Plus ça change…

By now most everyone has heard about the latest developments in Detroit. My first reaction was one of shock and surprise; the surprise lessened considerably after I thought it through a little more. In fact, I found myself wondering why she hadn’t bailed out sooner. But nobody should misconstrue what’s happened- a major loss for the orchestra at a precarious time, and a definitive vote of no confidence from one of its most prominent and visible musicians.

I don’t know Emmanuelle Boisvert very well, only peripherally during our time as “co-concertmasters” in Seattle, more recently through some informal email exchanges, and of course from her excellent reputation. On the surface, it might seem odd that the CM from Detroit would up and leave after 23 years for an associate position in Dallas, a group with a traditionally smaller budget and perhaps less historical cachet. But I also played in Dallas several times this year as CM (the orchestra had many guests this season), and there are a lot or compelling things happening there. Attention Mr. Woodcock/Teachout/ other Chicken Little charter members: the Dallas Symphony has it going on.

As I can attest, and as Ms. Boisvert noted in her eloquent statement, the Dallas orchestra currently functions in an atmosphere of respect, ambition, financial stability, and an upward artistic trajectory. Jaap van Zweden has big plans, and despite some recent leadership changes on the admin side, things are moving in a notably positive direction. Contrast this with the catastrophic events in Detroit over the last year coupled with their current habitual inertia and the Board’s evident refusal to make the necessary leadership adjustments at the top, and a large middle finger is not unexpected from any musician.

Consider the colossally tepid statement from the Detroit board chair, Stanley Frankel:

“The DSO learned of this disappointing loss just this morning. We thank Emmanuelle Boisvert for her many years of dedicated service and artistic excellence and wish her much happiness and success in her future endeavors with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

Retaining and attracting top talent remains a priority for the DSO at every level and under the leadership of our Music Director Leonard Slatkin, the DSO will continue to achieve tremendous artistic success while building a sustainable and viable business model going forward.”

Huh? 23 years as Concertmaster, and that’s it? Incidentally, the silence from Executive Director Anne Parsons was notable, as was the absence of a comment from Music Director Leonard Slatkin (in my opinion he’s about the only beacon of hope left around there).

I have news for Mr. Frankel, the Board, Ms. Parsons, and other subscribers to the absurd notion that top musicians can be easily and quickly replaced without substantially damaging the brand name and artistic quality: that won’t happen.

A great ensemble (or business, or team) is dependent on well-developed and sophisticated working relationships that can take years to refine. Further, musicians who stay for decades develop deep roots in the community, which benefits everyone. At this point Detroit has very little chance of attracting anything close to experienced “top talent”, especially for the position of Concertmaster. Of course there are legions of kids coming out of music schools who will play beautifully. Over a period of years (yes, years), some will be hired to replace departing musicians from this season. With rare exceptions they will be stand-ins; proxies for experienced artists that made the orchestra what it was for all those years before the strike.

My sense is that Ms. Boisvert will not be the last veteran musician to depart Detroit over the next several months; time will tell. Beyond the strike-ending settlement, I suppose one can hope that the Board will eventually realize what other changes are necessary to stop both the hemorrhaging of talent and the Detroit Symphony’s race to the bottom.

9 thoughts on “Plus ça change…”

  1. This seems to be the latest trend among arts boards; OVERT hostility towards the core of professionals who make up the various institutions the boards and Executive Directors are supposed to support. The lack of respect and understanding of what these highly trained and talented individuals bring to these various organizations is HUGE. This is the same attitudes we are seeing in the trend to bust unions and crush public servants.

    • Terri,
      Thanks for your comment. There’s definitely a trend, although I’m not sure I’d find so many parallels to the general anti-union philosophy flying around. Admittedly there are some, but the real problem is twofold: a lack of commitment and accountability from the orchestra Boards and in certain cases incompetent senior administrators, and the current fashionable jargon involving a “new business model”, “community engagement”, “relevance”, and lots of other ill-defined buzzwords. The two go hand-in-hand, and provide a convenient strategy for chaos, as we’ve seen in Detroit and (possibly) Philadelphia. It’s also important to remember that at the same time they are being demonized by people who ostensibly are caretakers of the institutions, the musicians are the ones who have consistently fulfilled the terms of the various contracts in question, and shown generous flexibility to try and solve any problems. That’s not a defense of unions per se, it’s just a fact.
      Some see a concerted effort within the industry to “redefine” the musicians’ role while slashing pay and working conditions as much as possible. Time will tell.

  2. As a Detroit native I was disheartened to hear this news. As a musician I understand her reasons for moving. I hope she knows she will be deeply missed by the community at large even if the management of the DSO didn’t appreciate her.

    Thanks for the well written article.

  3. There’s definitely a strong move lately toward the “management” side of things rather than the “arts”. So many boards/mgmt. treat the arts org. as nothing more than any other business to be managed – as though we’re no different than a group of accountants, adding up numbers. There was a time when board members saw themselves as stewards of a cultural currency.

    How did we get so far from that? Does it come back to arts education/literacy? Can they not hear or see that one musician really is different from others? Or is the lack of respect due to our pay scale? – What we do can’t be valued because we’re paid little in comparison to our skills/talents, similar to teachers or nurses.

  4. A tragic blow to an already injured orchestra. However, what can one expect with a board and (mis)management, who know absolutely NOTHING about the arts and who could care less as long as they turn a profit!

    Slatkin – beacon of hope? Please! He has lost more jobs and more musicians around the world than anyone attemping to hold a stick.

    • Leonard Slatkin has his detractors, like most conductors (and concertmasters). But under the current circumstances he seems to be the only member of the senior staff (or Board) that’s at least attempting to provide some coherent leadership. For what it’s worth, he posted a note here in response to events last week.

      It seems to me that one of the major problems since the “settlement” is that many of the odious mindsets and public commentary emanating from DSO management and Mr. Frankel continue as if nobody learned anything from the strike. Right now it’s very difficult to imagine a constructive path forward when most of the architects of the DSO’s crisis are still in the same positions, perpetuating the same failed ideas along with what seems to be a predisposed antagonism towards the DSO musicians, even as they flee.

  5. The musicians and their supporters continue to be blinded by denialism marked by ideological fervor and scapegoating. They fail to make a distinction between the demographics and economy of Detroit and Dallas, so they lash out at the board and management, only souring things further. The orchestra will implode with so much negativity, and then the community can pick up the pieces and set about building a symphony that brings a positive, can do attitude to their playing.

    • Certainly some people have a shallow grasp of a very complex situation, one that was years in the making. That goes for both sides, in my view. I think you might alter your assessment above if you examine in detail the events starting last summer, and the tactics/strategies involved. You’ll most likely observe that (generally) the actions of the musicians and their supporters indicated they were very much aware of the genesis of the problems, including but not limited to Detroit’s demographics- that’s one reason for the 28% pay cut, among many other concessions. As for lashing out and scapegoating, that’s not surprising (again, from both sides) given the tectonic force of this lengthy dispute.

      I don’t see much “denialism” at this point from the remaining DSO members. What I do sense is a need for meaningful dialogue and genuine leadership from the management/board, many of whom were architects of the dispute itself, blinded by their own ideology. It’s not surprising that many musicians are wary, and looking elsewhere for employment, especially having been publicly encouraged to do so by their own board/management. To a certain extent, the orchestra has imploded already, so the time is now to pick up the pieces. That can only happen if there is a fundamental shift in attitudes from both sides, maybe with some personnel adjustments thrown in on the management/board level.


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