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Why I’m leaving San Francisco, by principal timpanist

We told you three months ago that David Herbert, the much-admired principal timpanist, was upgrading from San Francisco Symphony Orchestra to Chicago.

Today, in a letter to his striking colleagues, he explains why. In brief, ‘I want to be in a workplace where I am valued and supported by management, and where I am considered an asset rather than an inconvenience.’ That’s telling ‘em.’

david herbert

For eighteen years I have had the incredible opportunity and privilege to serve as Principal Timpani of the San Francisco Symphony. These years have been the best years of my musical life. As a member of this world class orchestra I have shared with my colleagues the honor of winning multiple Grammy Awards. We have benefited from daring and visionary projects brought to life under the leadership of our Music Director, Michael Tilson Thomas, and we have had the enduring support of our great audience, a strong donor base, and a generous and enthusiastic Board of Governors.

Unfortunately there has grown, over time, a cultural disconnect between the San Francisco Symphony Management and the musicians of the orchestra who make the music come to life. The increased divide between my colleagues’ service to the music and the failure of the San Francisco Symphony Management to recognize such commitment has been disheartening.

In contrast, the Management of the Chicago Symphony has worked and committed resources to growing a culture and philosophy that puts the music and the musician first. They are making that fact very clear by their commitment to me economically and artistically. As a result, my ongoing pursuit of excellence as Principal Timpani of that great orchestra will be allowed to flourish.

The work ethic required from every member of the orchestra is enormous and our practice away from the stage is integral to that excellence. Every musician in the San Francisco Symphony spends at least as much time in our personal practice and preparation as we spend with our colleagues in rehearsal and concerts. As Principal Tympani, the arrangements, organization and support needed to arrange on site access to instruments and space in which to practice is a necessity. The management of the Chicago Symphony has recognized this as a given and have done nothing to impede my abilities to perform at the absolute highest level by offering ease and unrestricted access to instruments and consistently reliable space in which to practice at Orchestra Hall.

Again, in sad contrast this has not been the case with the Management of the San Francisco Symphony. While I have had support and as much encouragement from our stage technicians as they could provide under difficult conditions, I have had no cooperation from our management and instead have encountered only a negative attitude with little or no attempts at problem solving. This has exacerbated an already impossibly challenging and unmanageable workplace. I was eventually forced to rent, at my own expense, practice space at another location and to purchase additional instruments.

I will always admire and respect the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony and our Music Director, Michael Tilson Thomas, but as an artist and as an employee I want to be in a workplace where I am valued and supported by management, and where I am considered an asset rather than an inconvenience.

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  1. James Brinton says:

    The managerial techniques of “Lash the serfs” capitalism is incompatible with the arts.

    • Christina Arden says:

      James B. : Absolutely. In post after post about orchestra after orchestra on this site, this “managerial technique” is a constant theme. Managements’ lack of artistic vision, cluelessness about the true needs of musicians, and corporate HR mentality cause clashes with musicians and conductors, and foster a vision of pliant mediocrity as the ideal.

      So we have great orchestras, musicians and conductors locked out, on strike, dismissed, and a public left to wonder what happened to the concerts and the talent they were promised when they purchased those season tickets.

    • violinserf says:

      @James & @ Christina, I couldn’t agree more with your comments.
      I’m not sure if it’s a common theme, but the orchestra where I am a tutti violin is pretty much run by management who are failed musicians themselves.. possibly with an axe to grind.
      We are paying for this failure and are paid fractions of their own salaries..

      • kate smith says:

        Sounds like you musicians are failed business people, who can’t or wont play with others. Calling people “failed musicians”? That attitude right there is what makes management despise musicians, secretly want to fire the lot of them, and hire some recent graduates who can play at least as well and are grateful for the opportunity. Hey violinserf, you want to talk aobut failed musicians in management? let’s talk about the *dead wood* in the orchestra. Let’s have that discussion. Musicians, you sound like petulant children and that will be your downfall.

