No direction home

This may come as a shock, but — continuing my posts on the artistic quality of orchestras — the larger American orchestras normally have no one who functions as their artistic director. 

You may think this is nonsense, when you read it. What’s the music director? you might ask. Chopped onions? 

But in fact — as insiders know — many music directors, maybe most, don’t take responsibility for the concerts that they don’t conduct. In some cases, they may not even take much interest. There may be reasons for this. A top-class music director is only in town certain weeks of the year. He or she, in most cases, is also the music director somewhere else. Time is limited. 

And even knowledge may be limited! The then-artistic administrator of a top American orchestra told me, some years ago, that their incoming music director had asked not to be consulted about who should guest-conduct. He didn’t often hear other conductors, he explained, so much of the time he might have no opinion. 

Bottom line: music directors — even while they may well play a key role in hiring and firing, and may also take the lead in getting an orchestra to play better (at least when they conduct) may not take responsibility for the overall artistic thrust of the institution. (There are exceptions: Barenboim did that, I believe, when he was in Chicago. Boulez certainly did it at the New York Philharmonic. Which is not to slight other situations where this may or may have been the case.)

     Artistic administrators

So who else at an orchestra might play that role? Well, there’s the artistic administrator, or VP of Artistic Affairs (or some such title). This person (usually with one or two associates) certainly runs the artistic business of the orchestra day to day. If (as I once saw happen) two of the soloists for a Verdi Requiem performance pull out abruptly, just days before the concert, it’s the artistic staff who find replacements.

They may also engage soloists and guest conductors, and might program every detail of concerts that the music director doesn’t conduct (if — as I’ve said happens often enough — the music director doesn’t choose to be involved). The artistic staff also takes (as a rule) complete charge of parks concerts, school concerts, holiday concerts, and almost everything else that’s not part of the core subscription series. 

So why wouldn’t the artistic administrator (or artistic VP) be the artistic director? Because, almost always, these people don’t have enough clout. They do the heavy artistic lifting, day to day, but the music director outranks them. Only with support from a music director (and from an orchestra’s CEO, the executive director or president) could an artistic administrator assume anything approaching artistic control of an orchestra’s work. (I think Bob Moir, artistic VP in Pittsburgh, has at least in the past filled that role, and wonderfully.)

      The head honcho

But I mentioned the person in overall charge, the executive director or president (titles vary from orchestra to orchestra). Wouldn’t this, at least in the last resort, be the artistic director? 

Not usually. Most of these people would be the first to admit that they don’t have the artistic chops to do that job. And in any case they spend at least 90% of their time fundraising. And supervising every other aspect of the orchestra’s work. They may not have time for artistic direction, too. 

Certainly they’ll vet artistic plans, and maybe disapprove, if something proposed seems to be too expensive, let’s say, or else seems, to the marketing department, impossible to sell tickets for. Or they might overrule the marketing department, and tell the artistic staff to do the concerts even if no one comes. 

(One big exception, I believe, was Tom Morris, when he ran the Cleveland Orchestra. He was fully capable of directing artistic affairs, and in fact does that now at the Ojai Festival. And in fact I think that, during his reign, Cleveland did present an exceptional example of coherent artistic direction. From what I’ve heard and observed, Tom and Christoph von Dohnányi, the music director at the time, worked closely together in artistic planning, very ably helped by Ed Yim, the artistic administrator in those years. The three were very much on the same page, it seems to me, and really took charge of the orchestra as an artistic entity.)

But wait. Shouldn’t the board of directors be in ultimate charge, artistically? They legally govern the institution. And they’re the ones who hire the music director. 

But in fact most board members wouldn’t think themselves capable of taking charge artistically. And, in truth, they wouldn’t be. So they won’t try to set an artistic direction. Like the CEO, they might make their voices heard — one of them, let’s say, might complain, “Too much new music!” — though short of firing the music director, the CEO, and the artistic staff, the board has no power to enforce its artistic views. 

And all of this goes, i think, deeper than what I’ve up to now suggested.


