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Change we can believe in

I already mentioned Michael Kaiser’s post yesterday about bad management in arts administration. I wonder if there was an unspoken peg to the Aspen Music Festival and School, which is certainly in a shambles at the moment. The school’s long-time music director, David Zinman, resigned abruptly this spring, so that Aspen has been scrambling to come up with replacements for him this summer (yesterday, they announced a strong list, including Hugh Wolff, Jaap van Zweden of the Dallas Symphony, Manfred Honeck of the Pittsburgh Symphony, and Marin Alsop of the Baltimore Symphony). And the CEO, Alan Fletcher, having already been fired and reinstated by the board once last fall, is facing a vote of no confidence tomorrow from an organization of the school’s faculty.

The issue, clearly, is Fletcher, who took over in 2006 and is trying to make changes to the institution, including reducing the number of students and faculty, and who clearly lacks the kind of warm touch that makes this kind of change palatable to, for instance, the people who are getting fired.

This isn’t an isolated instance of people trying to come in to an established classical music organization and make changes to animate it, and encountering resistance. In fact, there’s a sense of glee among some classical music fans when such attempts are foiled. But the feeling “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is deceptive: many classical music organizations are indeed broke -- that is, financially troubled -- and need some kind of fixing, and constant innovation is required in any case in a field that without it risks simply growing stagnant.
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In this field, though, the human resistance to any kind of change, in any organization, gets added support from the idea that classical music is uniquely based on tradition, and it is therefore incumbent upon us to guard the status quo, and anyone who wants to change that is a Philistine. And if the status quo is too expensive and isn’t winning over audiences, well, that’s their loss: our calling is higher than that.

Arts administrators may need training in something that can’t necessarily be taught: the kind of magnetic personality that excites people about new things and pulls them along. If innovation is presented as a necessary evil by people who come in and dourly convey the message that everything that’s been done so far is wrong and needs “fixing,” there’s a problem (witness Seiji Ozawa’s sudden turning on his faculty and long-time staff at Tanglewood in the mid-1990s, leading to a huge turnover in staff). One right way to do it was demonstrated by another former Aspen leader, the late Robert Harth, whose ideas brought him to Carnegie Hall, where he continued a quiet but animating process of change before his untimely death.

As for Aspen: it’s no secret that the school has gotten too big, and that making it a little smaller is a good idea. And of course, the people who are let go in this process aren’t going to like it. It’s a shame that it’s been handled in such a way as to convey the impression that change, so vitally necessary, is itself a problem.

By Anne Midgette  |  April 28, 2010; 10:25 AM ET
Categories:  national , news  | Tags: Aspen Music Festival and School, Michael Kaiser  
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Are "animate" and "innovation" the right words when referring to CEO who simply tried to shrink an institution in hard times?
I was a student out there 15 years ago and read some of these articles about AMF with mild interest. I saw little or nothing about artistic innovation. Certainly nothing in keeping with the other festival shake up I think you are referencing.

Posted by: rhs1 | April 28, 2010 12:56 PM | Report abuse

Just to add to the mix: My sense is the current wunderkind manager of the Met is bound to be fired at some point for gross mismanagement. It may be that nothing can save institutions that large, tradition-bound and top-heavy, but busting budgets will get you ousted every time.

Yet is more money the answer? The Bregenz festival's Tosca is a good example, but almost any German opera company's latest production will do, to illustrate that when an impresario has money to burn, the results are, shall we say, questionable?

The problem with the current classical/opera scene in the enlightened West nowadays is that there are no large ideas, just recycled radicalism and/or boredom on parade. Western Civ is running on empty. Nothing can revive it.

Chinese opera, anyone?

Posted by: JohnRDC | May 1, 2010 9:28 AM | Report abuse

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