        • I’ve got to take issue with violinserf. Would you rather have people in management who are not (or were not) musicians? I am a clarinetist by training and knew early on that I was a good player but not good enough to play in a major orchestra, but I loved music and I loved the managerial aspects of orchestras, so I considered going into orchestra management, but ultimately went elsewhere. Most of the time musicians complain that management aren’t musicians, so it seems we’re in a bit of a “damned if you don’t/damned if you do” situation here.

          • You are correct, MacroV – the problem is not that there are people with musical background in managements. The problems develop when there are too many katesmiths in a management.

        • kate smith, your cheap management colors are glaringly neon in this discussion.
          Musicians “fail” in the arts field, the same as in any other field. I graduated with 20 or 30 violinist from the top school in Canada several decades ago. All were aiming for a top orchestral position. To my knowledge maybe 4 or 5 of us achieved that. Others tried 10 or 20 times at audition before moving into another field – perhaps another degree, perhaps arts management, perhaps teaching, or perhaps successfully free-lancing as well. This is not to say that all (or even most of them) entered the field with any kind of grudge against the successful. You, unfortunately, and clearly, bring that resentment with you. Shameful.
          It is easy to brand full-time, hot-blooded musicians and artists as ‘petulant’, – the nature of our business is to express ourselves, which we do without reservation. To brandish this as a ‘reason’ to go out and hire recent graduates in our places, only demonstrates a complete lack of knowledge of the industry and of artistic standards. It would be a shame to be both a “failed” musician, and a “failed” manager in the same lifetime. I hope you are able to change your attitude in time. ;)

        • ediblesprysky says:

          The difference, Kate, is that music is no one’s second choice.

  2. It’s good of David Herbert to help out his soon-to-be former colleagues like this, and what he’s saying is quite likely true. But one should temper that a little with the knowledge that there’s hardly a living orchestral musician in any orchestra (including other Big Five bands) who wouldn’t move to the equivalent position in Chicago if they had the chance. Of course the attitude of CSO management, in addition to the orchestra’s formidable stature, is likely a contributing factor.

  3. Thomas P says:

    Well said. I suspect that SFSO management is tone deaf to allow matters to get to this point. And it seems strangely discordant with MTT’s style.

  4. What a foolish way for the SF management to shoot itself in its clubfoot. Assuming space was available, was it such a big deal to deny practice space, given the transport problems for the tympani, or at least provide coverage with alternative space in the vicinity, especially for such a prized player? Dumb, dumb, dumb.

  5. As a professional musician, i first and formost support this man. Except when he gets into too little detail about how bad sf is. But great “detail” about how good chicago is. I’m totally questioning this.

  6. Orchestra Friend says:

    I’m sorry, David’s letter and assertions simply do not add up.
    1) How were the last 18 years “the best years of [his] musical life” if the conditions were so terrible? It seems to me that David has thrived under the conditions he describes…after all, is he not now moving to an even better orchestra than the self-described “world class” orchestra he leaves?
    2) It seems to me that the management of the Symphony has been supportive enough over its recent history to see the orchestra attain said world class status, as well as win multiple grammys. Yet now, suddenly, there is no support? And I’m assuming the management was seen as plenty supportive at the last contract negotiation, when that nice 17.3% raise over three years was proposed and accepted.
    3) A prideful argument the musicians make over and over is that their profession requires them to purchase and maintain expensive instruments. Yet this doesn’t apply to David, and *his* need to do so is another signal of management laissez faire?
    4) The musicians of the CSO were on strike, however briefly, earlier this year. If one reviews the press at that time, it is over the EXACT same things about which the SFS musicians have stuck — so one could also logically conclude that the SFS musicians’ attitude toward management parallel those of the CSO players toward their management at that time, yet CSO is cited now as a nirvana of managerial sensitivity. I find that…curious.
    5) If I understand correctly, David has not outright resigned, but has taken a 1-year leave of absence (which is very common). So…having lambasted the SFS administration for its many egregious faults, uncaring attitude, and extreme incompetence, he would return if things don’t work out in Chicago??? That smacks of something, and it ain’t bad management.

