Not even a sounding board

What’s missing from this story about the battles between the Seattle Symphony’s music director and its musicians?

The Board of Directors.  They’re literally absent–with people being quoted left and right, down to assistant concertmasters and executive recruiters, there’s not a word from a single member of the Board (just one former Board member)–and apparently they’re also absent from the governance of the Seattle Symphony.  The Nonprofiteer believes the Board generally has only two choices in personnel battles: back the boss or fire him.  But surely a Board of Directors ought to intervene before the situation degenerates into litigation not once but twice, and half its personnel swear out affidavits against the other half.

The Symphony’s happy audience and balanced budget are some evidence of the leadership ability of its music director.  But its revolving-door personnel situation (including a troubling recurrence of the appearance of favoritism) is also evidence about leadership, of quite a different kind.  Even assuming the conductor did nothing wrong, the Board should long since have been counseling him about the consequences of semi-constant upheaval in the ranks: "We think you’re swell, but at a certain point perception is reality.  If the musicians all hate you, you can’t go on running our orchestra."

What appears between the lines of this story instead is a Board too lazy or timid to intervene so long as the music director remains an active and successful fundraiser.  Refusing to ratify a union contract until the music director’s favorite is given a sweetheart deal?  Squelching the results of a survey of orchestra members because the music director doesn’t appear to advantage in its results?  Tolerating an apparent quid-pro-quo where the music director gets a plum job at another group after hiring the other group’s president to work at the Symphony?  If nothing else had happened, that last is grounds for summary dismissal: if A hires B for employer X and 6 months later B hires A for
employer Y, Employer X should fire A flat-out for disloyalty: A has sold X out for the benefit of himself, B and Y. 

It’s great that he’s "enormously popular with the donors."  But that’s actually an accolade you want for your General Manager, or your Board President.  What needs to be said of a company’s music director is, "His leadership helps great musicians make great music"–and this deeply disaffected orchestra suggests something quite other.

A relevant and useful analysis coincidentally came to our attention this morning: "How Not to Govern" in the current issue of the New York State Bar Journal, from Lincoln Center’s General Counsel Lesley Rosenthal.  She anatomizes the report on the Smithsonian debacle and points out, inter alia, that the CEO shouldn’t be running the Board but vice-versa.  The similarity between the circumstances which wrecked the Smithsonian under its last secretary and those described in the Times article about the Seattle Symphony are less surprising than alarming. 

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5 Responses to “Not even a sounding board”

  1. Anita Bernstein Says:

    Having moved to Atlanta just around when the ASO was firing Yoel Levi, I don’t think the governance point is so straightforward as you say.

    Suppose the Seattle Symphony’s board had followed your advice and ordered Schwarz to become more popular with his musicians. What are the odds of compliance, given the business’s Teutonic fantasy of how you need a genius-tyrant to produce great music? If Schwarz is a reasonable guy–and it sounds like he isn’t–he could well have said to the Board, “Okay, I’ll try, but it’s going to cost you: cash money or a lowering of artistic standards.”

    So I doubt that the Board could gain harmony by asserting leadership. Then what should it do? Fire him? They’d be trading in a proven winner on the music and money sides for a chance to maybe win a nicer conductor with comparable talent–*if* they could get past the bad PR from the firing. Of course, they’d still have their pack of litigious dissidents in the pit. Maybe the musicians would feel heard and honored; maybe they’d push for more power. They’re not like the employees of other nonprofits, who are seldom encouraged to equate being difficult with being true to one’s art.

  2. Anita Bernstein Says:

    Postscript: another quirk of this industry is that favoritism, quid pro quo deals, holding the same title at more than one orchestra etc. are all considered proof of how widely admired you are, not your disloyalty or breach of fiduciary duty.

  3. Anita Bernstein Says:

    I promise this is my last post on this entry …

    …but I may need to clarify that I didn’t mean to give the Board a 100% free pass. Their allowing Schwartz to hire his French horn player buddy corruptly was outrageous, and their “compromise” in reaction (of handing the fellow tenure in the orchestra only for as long as Schwarz held its baton) was worse. Like you, I’m all for giving the ED of a nonprofit the space to do his work. But he may not violate fundamentals–which in a professional orchestra surely include putting all musicians through blind auditions before hiring them.

  4. musician Says:

    As a long time member of the Seattle symphony, I have to assert that the NY Times article accurately reflects the morale of the orchestra and the musicians’ frustration with the SSO board. That said, what the article omitted was that the allegations of “orchestral terrorism” were investigated by a 3rd party, hired by management and union, and turned up no conclusive evidence. This was never reported in the local press.

    I appreciate this post on the Nonprofiteer and the comments about the board of directors; all the shenanigans reported byt the NYTimes are only symptons of the greater problem: an (admittedly extreme) example of what can happen when a music director stays too long. Any intelligent person can see from the current atmosphere that the relationship between Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony is no longer working. Under the current music director, the Seattle Symphony has had many triumphs, but few of them have had anything to do with music; the fact is, in the last decade the symphony has stagnated under this music director because there’s NO “THERE” THERE. Hearing the orchestra under a guest conductor is enough to prove that with fresh, inspired leadership, the Seattle Symphony could be great indeed. With a survey stating 61-8 that new leadership is needed, one can no longer say that it’s just a few disgruntled musicians! Too bad it has come to this.

  5. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Leadership is indeed the key issue. I don’t require leaders to win popularity contests (having been an unpopular leader myself), and I don’t underestimate the power of dissidents to make it impossible for anyone to lead. But we wouldn’t permit this guy to sexually harass the people who work for him, and we shouldn’t permit him to abuse them in any other way, either. (Or, to put it another way: musicians may be a pain in the ass but that doesn’t make it legitimate management practice to stand them in the stocks.)

    More important: however charismatic or un-, justified or un-, the music director has to answer to the Board of Directors. It’s the inversion of that relationship, with the Board apparently obeying ultimata from the person it’s supposed to be supervising, that makes suspect the conductor’s behavior with the musicians: if he can’t manage to treat his bosses with appropriate respect, how likely is it he’s treating the employees right?

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