While scanning different Festival websites, I came to the one of the  Aspen Music Festival (Colorado / USA) and went on reading the excellent speech Festival President Alan Fletcher made there for the official beginning of the Festival, some weeks ago, on June 24. In the light of the problems the Minnesota Orchestra is facing, Fletcher develops a remarkably clear analysis about the functioning of orchestras as a whole, in the United States as well as in Europe. This is a recommendable lecture.

« (…). This has not been a good year for many people we care deeply about in the world of music. I feel it wouldn’t be right simply to say that everything in our future is bright and uncomplicated. So I’ll make some observations about the state of classical music.(…) A large part of what is happening stems from the global recession from which we are just emerging. People have been afraid and have lost confidence, in every sector, and this loss of confidence has a profound effect on musical organizations that depend on belief, confidence, and generosity.

Classical music in the United States depends on four groups working together: musicians, donors, administrators, and listeners. No one of these groups ‘owns’ the music, and no one or even two of them can keep the music going without the others. Too often we’ve been hearing from one group or another that someone else is unimportant, or worse, that ‘they owe us.’ But everyone involved here is making a free choice to be involved, and is mutually obliged to make the enterprise work.

We’ve been seeing some terrible fractures in the historic cooperation that is needed to create music.

For me, the very worst of it has been in Minneapolis-St. Paul, where two great orchestras were locked out of their halls.

This is not the place to try to describe fully what has happened – the complexity of the problem is intense – but what happened, and is still happening, has no place in our art form. A strike is a very unhappy thing, but a lock-out is unworthy of us all and unworthy of our beautiful profession.

In almost all of the problematic cases in recent years, one or more of the “sides” in a dispute is saying that they can’t, or won’t, recognize another side’s good faith, and the rhetoric all around the country has been remarkably poisonous and negative.

We really must find a way to work together, and this fracturing makes that seem impossible.

Let’s start with one of the most wrongheaded ideas: that, since there are so many good musicians out there, the particular composition of any given orchestra doesn’t matter.

It is not true that musicians are interchangeable – one of the most essential things about music is that every interpretation is unique. The sounds of Chicago, Philadelphia, or Cleveland are not only significantly unlike each other, but they change with different conductors, and they change over time. It is one of the most important truths about music that the audience should want to hear these differences, and value them, not believing that there is a single ‘best’ orchestra or interpretation.

Further, every city should have its own orchestra, not only as an expression of civic pride, but because having music made in your community by your fellow-citizens is different from experiencing it as a remote thing. Great music must be made in Syracuse, in Honolulu, in Columbus, in Louisville – not just in Berlin and Vienna.

The Boston Symphony in the era of Vic Firth, the Chicago Symphony of Bud Herseth, the New York Philharmonic with Jeanne Baxtresser, the Cleveland Orchestra of Josef Gingold – all these orchestras sounded like no other, thanks to the extremely particular qualities of sound of these great players. When, inevitably, they all retired, the orchestras didn’t just ‘order up’ another musician. It’s not that anyone is irreplaceable, in the sense that an orchestra ceases to be great when a key player leaves, but it is a fact that we depend on the unique, the particular, the personal. To be careless of this fact, as an administrator or a board member, is to be wrong.

There’s a funny line in the Bette Midler movie ‘Big Business.’ She’s playing an executive, and is told that her board won’t approve one of her plans. ‘Well fire them and hire a board that will!’ An orchestra management looking for drastic concessions that says, ‘Let them go, and hire musicians who will!’ is making a terrible mistake.

The wrongheadedness is not all on one side, though.

A friend of mine, a composer, wrote this year that it is the boards and managements of great orchestras who should be locked out. My view is that no one should be locked out. We need to end the adversarial tone of confrontation among managements, musicians, boards – before it tears our system apart. No one is free from blame in this.

For me, it is clear that some managements have made catastrophic mistakes, and some boards have supported these mistakes, instead of helping correct them. There’s no excuse for this. But to turn it into a sweeping condemnation of all philanthropists, boards, and administrations is also wrong.

It is not true that the musicians create everything important about the music, and staff are merely assistants. An orchestra is a complex organism in which everyone plays a role, and everyone makes a contribution. In some of the disputes, musicians have put forward the view that administrations ‘steal’ their work for their own profit – that the music is the property of the people on stage. But a performance is the end result of an immense amount of work, to which many different kinds of people contributed. In terms of ownership, let’s also not forget that all of this work began with a composer!