    I believe David is a nice person, but his and his colleagues’ claims fall on increasingly deaf ears. I AM with them that the bonus paid to the ED was an incredibly boneheaded move, and shake my head in disbelief (ah, but that is a different post). But their claims of bad management simply do not wash. If the musicians are the heart of the organization, the administion is the lungs…and the lungs have to be pumping pretty hard to foster an environment where there is a “great audience, a strong donor base, and a generous and enthusiastic Board of Governors,” and even supportive and encouraging stage technicians.

    • His assertions are fine – you should double check your adding. In reference to your points:

      1. There is nothing wrong with the musician’s statement that these have been the best years of his musical life. The problems are more recent as he clearly states.”There has grown, over time, a cultural disconnect between the San Francisco Symphony Management and the musicians of the orchestra who make the music come to life. The increased divide…”

      So as he clearly indicates, work conditions were initially both musically and professionally satisfying, yet over time and in recent years management had become increasingly inept at providing a work environment that was representative of the world class musicians at SFS.

      2. Money is not everything. If your job conditions (which this musician makes clear is the main reason for leaving) make coming to work miserable, that provides strong incentive to find new and better ones. Salary was not mentioned here as a cause of him leaving.

      3. Tympanists and percussionists face a unique challenge in the orchestra. They can’t just pop into a free practice room and pull their violin off their back. It’s the job of management to provide these musicians with the logistical support necessary to allow them to spend their precious free time and energy honing their craft. A good management would recognize this and provide it as incentive to retain their talent. A bad management would neglect this responsibility and lose their principal tympanist.

      4. You are incorrect on this point. The CSO strike was primarily over health care and other benefits, NOT over management incompetence. This can be gleaned by a 5 second google search. From the CSO’s lead negotiator:
      As for the cause of the negotiation breakdown, Lester said, “It was the final economic proposal (from the association), which still required us to take a decrease in compensation and exorbitant increases in the cost of health care. We’re hopeful that we will continue negotiating soon.”

      5. You don’t know the details of his employment status regarding his leave of absence and trial period at CSO. Take some advice from Sherlock Holmes and don’t speculate if you don’t know the facts!

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        I agree – one would expect there to be a practice space for the timpani and percussion, especially at a facility as recently built as the hall in SF. Many older halls have very insufficient backstage facilities because when they were built 100 years or more ago, the comfort and the working conditions of the musicians simply wasn’t something they paid attention to. But in most more recent halls, they did. In the Philharmonie in Berlin, the timpani and percussion have their own rehearsal room where they can come in and practice any time. Except one of the two principal timpani is known to hardly ever practice, he just comes in and warms up briefly before the rehearsal…

    • kate smith says:

      good points, Orchestra Friend

    • Thank you, Orchestra Friend, for making some points that really need to be made. Did the SFO provide Mr. Herbert with ideal instruments and practice space and “support” for 18 years and then suddenly withdraw some or all of it from him? Not likely. Surely nothing has changed except Mr. Herbert’s growing wants, needs and ambitions. What a pity that such a fine musician whose orchestra’s management supported, yes, supported him as soloist in two world-premiere timpani concertos, has chosen to shadow his departure to a higher-status orchestra with such negativity.

  7. Alexander Hall says:

    This is not the only instance of recent years where a disconnect between management and musicians in American orchestras has been made public. It may be tough on the individuals who work ungodly hours and are poorly paid but there is a lot to be said for the way the self-governing London orchestras operate. There the interests of the players come first and if management falls down on its job, as was the case in both the RPO and LPO in the last few decades, it’s the bureaucrats who have to leave the show. London orchestras are also streets ahead of most German orchestras, where politicians in state ministries decide who they want as music directors and care little for the opinions of players themselves.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      Where did you hear that? Politicians don’t decide who becomes MD at an opera house or symphony orchestra in Germany. The artistic management does. In many orchestras, the players have considerable input, too. Since the opera houses and orchestras are largely funded by local governments, it is then up to the administrative organs of those governments to carry out the legal aspects of the contract negotiations. That can get a little bureaucratic, but since the public hand has far more money available for them than in Britain, a little oversight by the same is not necessarily a bad thing. They have after all to justify their spending to the public. And seeing just how much money that is and how well players get paid in the better orchestras, that’s not streets behind, but autobahns ahead.

