

The Board recognized the relative functional power but the greater funding community was willing to suspend belief and give the altered structure a try. I could bring a rational argument to our cause and be counted on to tone down the artistic leader’s wildest whims. For that to be credible I had to win occasionally, and in reality it gave the institution the air of good governance and management.

Donors were more willing to trust us with their resources knowing that there was someone else watching with the authority to act. They could retain their comfort zone with the artistic leader. Perception become reality as often as not.

P.S. For the record this was not a Symphony, but that part of the point isn’t relevant to the story. Also for the record the venture involved moved away from that model several leaders later. When in the end the community lost faith in the executive it closed the company, not through bankruptcy, (though that might have been inevitable had it continued) but through a simple decision to cease operations. The trust had been broken and the support dried up.

I may have accidentally sent this post twice. If so, my apologies.

Henry, I kind of like the concept of "guest managing" but...seriously, in your opinion, when there is a music director search going on, should the executive director be on the search committee? If yes, should the e.d. be a voting member?

You write: "The hiring [of a music director] is done with a search committee, which a capable executive director will surely influence but hardly exercise strong power over." If the e.d. feels that the committee is going to make a major hiring mistake, why not exercise strong power? Assuming that the e.d. has significant musical and/or orchestral experience, isn't that his/her job?


In my opinion, the executive director must be a complete resource to the search committee - meaning he/she is present and fully participating in all discussions. My own view about whether or not the e.d. is a "voting" member is that it is almost an irrelevant question. If a Music Director is hired by a plurality or majority of one, it is the wrong choice! I frankly think it makes sense for the executive director to vote - he/she is one of the leaders of the institution. But in practical terms it should not matter very much, for the reason given.
-Henry

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This page contains a single entry by on the record published on April 28, 2008 10:25 AM.

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