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Conducting one's business

The Washington Post's On Leadership blog yesterday featured the conductor Roger Nierenberg, who, with his program The Music Paradigm, is making a specialty of pointing out the ways in which principles of conducting can be applied to business success.

Nierenberg isn't the first person to make these observations; several other conductors have made forays into seminar rooms and management conferences.

But to hold up orchestras, and their relationship with conductors, as a business model is to subscribe to an idealized view of classical music as a happy sphere of beautiful golden tones. It doesn't reflect most orchestras' reality. Orchestras are notoriously dysfunctional places, often filled with talented people suffering from acute frustration at their lack of autonomy or of artistic self-expression. And the conductor of stereotype is an autocratic figure who doesn't care if his musicians are happy or not.
(read more after the jump)

This is changing. The role of the conductor is becoming increasingly entrepreneurial, and orchestras are starting to see the need for a new business model. Marin Alsop is a better model for a conductor of the 21st century than, say, George Szell (and, as has been observed on this blog before, this has a lot to do with her sense of her social responsibilities, more than her music-making).

Another classical ensemble that's become a business model is Orpheus, the conductor-less chamber orchestra, which has also written a book, Leadership Ensemble, presenting lessons from the orchestra to the business world. The hitch in their argument is that I tend to feel that their music could be improved if they actually had a conductor.

In short: orchestras with conductors have not traditionally been the happiest places for their employees; orchestras without conductors do not necessarily make the best music; and yet orchestras are being presented as holding keys to business success. This is partly because they can wave the flag of artistic creativity so newly prized in management circles -- even if creativity doesn't play that much of a role in an orchestra's actual operations or even activities. And even if orchestras themselves appear to be in considerable trouble.


Edited to add: This post, and the comments, prompted a thoughtful blog post from Jim McCarthy.

By Anne Midgette  |  October 27, 2009; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  random musings  
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Next: Out of sight, not out of mind


i think it's important to note that maestro zander's presentation has not only to do with holding up the template of the orchestral community as a business model, but, as with his work with orchestras, young and old, the ideal he is espousing is the inspired sense of possibility within the orchestra above and beyond Standard Operating Procedure. it's not that the creative impulse is latent within the general orchestral experience, it's that there exists the possibility of greatness, originality, passion, and fulfillment, if one grasps the potential whole-heartedly and seeks to elevate one's peers and associates in the process of rehearsal and performance. it is this palpable sharing communication of epiphany that has given us world-beating performances by pre-college and largely amateur orchestras. it's not snake oil, and though it would, i agree, seem to fly in the face of the largely dire fiscal and psychological state of many professional orchestras in the US, maestro zander has some valuable lessons to impart to the business community, and the world in general.

Posted by: cjoriley | October 27, 2009 10:30 AM | Report abuse

This is something the arts community, back home at least, has been flogging for years. The Artistic Director of Sydney Dance Company, Graeme Murphy at the time, was making a nice sideline doing presentations in corporate boardrooms encouraging a board to 'think creatively' by leading them in an improvised modern dance. All very jolly and some much needed cash, but I do wonder whether its a bit of a rort.

I wonder how receptive orchestras would be to having a an industry titan coming in and training them on efficiency.

I don't think the cross-fertilisation is a bad thing, but what orchestras do in regards to organisational teamwork is not unique to orchestras, and, as you say, their own organisations are often so wildly dysfunctional I'm not sure business should be actively seeking to learn from them.

Posted by: ianw2 | October 27, 2009 10:39 AM | Report abuse

It depends on the personality of the conductor and how flexible he/she is in working with management, the community, businesses and the school systems. Sometimes it works, and they stay a long time. Other times, the chemistries do not mesh, forcing collaboration. You'd be surprised which cities have new concert halls and packed houses for their concerts--with new music too. You'd be surprised how some cities do not have new concert halls, and less than packed concerts. Many factors go into the success of one orchestra, and it begins with personalities and the ability to be flexible and easger to learn through the experience--no matter how much experience one may have. What works in one place does not necessarily work in the town to the left or right.

Posted by: JBiegel | October 28, 2009 6:14 AM | Report abuse

I definitely agree with JBiegel above. A lot of a conductor's ability to keep things from being dysfunctional has to do with the fit between the personnel and the conductor. I also think that when you're talking about an organization that has hundreds of people, a conductor can't please everyone all the time. I worked with a world famous conductor who once told me, "If I hear EVERYONE in the orchestra loves the conductor, I know he must not be very good, but if everyone hates the conductor, he must not be very good, also."

All that being said, the expectations for conductors is changing. It is no longer sufficient to simply conduct and prepare an orchestra for performances at a high level. I have done a number of interviews for music director of orchestras, and usually I am asked one to two questions about musical ideas. The rest of the hour interview is usually about building audiences, fundraising, marketing, and personnel management.

It's going to be important that musicians gain as much business background as musical background these days! To Anne's point about Marin, I think she's 100% right. Marin has shown an incredible business savvy in the way she positions her orchestras in the community they are in. By building the orchestras position in the community, she helps her fundraising and stabilizes the foundation of her orchestra. That, in turn, helps her be more and more creative in her programming.