      • Alexander Hall says:

        I am sorry to say that you have a very disingenuous view about how the German system works. It is the politicians, in particular the Kultusminister, who get to decide these things because it is they who provide the money for all these appointments. I will give you a specific example of how this works against the interests of the musicians themselves. At the Hamburg State Opera in the early 1980s the members of the Staatsphilharmonie, who play at both the opera as well as for their own series of orchestral concerts – a practice incidentally which is quite common all over Germany – made it clear that they wanted Giuseppe Sinopoli to become Generalmusikdirektor. This didn’t happen because the politician who had to sell the whole deal to the local parliament was leant on to come up with a “bigger” name.
        None of the orchestras, with the exception of the Berlin Philharmonic, takes a vote on who they would like as their next boss. There are soundings to be sure but often it is the pure vanity of those who hold the purse-strings and get to decide these matters (pace the decisions in Munich to appoint James Levine and, more recently, Valery Gergiev,) which is the deciding factor.

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          It’s not “disingenuous”. It’s what I know from growing up in that cultural environment. It’s much more complex than you think. Sometimes overly ambitious politicians do get in the way, that’s the nature of things, politics of one sort or another play a big role in every system. And it’s not always transparent what goes on behind the scenes. Maybe things didn’t work out with Sinopoli and Hamburg because he also became principal conductor of the Philharmonia in London around the same time, a very attractive post. He also got a massive recording contract with DG at the time, and it is probably safe to assume that DG preferred him to be in London for that because the Philharmonia had both a bigger name on the international scene and was cheaper to record. I don’t really know, and neither do you. You didn’tget the name of the orchestra right, so I must assume you aren’t all that familiar with what’s going on in Hamburg.
          In Berlin, it was also the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper which lobbied for him to become MD there, but this time it didn’t work out because of tensions between him and the then Intendant, Götz Friedrich, not because of political intervention. Or maybe it was because the job in Dresden was already on the horizon, again a more attractive post. Or both. Who knows. These things can get very complicated on personal, artistic, and yes, political levels. But in general, these decisions are up to the artistic management, not politicians.
          I agree that in some places, vanity politics play a bigger role than in others, Munich is a good example, and I commented on their tendency to just buy “big names” in an earlier discussion myself. But that doesn’t mean either it’s just the cultural politicians and that the artistic management doesn’t have a say in that at all. Like I said, it’s inherent in a system which spends vast amounts of money on culture, way more than any other in the world. I would rather have it like that, with the occasional political complications, than the other way around.

          • Alexander Hall says:

            You are quite right about the official title of the orchestra. It should of course have been Philharmonisches Staatsorchester rather than Staatsphilharmonie. But you are wrong to suppose I am not familair with what is going on in Germany. And you are also quite wrong about the circumstances surrounding Sinopoli’s early career. He did not debut with the Philharmonia until February 1983, upon which he was offered the post as their Principal Conductor. His relationship with the PhSO Hamburg started in 1980 and the orchestra wanted him long before there was any inkling of a partnership in London. I repeat what I stated in an earlier posting: the opinions of German orchestras are often disregarded for purely non-musical reasons. When Christoph von Dohnanyi was appointed both GMD and Intendant of Hamburg Opera in 1978 the orchestra hated him from the word go and were happy to see the back of him. The feeling was quite mutual: he said on his arrival in Cleveland that he could start rehearsing at a point where elsewhere he had reached the end of the line. Nor was his prematurely terminated relationship with the NDR orchestra much better.

        • Fabio Fabrici says:

          “[in Germany] … none of the orchestras, with the exception of the Berlin Philharmonic, takes a vote on who they would like as their next boss.”

          That’s simply not true. There are many other orchestras in Germany, where the orchestra gets to vote on the new MD or GMD, only that their vote counts to a degree, not 100% as with the Berlin Phil.

      • harold braun says:

        Wishful thinking! I could name several cases where the politicians pulled strings behinde the curtain and the orchestra got overruled .I one case,the orchestra”s favourite didn’t even get an invitation to conduct a performance as a possible candidate for the post of music director.

