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
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.