Final comment - in regards to ianw2's comment about bringing business professionals in to discuss efficiency. You're 100% right. I started my own musical organization and realized that while I knew what I was doing musically, I was thoroughly lost in working on the business side of things, so I went back and did an MBA at the same time - there are a number of efficiencies that can be pursued in arts organizations, but it involves a huge change in thinking and a good bit of training.

Posted by: CameronCrazie1998 | October 28, 2009 8:25 AM | Report abuse

Anne M. writes: Marin Alsop is a better model for a conductor of the 21st century than, say, George Szell (and, as has been observed on this blog before, this has a lot to do with her sense of her social responsibilities, more than her music-making).

I'm not sure how to read this comment above (aside from the implied diss of a fellow Eli). To me, this is a throwaway comment that smacks of a) ignorance (unlikely), b)carelessness (probably) or c)looking to provoke (possibly).

Is this just a rehash of the simplistic old saw that Alsop isn't as good a musician as, say, Szell, and only gets attention and awards because of her "social responsibilities?" I certainly hope not. Let's leave gender out of it. Marin's musicianship speaks for itself. Her recordings, leadership at Cabrillo, conducting here and in Europe, leadership in Colorado and Baltimore and her indefatigable championing of new music have all won deserved recognition. That's music making, not "social responsibility." Oh, and, yes, she did start a program for children in Baltimore. That's social responsibility.

I believe Alsop is a model for a 21st century conductor and music director because she realizes that success and audience building involves much more than music making on stage. But, don't fault her musicianship.

Maybe you don't like her Beethoven or Mozart. That's OK. I'd take Szell and his Cleveland Orchestra over any orchestra in the world today. But, please, avoid the carelessness that your comment above implies. Unless, of course, your intent was to provoke a response. If so, your move.

Posted by: newcriticalcritic | October 28, 2009 9:43 AM | Report abuse

Because of the unfortunate lack of government support for our many wonderful orchestras, music directors are forced to
take on this entrepreneurial role.
Some prominent European conductors, although they
greatly enjoy guest-conducting here, are reluctant to become music directors of American orchestras because of this.
They find these non-musical responsibilities onerous. in Europe, generous government support for orchestras and opera companies is taken for granted.

Posted by: Thehorn2 | October 28, 2009 10:00 AM | Report abuse

I realize that this blog post focuses on the author's comments about conductors & orchestras, but returning to the underlying source of her comments - the notion of applying principles of conducting leadership to other business management - one needs only ask the faculty & staff at the North Carolina School of the Arts, where a conductor was hired as Chancellor. I think most would call it a failed experiment (although he is still there) - strong in the idea department with a conductor's vision but actual management of projects & staff is a different story altogether. In this case, at least, a successful conductor's leadership style does not translate to a successful administrator.

Posted by: NCArtist | October 28, 2009 10:43 AM | Report abuse

And when the subsidies are cut for European Orchestras, what do music directors do? Fly away, like Christian Thielemann did at the Deutsche Oper.

Look, I am not against government subsidies. But they are not panacea and should not be taken for granted, even though they almost always are. Many European organizations have confronted themselves (or at the least were threatened) with reduction of these subsidies. There was a recent example of the Bavarian Radio Orchestra and Choir that Ms. Midgette pointed out a few weeks ago. Even Ioan Holender, the director of the Vienna State Opera, pointed out that the days in which a conductor like Karajan simply makes a phone call to ask for more money are gone today (conductors like HvK are gone today, for better or worse but that's another story.)

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | October 28, 2009 10:59 AM | Report abuse

I don't want to get involved with orchestras and conductors as business models, but I want to applaud Anne for her by-the-way comment that the Orpheus would make better music with a conductor. I've always thought their music-making was unpleasantly rigid in its tempos, etc., lacking flexibilty of line and expression. Its Rossini overtures sound machine-made, for example. Anne's is the first critical comment I've ever encountered from a professional critic.

Posted by: wsheppard | October 28, 2009 11:00 AM | Report abuse

There is one thing and one thing alone that is the main ingredient of an orchestra's success, or failure for that matter; it is what happens on stage, in other words, the level of artistry and excellence. Why else would an audience member have any interest at all about being a repeat patron?

So it begs the question, how can artistic excellence be achieved with an 'organization man' as conductor? In the case of an entrepreneur like Leopold Stokowski, a person possessing extraordinary skills in both spheres, business and artistic, it was possible. But in this day and age it seems a conductor is either an inspiring musician or a good businessman, not both. Thus, an orchestra employing the model of manager/conductor/board chair as equal partners makes perfect sense.

An orchestra with an underlying philosophy of numbers and dollars over musical achievement is doomed to a trendy and ultimately boring product, unhappy musicians and finally a dissatisfied public.

I say, stick to the music. Otherwise, open a Starbucks.

Posted by: ggibbs1 | October 28, 2009 11:41 AM | Report abuse

Speaking of conductors, here's an article from Carnegie Hall executive Clive Gillinson:

This is a reply to an article by one Philippa Ibbotson (link provided by Mr. Gillinson) whichs is mostly unredeable except for making the correct point that UK orchestral musicians are underpaid. But then she gives an example of how Chicago Symphony musicians, not conductors, agree to a pay cut.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | October 28, 2009 3:10 PM | Report abuse

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