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          I didn’t say it’s the orchestras which get to decide. It’s the artistic management. If they are clever, they listen to the input of the orchestra – or not, depending on the situation. There are also cases in which conductors who were at first not that popular with the orchestra later turned out to be a great choice.

  8. kate smith says:

    These strikes themselves — occurring all over the country — highlight how incompetent musicians are at matters of business. If these musicians think their managements are so terribly incompetent, let them start their own orchestras. After all, they claim orchestra management is not rocket science. SF gets ten weeks paid vacation per year, they can devote 8 or 9 of those weeks to orchestra management and/or hiring their personal picks to do same. The bottom line is that stellar performers graduate every year from conservatories all over the country, and can’t find jobs. A timpanist graduating from conservatory has to wait for someone to die to get a job in a major orchestra. These musicians are damn lucky to have the deal they have and really need to stop whining. It’s tough all over, guys. Really, it is.

    • Anonymous says:

      Kate–I’m sure we could find college graduates to do the job of Mr Assink and MTT as well, with tremendous savings! Can a college graduate do your job too?

    • Anonymous says:

      Additionally, to echo what Brian L mentioned above, the idea that there’s a huge crop of recent graduates who are ready for an orchestra like San Francisco is comically misinformed. I graduated from one of the big 3 US conservatories in violin almost 15 years ago. In that time, one violinist out of my graduating class–one–won a top 5 audition, and only five of us are currently playing in a full-time professional orchestra. The issue for us wasn’t scarcity of auditions–there have been hundreds of good violin vacancies in the US alone during those 15 years and dozens of top-5 spots open. The issue is even at the highest conservatory levels, the vast majority of graduates will never be good enough to win a single orchestra job, let alone an orchestra at the level of SFS. Counting my classmates from grad school yields only two additional orchestral violinists, one of whom is in a top-5 orchestra.

      Being on audition committees now, I can verify that at an audition of 150 candidates, you’re lucky if you have 20 worthy players. There are lots of graduates, yes, but most aren’t any good!

  9. mmmm.. Sounds to me like he got a better offer (or family ties in the Midwest) and doing a PR-timed favor for those colleagues he is leaving behind who are on strike. (after his contract’s been signed of course). All I can say is we’ll miss him…but, alas, he’ll miss us and San Francisco much, much more.

  10. Here is management’s response to David Herbert’s letter: “It’s unfortunate that David feels that he was not valued and supported as an artist at the SFS. He is very talented member of the orchestra and when he showed interest in the CSO [Chicago Symphony] position was offered sizeable additional salary and longevity bonus to stay in San Francisco, on top of his current salary of $214,000. To underscore our support for David, he also receives 16 weeks paid vacation a year, six more than most musicians, to pursue personal artistic projects important to him as we greatly value our musicians’ varied artistic interests outside of Davies Symphony Hall as members of our vibrant arts community.”

    I used to be a timpanist/percussionist, free lancing, not in a permanent gig. I’d be curious to know how many full-time orchestras provide guaranteed rehearsal space for their percussionists. Mr. Lebrecht, do you know what the policy is in the UK orchestras?

    • truth to power says:

      Think Nigel Thomas, Andy Smith or Simon Carrington would re-locate to SF for 140,000 pounds a year with 10 weeks off and no train trips to Bedford or Leicester? Herbert is a [redacted].

  11. Dear David,

    Your last line says it all. In it, you have encapsulated what is at the core of so many of these orchestral management logjams and lock outs through out our country. You are not only an asset, but you and your musical colleagues are treasures to be coddled, nurtured and supported. It is beyond comprehension why the management of so many orchestras has taken the position of ruthless corporations, as if improving the bottom line is the goal. I believe you musicians should by paid like sports stars. Sign multi year contracts for high salaries. I will quote your last line to people when talking about this issue. I wish you well.

    • “I believe you musicians should by paid like sports stars. Sign multi year contracts for high salaries.”