Suppose an orchestra has a music director with a particular interest — conducting new music, let’s say. Does this mean this now becomes the guiding strategy of the institution?

Maybe not. I know one major orchestra that engaged a music director with a definite bent toward new music, and then put in place a board president who (from what I’ve heard) disapproves. Not exactly a coherent policy, but — the music director has no power to set overall organizational strategy! And so may be powerless to do more than simply conduct the pieces — new or otherwise — that he or she favors.

Two examples (from opera, as it happens, but the same things can happen with orchestras):

    • In the 1990s, the Chicago Lyric Opera was a roaring commercial success, selling 103% of its tickets. (Subscribers would return tickets they couldn’t or didn’t want to use, and those tickets would be resold.) The company also liked to do new or modern pieces. For these, ticket sales would initially not be as strong as they would be for the standard repertory. But the company apparently was united on the importance of doing new and modern work, and so the maketing department, faced with a production that wasn’t selling, went into high gear. They were pit bulls. They had lists of everyone they could identify who’d ever bought a ticket to a new or modern work, and (as they told me at the time) they’d call these people, one by one, until they’d sold out the house.
    • By contrast, the Metropolitan Opera didn’t make any special effort in the ’90s to sell seats to Wozzeck and other modern works that James Levine (to his credit) liked to do. Or so the marketing director in those years once told me. Overall, the company was selling 92% of the house, and that, to the marketing director, seemed good enough. Faced with a production (like Wozzeck) that wouldn’t sell, he’d accept that as a law of nature, saying (as he put it to me in very plain terms) that it was the artistic peoples’ right to put on what they liked, and if the price was four or five productions each year that didn’t sell, that was acceptable. Modern opera, then, would appear to have been James Levine’s strategy, but not the company’s.
I once saw firsthand what happened when the music director of a big American orchestra got an idea that involved a department he didn’t normally control. Everyone jumped to do his wishes. But what he wanted involved quite a bit of change, for something that, perhaps, wouldn’t cha

nge the face of the institution all that dramatically. So when, after not too long, the music director (enmeshed in other projects, including, of course, his other music directorship) lost his fire for his new idea, no one else pursued it either. And while remnants of it persisted for a few years, it never became the central focus that the music director apparently had wanted at the start. 

One last situation. What happens if an orchestra doesn’t play as well for guest conductors as it does for its music director? Or sometimes doesn’t. Who has the power to address that problem? 

Well, the music director could. But he or she doesn’t hear the concerts, as a rule, that he or she doesn’t lead. So does he or she have standing to say the playing wasn’t good enough? For what it’s worth, I’ve never heard of a music director addressing this issue, though I’ll be quick to say it may have happened. It doesn’t seem to be the normal rule. 

The artistic administrator can’t say anything. Well, maybe privately, to a few trusted musicians. But that’s the kind of atomized way of dealing with artistic matters that I noted in my last post. It doesn’t show the orchestra as a coherent, conscious institution, addressing an artistic problem openly, and as a group

The executive director, similarly, isn’t likely to say anything. The musicians, in fact, might object. They might (as I’ve heard happen in a different though not unrelated situation) ask if their contract allows the management to talk to them about this subject. And I’ve been told by musicians that it would be in most cases an outright contract violation for the board to say anything.

So the problem — if it exists — might well not be addressed, unless the musicians themselves choose to address it. And if they did, again judging from what I discussed in my last post, they’ll only do it privately, one on one, or in small groups, atomized, not discussing the situation openly, in any organized way. 

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  1. says

    Interesting point… Probably one of the biggest reasons for lack of consistent playing on the part of large orchestras.

    If the “guest” conductor is amazing, they play well, if not, the performances can be fairly lackluster.

  2. Tom says

    The way American orchestras are set up administratively vs. artistically is a total mess. I’ve commented on that frequently before.

