Artistic Policy: A Collaborative Product

One of the really interesting issues that I keep coming across as I visit a wide range of symphony orchestras in America is the question of what is sometimes called "artistic policy." And the central issue around it is "who is in charge?" One's immediate instinct is to say, of course, the music director. The old cliché is that the music director is in charge of the artistic product, the executive director is in charge of the business, and the board governs both. The problem is that that model doesn't work. It probably never really did, but in our more complex times it certainly doesn't.  The reality is that there is hardly any artistic decision that can be made that does not have a financial implication, and there is hardly a financial decision that doesn't have an artistic implication. As a general rule (there are always exceptions, of course) the orchestras that I encounter that are most successful by any objective standards are orchestras where there is a true collaborative spirit between the executive and artistic directors (and, sometimes, the board leadership as well - depending on knowledge and experience). The old-fashioned music director who stands on a pedestal as well as a podium, and single-handedly makes programming decisions without discussion and genuine input from others is vanishing, and in my view none too soon. 

First of all, the skills of conducting and program-building are not the same - and the latter is not taught very seriously in the conservatory. I have known many conductors who made wonderful music but whose programming skills were, shall we say, limited. And since programming is what people buy tickets to hear, there is a marketing reality that must infuse the thinking of program-making, and that is certainly not always a conductor's expertise.  Even adventurous programming can be more easily "sold," if the management has bought into it from the earliest stages of conception and has thought through with the music director how to sell it.

Then there is the area of engaging guest conductors. In the old days, this used to be the purview of the music director - but more and more orchestras are putting this responsibility in the hands of the management (almost always with consultation from the music director). Again, in my view, this is a good development. Many conductors don't actually get to see a lot of other conductors in action, and good administrators do try to get around - and they also have a wide range of information available to them. Orchestras avoid the sticky issue of podium trades ("you conduct my orchestra, and I'll conduct yours") and any other conflicts (conductors promoting other conductors represented by the same agent). And, in my view, every orchestra begins its search for its next music director the moment it hires a new music director - at least by becoming familiar with the talent pool of conductors available at the orchestra's level.

One thing I have not witnessed, but have heard about from people who have witnessed it, is the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's "war room," where programming meetings go on for hours  meetings that include Music Director Robert Spano, the executive director, the artistic staff, the marketing and development staff, the librarian, and a number of others who have a stake in the final programs. They argue, cajole, tease, challenge, and stimulate each other, and the final programs represent the best of all of those minds. That to me is the ideal approach to programming, adapted to the size and skill set of any specific orchestra. The old-style music director who says "programming is my responsibility, and here are my programs," is, I think healthily, becoming a thing of the past. Programs made collaboratively, with a range of inputs, are far more likely to actually relate to the community in which the orchestra lives. In the best of all worlds, one would never have to ask the question "who has the final authority," because programs would emerge organically from the discussion. If there needs to be a "final authority," it is the music director. But in my mind, the need for there to be a "final authority" is already indicative of a flaw in the process.

May 2, 2008 12:47 PM | | Comments (2)

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Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Mr. Fogel. I find especially interesting your comment that conducting and program-building are not the same. And I agree. With all the considerations involved in marketing an orchestra and building an audience, it makes perfect sense to me that even orchestras with the most astute music directors would be at a disadvantage if the conductor had complete autonomy in matters of programming.

I am curious if there are specific courses taught in the music programs which help future music directors to undrestand all of these components before they receive the Bachelor of Music degree. Perhaps, "The Role of a Music Director" as a credit course. It might be a requirement for the future conductor to do a report on this subject, and 'apprentice' for 'x' number of hours in a symphony orchestra office to see how things 'work' to receive credit for the course. If the role of the music director will be as you state for the 21st century, it should be addressed in the schools of music. There are myriad duties for a music director, depending on the level and budget orchestra, and having this knowledge beforehand might be a good idea to incorporate as an elective.


I am not aware of music schools teaching this in a serious way. I have been asked, from time to time, to come and spend a few hours with conducting students to discuss the off-the-podium part of the job, but a few hours allows for nothing more than touching the surface. However, there are conducting seminars (Tanglewood, Aspen, the National Symphony's Conducting Institute) where these things are taught in a more serious way. At the National Symphony's Institute the League of American Orchestras actually spends two days on the subject that are quite intensive. But I agree that this is a shortcoming in what the music schools are teaching. The music director position today involves much more than conducting, and many young conductors are ill prepared for that.
-Henry

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This page contains a single entry by on the record published on May 2, 2008 12:47 PM.

The Music Director's Place was the previous entry in this blog.

Community Engagement: The Route to Civic Stature is the next entry in this blog.

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