Artistic Authority in Orchestras: A Tricky Balance

I appear to have caused some confusion in the past with my comments about orchestra board members who try to wield too much authority in programming decisions, and conversely about conductors who adopt an autocratic, almost dictatorial stance, saying, "I am in charge of all artistic matters--just leave me alone." In a private email I was recently asked, "Which is it, Mr. Fogel? Is the music director in charge? Or the board? Or, for that matter, the management?"

To start with, if an orchestra has to answer that question, something is already wrong. In a healthy orchestral organization, large or small, there are checks and balances. There is discussion, and there is consensus.

Certainly one doesn't want a board artistic advisory committee telling the conductor to program the Brahms Second instead of the Brahms Third. The key word in that committee's job description is "advisory."  It is more rational for such a committee to function as a feedback mechanism about big-picture programming, reflecting what it believes the community thinks about the orchestra's programming, and at the same time learning why the music director does what he does, and acting back in the community to represent that music director and the orchestra's point of view.

But the conductor who doesn't want to listen to anyone, who says "all artistic decisions are my province," is a conductor who should buy his own orchestra. The fact is that there is almost no such thing as a purely artistic decision. Programming decisions have marketing implications as well as artistic ones, and may have fund-raising components too. They also have expense ramifications, if the decisions result in a need to hire extra players or hold extra rehearsals. Any conductor who insists on an unfettered right to spend the institution's money is a conductor who does not understand how orchestral organizations work; they are not personal fiefdoms, not even for wonderfully talented conductors.

In my years of traveling around the country and visiting orchestras, this balance of artistic authority has come up over and over gain as a source of institutional tension. Conductors who insist on the right to choose guest conductors, and the right to choose programs for those guest conductors; who insist on doing more difficult new music than the audience is willing to tolerate; who insist on expensive tours that are more valuable to the development of their careers than they are to the actual mission of the orchestra--all of these are signs of a conductor who needs to have controls built up around him.

On the other hand, boards and/or managers who do not even want a conductor's input into guest conductors and other artistic choices, who insist on "approval" of all pieces on all programs, who do not recognize the artistic leadership role of the music director--"leadership" is different from "total control" or "unfettered authority"--also need reining in.

Getting the balance right is tricky, and when the discussion turns to the question of "who has the power" instead of "what is the right way to do this for our organization," one can say that the orchestra is already going in the wrong direction. This should not be about power. And generally, when I have participated in discussions and they have been about power, they have been that way because someone was truly more interested in power than in art.

One of my readers, John Grabowski, pointed out this wonderful article from the Arizona Republic. I am providing the link so as to share it with you.

-Henry Fogel

October 9, 2009 1:38 PM | | Comments (3)



Boy, Ariel, I couldn't disagree with you more. Your phrase "musical dimwits" to refer to Board members is insulting and demeaning, and the idea that Board members are only on the Board for the supposed prestige is just plain wrong. As a longtime symphony administrator, I have been working closely with volunteer Board members for two decades and have rarely met anyone who was in it for the status. Most are in it for the right reasons: either love of the music, or love of the community, or both.

Certainly few Board members can match the Music Director's expertise on music and hence on programming. Nor can any Music Director I know match the Board's collective wisdom and knowledge of the community's character, tastes, and wants.

A good Board respects the Music Director's knowledge of the art form; a wise Music Director listens to the collective wisdom of the Board. You need both to have an orchestra that is artistically sound and actively serving its community.

I normally don't react to comments made on my blogs, but in this case I want to plant myself firmly on the side of Andy's thoughts, which I believe are right on the mark.

Do you mean by the right balance - "what fills seats"??

The conductor should have the sole right to choose programs,it is the boards duty to inform the conductor what and what they cannot afford and the conductor must work within those limits of moneies available or begin to look for a new port. Most boards
are composed of "musical dim wits " and are there because this brings to them some social standing in the community which views the symphony as an object to show the world that" this" community is not totally backward .It is why these ridiculous opera houses are built- to show others that on the road of human evolution one is quite high up on the ladder.

In most cases the conductor is the "hero" as long as he fills the seats, otherwise the lower orders begin to grumble and search out for clay feet. It really is like a marriage always on the point of divorce , but not "yet".

Henry, very interesting, but it leaves me wondering if this balance has changed over the years--ie, were the Szells and Reiners and Toscaninis more authoritarian than today's maestros?

Everything has changed. Yes, the Szells and Reiners and Toscaninis were more authoritarian - but the economics were much different in those days as well. Musicians were paid much less (even after adjusting for inflation), seasons were much shorter - with far fewer concerts. Thus orchestras needed to attract far fewer people to the hall in order to survive. Entertainment options were far more limited, also. I think every aspect of the music business, particularly in America, is so different from what it was fifty years ago that it makes comparing the eras as difficult as comparing 1930 baseball players to 2009 baseball players.


About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by on the record published on October 9, 2009 1:38 PM.

The Music Director Search: Integrity and Commitment was the previous entry in this blog.

The Case for Subsidizing Ticket Prices is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.