Today’s news about Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic is amazing, though not exactly a surprise. Right from the start, as I wrote in my Wall Street Journal piece on the proposed merger, the directors of the two organizations talked very differently about what the merger meant. For Robert Harth, at Carnegie Hall, the merger was an opportunity for adventurous programming. For Zarin Mehta, at the Philharmonic, the merger was all about orchestral imperatives — the Philharmonic’s need to own the hall it played in, and of course the delight of Carnegie’s better acoustics. The two men seemed so far apart in their understanding of what they were doing that it was hard to believe they’d been talking (as both told me) for months.
And now the merger falls apart. The public statements are all very reasonable — everybody learned from the experience, profited from the merger discussions, and now they all can reaffirm their core values. But if you ask me, Carnegie Hall and the Philharmonic both look dumb. One issue, as anybody could have guessed beforehand, was how to accomodate all the concerts the Philharmonic gives each year with Carnegie’s strong and diverse schedule. To quote one published story:
The Philharmonic’s executive director, Zarin Mehta, said in a telephone interview that the main reason the merger did not succeed is that Carnegie Hall could not accommodate the number of concerts the orchestra plays each season, between 120 and 130.
How could it take all these months to figure that out? And how could the two organizations have announced plans to merge — actually announce that the meger was a done deal, with everything set except for the details — without settling such an obvious issue before the announcement was made? I can barely believe it.
One problem, I think, was the top-down process of the merger. Even the Carnegie and Philharmonic boards of directors didn’t know about the plans until the public announcement. The discussions seemed to take place between Zarin Mehta and Robert Harth, but even more importantly between Sanford Weill and Paul Guenther, the heads of the Carnegie and Philharmonic boards. When the announcement was made, a lot of key people were taken by surprise.
There surely was a better way to do this — and in fact, far away from New York, the Utah Symphony and the Utah Opera merged, and did find a better way to work it out. Granted, they had an easier task, because while the opera was healthy, the symphony wasn’t, and had three major staff vacancies, including the top job of executive director. So the two groups could merge under the leadership of the opera’s executive director, with no prospect of any serious power struggle.
Still, there could have been problems. So rather than simply announce the merger, the two groups announced their intention to merge, setting a date months in the future for a vote by the two boards. By the time the vote came around, all the issues involved in the merger had been thoroughly discussed, both in private and in public. The vote was strongly in favor of merging, but even board members who’d been opposed to it offered, after they’d lost the vote, to help the merger in any way they could.
This, in other words, was a merger accomplished in public, with lots of good feeling, instead of in private, with lots of bad feeling and suspicion. Maybe things can’t be done that way in New York — maybe the interests at stake are just too massive, and maybe the players (especially the powers on both boards) are just too corporate — but a little more openness might have saved Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic from what now looks like a major embarrassment.