Not breaking news (from Detroit)

Yesterday, the Detroit News published a piece by Lawrence Johnson that examines some of the continuing problems at the Detroit Symphony, especially the ongoing trend of departing musicians. I was especially intrigued by the quotes from Tony Woodcock and DSO Executive Director Anne Parsons, who’s management style reminds me more and more of Dick Cheney. Or maybe Brownie. 

For example, Ms. Parsons proclaims that the departures and resignations “are individual decisions of people who chose not to make a commitment to Detroit and to the DSO. People who don’t want to stay with it shouldn’t stay with it.” Perhaps it would be helpful for Ms. Parsons to tally up the collective years of service of the musicians that have already left, and then define the word “commitment”. Ms. Boisvert performed as concertmaster for 23 years, then made an “individual decision” to bail out before the race to the bottom was complete. It seems to me that these musicians aren’t leaving for insignificant reasons, they’re leaving because they believe the current top management is populated with incompetent jerks who don’t care if they stay or go, who publicly stated as much during the strike, and who’s behavior (and public statements) continue to reflect that attitude. Further, the musicians were presumably as astonished as everyone else when the DSO board decided to extend Ms. Parsons’ contract, thus validating the pervasive culture of non-accountability that is the hallmark of so many failed businesses.

Tony Woodcock seems to inadvertently point the finger at DSO management as well when he points out the “need to address the long-term financial health of the organization, which was not resolved at the end of the strike. In particular, the management of substantial debt, the need to grow a much depleted endowment and to build sustainable sources of income at the box office and with their major donors.” He goes on to emphasize the importance of “rebuilding relationships within the organization — musicians, board, staff — which have been severely affected, so that some sort of alignment comes into place. This will give them the foundation for the next major strategy: their relationship with their community.”

All very true. And each issue he cites is a direct result of catastrophic management decisions over many years, culminating with the labor dispute. Those problems don’t snowball because the musicians show up every day and play really well.

During the strike the DSO management and board chair often emphasized how easy it would be to replace any departing musicians, since (to them anyway) the pool of great talent is so large. Aside from the stunning ignorance of that idea, I wonder how much of that “great talent” will be attracted to an institution that many feel has become the shining example of a “new model” to avoid.

4 thoughts on “Not breaking news (from Detroit)”

  1. It seems to me that every time the DSO Executive Director opens up her mouth, it betrays how much she DOES NOT know how to work with a non profit arts organization. As long as she gets her salary and perks, Ms. Parson cares nothing for the talent pool she is supposed lead and grow. Such talented individuals are unique and cannot be swapped out like screws and washers.

    I’ve worked with bad and good concertmasters, and a good experienced concertmaster is worth his/her weight in gold. This is a great loss for Detroit. To have a WORLD CLASS percussion section leave all at once is a reflection on management, not the players. Anyone who has played in a fine orchestra knows the best woodwind and brass sections phrase and breathe as one person and that takes time to know and trust your neighbor.

    The ignorance and arrogance of the DSO Board and ED is staggering. They seem to think of these intelligent and highly educated musicians as illiterate day laborers with the IQ of ditch water. Ms. Parson should be fired. The musicians should take a more prominent role on the board itself and the musicians need to take a pro-active role in the community. Detroit needs to know why having the DSO is so important in their everyday lives.

  2. The sad thing is that they are not alone in Detroit and Minneapolis. For half a century
    the Louisville Orchestra was the best and most ambitious orchestra in the South, and now it’s to be a training orchestra. #%@**#


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