      And many do just that. But as with sport, there’s only a small layer of those who get paid that well. The vast majority do not. Same in almost every profession.
      Except there’s one key difference. An orchestral musician in this situation can expect to retain their job even when they can’t be bothered to contribute any longer, or their standard slips. Doesn’t happen to sports stars – once they cease to perform well enough, out they go, and in with the new. That partially justifies a high salary – their earning window is significantly smaller than for most people.
      If you want musicians to be paid like sports stars, you surely need to accept this part of the employment deal, too?

    • If we think orchestral musicians ought to be paid like sports stars, shouldn’t we expect their presence to bring in the same sort of revenue for the organization (in ticket sales and television licensing, for example) as sports stars do?

      We – people who love classical music enough that we spend time hanging around and commenting at blogs like this one – can certainly think that hardworking, gifted orchestral musicians are worthy of sports-star salaries, but we know perfectly well that it’s unrealistic to expect it.

    • Please, all of you – be serious. We are talking about a principal player who is so good that one of the world’s greatest orchestras wants him. That means that in his profession he is one of the best in the world. I want to see you offering $200000 or so a year to Lionel Messi or LeBron James… This is less than 1% of what those guys are making! Fine, their careers are shorter, but not hundred times shorter! Trying to make any kind of meaningful comparison between salaries of sport superstars and those paid to the stars of orchestral world is truly a very silly exercise. These numbers exist not just on different planets but more like in different galaxies.

  12. Roberto Gonzalez says:

    Norman was right in his book when he started to complain about the huge amounts invested in administrators and agents by orchestras, to the detriment of the investment in musicians who play the music.

    It would be logical, if not wise, to think of healthcare for musicians just like the investment professional sports teams make for athletes. The symphony has a financial interest in keeping the musicians healthy and it is a good business practice to pay for the health care that goes to their bodies.

    Herbert’s playing has been wonderful and I will miss his artistry.

    There is a long history of despotic management in San Francisco since the bad old days of Peter Pastreich… UGH… He was a complete despot, so the present situation is no surprise, either.

  13. “In contrast, the Management of the Chicago Symphony has worked and committed resources to growing a culture and philosophy that puts the music and the musician first. They are making that fact very clear by their commitment to me economically and artistically.” — Didn’t Chicago musicians strike too just months ago??

  14. This is an interesting thread, but as a non-musician I would like to point out that acting as if the grass is always greener for other people is more than a little counterproductive. Calling the top performers in their industry “whiners” who should just suck it up and be glad they have a job is also counterproductive. Both management and the orchestral players have stresses in their lives related to the specifics of their jobs, so stop assuming that they’re all just punching the clock and collecting their pay without having “earned” it.

    I agree that all of the SF orchestra could easily be replaced with recent graduates, and so could the management. The problem with recent musical graduates is that although they may be able to play the necessary excerpts well for their audition, being able to maintain that same quality on new music from concert to concert may not be as sustainable since they’ll no longer be able to put in the same amount of practice on each piece as they did when they were preparing for their audition. That’s where EXPERIENCE comes in.

    Same thing with management positions. A recent MBA graduate may be up on all the latest “clever” ways of improving the bottom line, but they still won’t have the EXPERIENCE to know the ins and outs of the local musical scene and how to get things done in ways that won’t irritate either the audiences or the musicians.

    I, as a non-musician and fairly ordinary citizen who’s never personally earned more than $20,000 a year, find that ALL of the numbers involved make my eyes get REAL wide. It boggles my mind that management of a “non-profit” can make such huge amounts. I’m much more used to volunteer-based non-profits. I have no objection to anyone making a reasonable living–with decent health care and pension benefits–but at what point does the government need to step in and put some brakes on management salaries? These are NOT privately owned for-profit businesses, these are businesses who use their non-profit status as a sales tool to convince people with money to use their money to support the local art scene, and donate goods and services to them as tax deductions. Management of for-profits justify their salaries as a percentage of the growth they’ve stimulated in their company. Shouldn’t the goal of non-profit managers be to grow the endowment funds to the point that interest alone will cover each concert’s expenses, rather than just lining their own pockets?

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