The Holy Grail

To play well in a symphony orchestra is to make a thousand daily acts of deference. On your audition day, technical perfection and a sense of passionate musical conviction will put you at the head of the pack. Once you’ve joined the orchestra, those same qualities must serve the needs of the group, rather than your own musical ideas.

At the top of the hierarchy (second to the composer, though) is the conductor. It is rare to have one who conducts poorly – most of them make their ambiguity and foggy ideas perfectly manifest to the orchestra. Rarer still is the great conductor, whose clarity, vision and passion for the piece radiate out and animate each musician. Even among the great ones, the fit has to be right. Christian Thieleman is a great conductor and The Cleveland Orchestra is a great orchestra, but it took mere moments for his first rehearsal in Cleveland to blossom into mutual animosity.

The solo wind players create the character of the orchestra. (The string section is the soul.) First-chair winds have the most freedom to play with their own expression, interacting with the conductor as if they are playing chamber music. This is possible because their second players provide them with a sound foundation for intonation, match their tone colors and use their mind-reading powers to anticipate their phrasing. The seconds have the least freedom because they are both deferential and exposed. Every note they play is an act of deference, yet they must be perfectly expressive – with someone else’s ideas. The success of the wind section stands or falls on their service.

Each note a section string player plays is a series of moral decisions – self or not-self. ‘Pizzicato: watch the concertmaster and become that finger.’ ‘I’ll show my colleagues I can still nail this passage –No, I’ll blend into the section so we sound unified.’ ‘Oops – too much vibrato; I’m sticking out.’ ‘Sigh – why can’t he make the bowings match?’ String players are permitted to choose their own fingerings (mostly) and when to apply rosin. Period.

So here’s the recipe: 100 of the best musicians, 1 great conductor (perfectly matched), 100,000 daily acts of deference, a culture of service to the music and an esprit de corps that makes one want to not let down one’s colleagues – somehow, miraculously, put all of these together and we create the world anew in each piece.

For those of us who speak Management: a visionary executive, a team of servant-leaders, the right people on the bus and in the right places, a culture of excellence and alignment  going the extra mile in the service of a universal buy-in to mission and vision equals a fantastic product. Only it’s not a product. It’s art.

It is rare that all these pieces are in place. The most difficult is to create and sustain a culture of deference to the greater good of the (product) art and the institution. It’s the Holy Grail of management theory.

And yet, the Minnesota Orchestra has it in spades. The outrage generated by the lock-out stems from the fact that the board and management are destroying the primary asset – the culture – in order to address a subsidiary issue – finances. Every other orchestra in the world has adjusted its expense structure in response to the events of the last decade; it’s not as if the Minnesota’s financial situation is unique.

Again –translated into Management:

  • The value proposition for ticket buyers and donors is the extraordinary quality of the orchestra.
  • The performances have value precisely because they are unique and uniquely excellent – they are neither products, nor commodities.
  •  The excellence is the result of the complex alignment of leadership, talent and most importantly – internal culture.
  • A true culture of excellence is difficult to create – and easy to destroy.
  • The orchestra’s artistic reputation and its institutional reputation in the community are intangible assets that have a direct effect on its ability to generate revenue.

In short, the MOA is destroying the internal culture that drives the institution’s economic and cultural value.

Financial struggles for orchestras are common. The alignment of quality, conductor and culture that the Minnesota Orchestra has is rare. The determination to solve a common problem by destroying exactly what makes the orchestra worth supporting is “unique”.

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The Minnesota Orchestra cross-blog event is a collection of more than a dozen bloggers, musicians, patrons, and administrators writing about the orchestra’s devastating work stoppage. You can find all of the contributions in the following list and the authors encourage everyone to participate by sharing, commenting, or publishing something at your own culture blog.