Managing Change

I came across this recent post from Charles Noble a few days ago discussing some challenges currently being faced by the Oregon Symphony.

I would not presume to comment directly on the Oregon Symphony, but Charles’ post did get me thinking about general principles of managing change in an orchestra. Of course, readers are more than reasonable to maintain their skepticism when reading thoughts from a conductor on how to choose a conductor. Nevertheless,  I wade in here with the first of what I think might be a few pieces on this subject….

Limiting the Damage
When managing a succession of Music Directors, the institution has to be acutely aware of where the risks are to the organization in the transition. Are there major, long-term donors whose primary allegiance is to the outgoing MD? Are there donors who felt their voice wasn’t heard in the search? Are there subscribers who didn’t want to see the old conductor leave? Are there audience members who felt the orchestra hired the wrong candidate. The same questions can be asked when there is a change in any significant position in the orchestra, including players. In every transition, the answer to all these questions will ALWAYS be a yes. There will always be a negative impact on the organization’s relationship with some donors when there is change. The board and the management need to be award of this and plan for it to minimize the impact on the orchestra. The goal is to make the change lead to a net positive impact– some supporters might be upset, will be upset, by the transition, but the organization has to keep its eye on limiting the damage and maximizing the positive impact of the change. There are ways in which each of these risks can be minimized during the transition, and it’s vitally important that the organization stays aware of minimizing threats during transition. Simply trumpeting how wonderful the new music director is or calling attention to the improved standards of playing is not enough. The organization needs to take extra care with all its external relationships- making sure that personal relationships between supporters and the orchestra are nurtured, encouraged, and, if needed, repaired.
Keeping some consistency
All organizations are to some extent personality driven. It is personalities that set direction, that make connections, that create interest, solve problems and that set goals. When organizations thrive, it is because they have the right people working for them. For better or worse, in most American orchestras, there are four people whose personalities are the most influential in determining the economic health of the orchestra. These are-
The Music Director
The Executive Director
The Board President
The Director of Development
When any one of these positions turns over, the orchestra is at higher risk than usual. Big, bread-and-butter major donors nearly all give the money that they do because of their relationship to one of these four people. Having changes in more than one of these positions at the same time, or even in the same era, can be a recipe for financial disaster. These days, orchestras often hire an ED whose primary job is to get rid of an MD who’s stayed too long. That means you’re setting up a situation where there is bound to be too much turnover. The new ED fires the old MD, and all of his friends stop giving money and all his fans stop coming to concerts. The new MD comes in and the old ED leaves saying “my work is done” (or the new MD pushes them out because he can’t trust him/her- they’ve seen them push out their predecessor). All their friends stop giving money. The orchestra hires a new ED, but he/she can’t get along with either the prez or the DD. You see how this goes.

I have come to believe that the best way to minimize the risk inherent in personnel changes (other than avoiding them except where needed) is to bring another player into the game in addition to these four, and that is the orchestra itself. After all, it is among the musicians where institutional stability tends to be highest. I think it is fair to say that many organizations make the fatal mistake of letting the public perceive the orchestra as the machine that executes the artistic vision of the conductor. As a result, any change in conductor, any shortcoming of the existing conductor, unpopular repertoire choice etc will lead to a disproportionately negative outcome.

I think all the organization’s stakeholders- conductors, administration and boards- stand to benefit by recasting the community’s perception of the orchestra with the actual human membership of the orchestra more central. I come back to the question of personality- when the community has a sense of both the overall artistic personality of the orchestra and that of the individual players, I think there will always be more support of the orchestra and that support will be more diversified and stable.  

c. 2006 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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