    I never had any issues choosing good guest conductors when I managed an orchestra in Europe. The Artistic Programming Committee, consisting of myself, elected orchestra representatives and the Music Director would meet regularly, and guest conductors would be chosen at those meetings. Most of the choices were made based on the orchestra musicians’ wishes, some on my recommendations, and occasionally the Music Director would recommend someone (though that happened rarely).

    Generally, the process worked quite well and to the musicians’ and audiences’ satisfaction, though of course we did have the occassional duds in the process here and there. Not due to the guest conductor being bad as such, but rather because we mismatched the conductor and the repertoire.

    But we certainly didn’t need someone with as idiotic a job description as “Artistic Advisor”. If there isn’t sufficient artistic expertise to go around between the Music Director, Executive Director and the musicians of an orchestra, there’s something seriously wrong with the organization.

  3. Ros says

    This is one of many reasons why the inequities in the orchestral world are so ridiculous. You have music directors of regional orchestras who are paid a tiny fraction of their grander peers, yet who actually have responsibility for overseeing the entire artistic output of the orchestra. They devise a coherent year’s programming – sometimes more than a year, with explorations of themes or composers etc – usually having to bear in mind the need of the marketing folk to come up with pithy phrases and ad friendly ideas. They take responsibility for the ongoing growth and development of the orchestra’s sound and excellence, whilst endeavouring to spread the orchestra’s reach through education, pops, small ensemble opportunities, elder home concerts, talks before and after and during concerts, lectures to students of all ages, all on an often diminishing budget. They choose and hire soloists, and often guest conductors if the season affords such a luxury. They deal with personnel issues, hire and fire and audition and negotiate. They have to address the needs, desires and requirements of orchestra members who want to play interesting work, audiences who are scared of new stuff, librarians whose budgets are increasingly nipped at by ridiculous publishers’ inflationary tactics, etc etc. They help recruit board members, squeeze hands and kiss babies like a campaigning politician, maintain a community profile that is at once approachable and yet ‘special’ and a little glamourous. And they do this for most of the year, not just the 8 or 12 or maybe 15 weeks a year that is the norm for the bigger orchestras’ MDs. And no, that doesn’t mean that they don’t often have that second or third job you mention. If only because few of these jobs pay enough on their own, these Music Directors who are Artistic Directors often shuttle between multiple such positions, each with its unique set of demands and challenges, and all wanting to feel they are getting 100% from their Maestro. Christoph Eschenbach is reported to be earning more than $2 million in his position with the NSO – just outside DC at least one regional orchestra’s music AND ARTISTIC director, whose concerts are often more thrilling, can be found on Guidestar to be raking in $80,000. What a joke.

  4. ken nielsen says

    A very interesting and thoughtful piece Greg.

    What it means is that no-one has any responsibility for quality.

    A dangerous situation.

    A member of a leading orchestra I know said that if the players did not like a visiting conductor they would let that be known in rehearsals but never in performance. They played as well as they possibly could whoever was waving

    the stick.

    But this was an orchestra with excellence built into its genetic code…

  5. Jonathan says

    interesting article, Greg, and I’m happy to see Bob in Pittsburgh being pointed out as a good example. He really is, and takes every aspect of artistic quality/direction in the orchestra there as his responsibility whilst taking into account the views of all stakeholders (MD, the players, visiting conductors, board, marketing department etc.) – I do wonder how wide-spread that approach is, however.

    Tom’s point is also good: a comparison between US and European orchestras, I think, would reveal much about artistic leadership, although it may not always be as different over here (UK) than one might suspect.

    But the best point you make is the one about the whole organisation pulling in the same direction – that Lyric/Met example is right on the money…

  6. says

    Here’s my interesting take on this situation. What about the orchestra that actually plays BETTER for a guest conductor than it does for its music director? Sad to say I have heard this in person, more than once.

    But the problem is basically with the “absentee landlords” of the contemporary U.S. orchestras. Maazel was paid some $3.3 million in his last year in NY and for what? We can all read the reviews: some concerts were phenomenal and others he just seemed to “phone in.” That seems a pretty high price tag for such directionless leadership.