Musical Programming from the Board: Not a Good Idea

From time to time when I visit an orchestra, or when I talk with conductors or executives, I encounter a problem that seems to be growing and expanding like a bad weed. That is the phenomenon of board members, usually one person, trying to take over the programming of a professional symphony orchestra. This doesn't happen, of course, at the big major international-level orchestras, where there are very strong music directors and large administrative staffs. But it does happen in some of our smaller orchestras, and it often results in a mess.
Programming is a profession--and is better left to the professionals. That does not mean that there is no room for a board of directors to have a program advisory committee, or an artistic advisory committee. But the key word is advisory. Such a committee should reflect the community's reaction to the overall programming philosophy and convey that to the music director and the management. This committee should not get into choosing or dictating specific pieces.

Often what happens, I'm sorry to say, is that one person who is an avid record collector or concertgoer makes the mistake of thinking that his taste reflects the taste of everyone, and thinks he knows better than the music director what should be played. It is virtually always nonsense. There are many factors that go into programming--the difficulty of the music, how it will help the orchestra grow, how do the pieces fit together, all of these things and more. Conductors shouldn't work in isolation, and should not resent input from community members, audience members, orchestra musicians, administrators, indeed all outside resources. But the final programming decisions should be left to the music director--with a very heavy role also belonging to the management, which might have a better idea about box office appeal and about what extra expenses may be incurred in performing a given work. When guest conductors are invited, they should be allowed to program their concerts, with some negotiation to be sure that what they want to do fits the abilities of the orchestra and the shape of its season.

But when individual board members start to take over and dictate programming choices, something is seriously out of whack. We don't expect our music directors to be able to manage a bank or an insurance company. Our board members should not try to become music directors.

May 15, 2009 12:08 PM | | Comments (3)



i like the points of view expressed, elevating the MD to the role that an MD should have, but with checks and balances. So far the checks have been emphasized, but balance is sometimes needed. When the MD gets into their head that they want to reward a colleague by performing that composer's music at a time in the season that may conflict with other forces such as marketing or fundraising initiatives and audience tastes come into play, it is good to have an artistic committee to enforce the balance aspect.

As always this is a very fine blog and I am in agreement with everything Mr. Fogel has stated here.

From personal experience as a music director with many orchestras and from discussions with many colleagues I have a few concerns regarding formally organized 'artistic or program advisory' committees.

- These committees need to have clearly documented mandates. This seems basic but things will go wrong when some committee members aren't just satisfied with the advisory capacity. It is good to have a written mandate.

- There is a danger of politicizing such committees as it can be seen as a good vehicle to torpedo or bug artistic director's activities.

- It is just possible that a committee can manage constantly to come up with nothing but poor ideas. This puts the artistic director in a position of constantly rejecting suggestions and developing a baggage of negativity. Some give-in and do poor programs that lose money and artistic integrity.

My personal policy has been to do the programming in consultation with the artistic administrator or the general manager; to have an open line of communications with the musicians and to welcome their programming ideas. Over the years I have been able to incorporate many suggestions into my programming.

But as far as the board goes I think their input and approval should concern only the basic parameters of programming such as number of classical, pops, education/outreach, concerts and their basic formats.

Well put. As musicians, we frequently find ourselves having certain pieces dictated by those who hire us, but a professional symphony orchestra should not be one of those situations. A conductor being pushed into one piece or another against his/her will has always, in my experience, resulted in a cynical unhealthy approach to the music that benefits no one--conductor, musicians, audience, composer.

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This page contains a single entry by on the record published on May 15, 2009 12:08 PM.

Experimenting with "Romantic Excess" in New Hampshire was the previous entry in this blog.

Marc-André Hamelin: A Pianist of Style, Substance, and Depth is the next entry in this blog.

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