A particular accusation is that administrations inappropriately bring a ‘business’ attitude to their work, as opposed to serving the art. And there’s something to this, in that some people in my experience insist on seeing ‘business sense’ as somehow opposed to, and superior to ‘artistic sense.’ In running any organization, one must have sound financial planning, must make wise investment decisions, must know how to manage human resources, and must often make tough decisions for the greater good. This does not equate to saying that a non-profit should be run the same way a for-profit business is run. Leaders from both worlds need to understand that the goals are different.

The essence of a for-profit company is that it makes money for its shareholders, but the essence of a not-for-profit orchestra is that it makes wonderful music for its audience. The goal is not to balance a budget by giving great concerts; the goal is to use a well-planned budget to produce truly great concerts. The music is the mission, not the money.

At the same time, I fear many musicians undervalue the essential contributions that management, operations, marketing, finance, and education departments make, and especially fundraising departments.

Because the fact is that nowhere in the world does classical music thrive without external support. Ticket revenue is never enough, and will never be enough.

In most European economies, there is very significant government support that fills the gap between ticket revenue and the reasonable expense of running an orchestra or opera company. The U.S. has never had that tradition. Some see this as a failing, but as I watch with complete dismay how Washington is increasingly captive to destructive politics, I know that I would far rather deal with generous individuals who donate money and expertise to running an organization, than be beholden to government bureaucrats themselves beholden to unreasonable political forces.

Government support for the arts, in countries where it has long been taken for granted, is failing, all over the world. Not everywhere, yet, but look at the Netherlands, or the United Kingdom, or Italy. Meanwhile, though many find it troubling that our national government, and, increasingly, our state and local governments, seem to give negligible amounts to the arts, we do have a remarkable system whereby taxes are forgiven to people who make voluntary contributions. Thus the government is in fact supporting the arts, through the charitable deduction. The vast majority of support for classical music comes from philanthropy – something like seventy-five per cent of our budget here in Aspen is given by generous people either in annual gifts or through gifts to our endowment. Philanthropists have no obligation to give away their money. No one is required to be generous. We should – we must – honor those who choose to give.

Many of the most prestigious European musical organizations: La Scala, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Salzburg Festival, Covent Garden, the Paris Opera – all have philanthropic partners in the United States. American non-profits do not solicit European governments for support, but government-supported European groups do come here, to learn how we do it.

I haven’t yet said anything about the fourth group involved in creating a great classical music culture: the audience. Clearly wonderful musicians are essential, and thoughtful donors, and I would say that truly competent, imaginative, tough, and committed administrators are necessary. But it is what happens when a devoted audience listens that is magical.

Maybe Bette Midler was right in this respect: if anyone won’t talk, and won’t acknowledge, and won’t respect other’s roles, then maybe they should be fired, and replaced by someone who will.(…)

Some orchestras have the representation of a few musicians at board meetings – generally not voting, and generally just one or two. Here, we have a Corporation with a majority membership of faculty that explicitly sets the mission for the organization. Our Board of Trustees, with fiduciary authority, includes eleven fully-voting members of our faculty among its 50 seats. All of the board’s standing committees include musicians.

I think we will ensure a much better future for our profession if we start crossing the lines of old-style labor/management distrust, and include musicians at the heart of decision-making. Musicians will see how choices are made, and whether they are motivated in the best interests of the music. Maybe they will understand better the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. Administrators will know that they have an obligation to formulate plans and policies that can be explained and justified in public.

And crucially, in the words of Deborah Rutter, president of the Chicago Symphony, boards will be as close as possible to the music. Being close to the music is what motivates all of us.

So what can we do?

Think about what others do to help sustain our musical organizations. Rather than stoke the heated rhetoric, try to calm things down. Develop genuine relationships with people whose role is completely unlike your own. Don’t approach problems thinking about what an organization owes you, whether as a musician, a donor, or a devoted staff member – rather, think how you can build up the organization by building up appreciation for what everyone contributes. Be at the table before there is a crisis. The recent agreement in Pittsburgh is a tremendously hopeful sign. There, musicians had built deep, real relationships with board members, and it proved possible to approach a new contract, in a challenging financial climate, from the shared perspective that musicians matter, the board matters, and an administration can support both.

Meanwhile, you are here to do the beautiful work that is the heart of our whole profession. You have made a profound choice in your lives, a choice for music. You have followed up that choice with an immense amount of hard work. Probably people around you, from wherever you come, are inspired by your dedication to this work. They have supported you and have been essential to the work that has brought you here. Here you will find friends like you, who will challenge you to do your best, who will help you do your best, and who will cheer for you when you accomplish your best. When you come to Aspen, you are affirming your choice for a life filled with music, and you are seeing what a future in music can be like.

I have complete confidence that our profession will endure, and that there is a meaningful role in it for all of us. How we make that happen is up to us. It’s what we live for. »


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