The Importance of Being Ernest…

Somewhere my friend, Ernest Fleischmann, is chuckling.

Ernest gave me my first break more than 20 years ago when I was just a young punk trying to figure out how to get into the conducting business.  He was the Great and Powerful Oz reigning in his Emerald City of Los Angeles, and for some strange reason the ex-pat from South Africa and the crazy black kid from Buffalo, N.Y. got along.  If I had actually listened to most of the advice Ernest gave me my life and career would have been very, very different.  But that’s neither here nor there.  What I did listen to was the famous 1987 rant of his proclaiming the death of the orchestra, and many of my friends listened to it as well.  We were all nearing the end of our conservatory lives and suddenly this mover/shaker had thrown down a tremendous gauntlet which we were determined to pick up.

Then reality set in.

This may come as a shock to all of you but the Classical Music business is not exactly a bastion of ultra-radicalism.  “Change” is most definitely a four letter word in the industry.  Though just about everyone I know of my generation who heard it was immediately inspired by Ernest’s vision the reality of the situation was that the vast majority of us went out on the traditional audition circuit, we got traditional jobs, with traditional orchestras, or traditional colleges, playing traditional music, etc. etc. etc.   Sure, we’ve all heard of Bang on a Can or Eighth Blackbird, but let’s be honest – how many of us play with those ensembles?  My generation continued the journey that every generation before them has gone on – the art of surviving, or even making a decent living, as a musician.

But now the gauntlet that Ernest threw down all those years ago is slapping us in the face.  For every “top 10” orchestra with a 52 week season, tours , a recording contract, and an endowment in the multi-millions, there are 10 more orchestras facing deficits year in and year out that have discovered that the fiscal model that we have used for decades might, just might, not be viable anymore for the rest of the business.  We can bemoan this change all we want.  That will do nothing but cause us to ignore the inevitable and delay the transition.

Ernest saw it.  After all the years he spent in the business he saw the writing on the wall, and so he offered his challenge.  Most of the business either laughed him off or thought that the old man had finally cracked.  But the generation still in college heard, and listened, and it took 20 years and a financial collapse of epic proportions for his ideas to bubble to the top and that generation to come into its own.  Now, suddenly, those ideas seem to be the basis of the whole Detroit Symphony situation.  That article I linked to is fascinating, and there are two moments that leap out and scream for attention.  First, what has been going on in Memphis?  Almost completely below the radar this orchestra with a $4 million dollar budget is blazing forward along the very path that Ernest laid out.  This paragraph about how the Memphis Symphony operates cannot be over-emphasized:

The work ranges from student mentoring and teaching to a musician-produced concert series. One player produces a radio program, another works on the symphony’s Web site and two others do music therapy work. About 85% of the players participate and individual assignments are chosen in consultation with management. Lansing-born violist Michael Barar, chair of the orchestra committee, says the system was at first met with skepticism but that most players find the experience rewarding.

Change, originally met with extreme skepticism (I’d be willing to bet my entire year’s salary that Mr. Barar vastly underplays some, if not all, of the initial reaction to this whole idea) but now a whopping 85% of players are involved.  I am not surprised by this since this is work most of us already do! Whether it is teaching, community outreach, going into schools, producing, whatever – many of us do this on a daily basis.  For us there is more to music than just playing our instrument onstage.  It is telling that many of the major conservatories have drastically changed their curricula over the past decade to stress these changes in how our profession functions.  And, since those who are in charge of public education in this country have seen fit to expunge music from their schools, what other institution besides the local orchestra can possibly step into that void?

Second, there is this absolutely critical sentence from one of the members of the negotiating committee in Detroit, ‘Cellist Haden McKay:

“Detroit doesn’t want to be first.”

And there you have it.  In this or any other language syntax is everything, and in this one little sentence is a direct admission that an industry wide move in this direction is all but inevitable.  Funny enough, whether Detroit is the first or not is almost completely irrelevant.  I know of at least two other top 30 budget orchestras where management has asked for musicians’ contracts to be re-opened specifically to lay the groundwork for these kind of changes.  If Detroit doesn’t want to be the first then they only have to wait a couple of months, or at the most a couple of years.  However, it is going to be very hard swim against this current.  I detect a sea change in the business coming on and if we want our orchestras to not just survive, but to truly prosper, then we should all get onto this bandwagon as soon as humanly possible.  It is Change, and Change is the one truly inevitable thing in the world, even in classical music.

Ernest may have been (in the words of Martin Bernheimer) “ruthless, a manipulator, and very smart and very progressive.”  I doubt if anyone who knew him would really challenge that description.  But his legacy might be found in that famous rant.  That has the potential of sowing the seeds of the next revolution in the classical music industry, a revolution that is long overdue.

Thank you, Ernest.  Sleep well, my friend.

17 thoughts on “The Importance of Being Ernest…”

  1. My belief is that skilled professionals (engineers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, architects, musicians) should do what they are trained to do and hired to do. After spending countless hours, years and dollars, and going through the arduous winnowing process of any of the above fields to reach success, extra-curricular duties should be either voluntary, or compensated by agreement. This is undeniabily fair and ethical. Even if Mr. Eddins’ idea was to be implemented somewhere, sometime, the concept of imposing it while simultaneously cutting salaries at a massive level is unacceptable. He politely omits any mention of this from his carefully reasoned statement. May I suggest that Mr. Eddins let his readers know when the musicians of the Edmonton Symphony or the Minneapolis Symphony have adopted his concept. Then Detroit will not have to be first.

    • Interesting. This denies the very idea of a Liberal Arts Education. Those people who have had the greatest impact on our society are those who refused to be pigeon-holed into doing one and only one thing. The list is legion – Franklin; Jefferson; Ford; Carnegie; Bell; etc. etc. etc. In our professions alone the greatest of all musicians are uniformly regarded as those who were multi-talented – composers, performers, educators. Bach, Boulanger, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Bernstein, whomever. I’d hate to go back in time and tell any of them that they should only do exactly what they were hired to do.

      In the past 20 years of my professional life I have taught privately, taught masterclasses, produced and edited several CDs and radio programs, done fundraising, arts advocacy in politics, countless in-school sessions, all this along side the conducting and playing that I have been “hired” to do. Yet you tell me I shouldn’t be doing any of that? As far as I’m concerned all that is integral to what I do as a musician.

      I can read budget as well as I can a score. I learned to do it because I’m not about to trust anyone else with the money which is my means of making a living. To just willfully remain unaware of what goes into actually running an orchestra – whether it by governance or fiscal matters – is the very definition of the ostrich in the sand approach to life. I completely refuse to butt out and ceded responsibility to for health of any organization that I am affiliated with.

      Lastly, If you can come up with a way of plugging the chronic multi-million dollar holes in the budgets of these orchestras then by all means make it known. I’ll be happy to promote it.

      • Mr. Eddins, you obviously deserve credit for the educational and artistic endeavors you list as undertaken outside of your main professional responsibilities. In this regard my presumptions are twofold: 1) that your additional activities were either voluntary or compensated by agreement, and 2) that these activities were not forced upon you simultaneously with a 25% reduction of your salary. If my presumptions are generally correct, we are not in disagreement.
        As you know, many if not most professional orchestral musicians willingly act as educators, chamber musicians and community arts ambassadors from time to time, sometimes voluntarily, sometimes compensated by agreement. Theoretically, there are perhaps fair and ethical ways to achieve this re-definition of obligatory activity by contractual agreement with orchestra musicians. Imposing such extra duties mandatorily along with cruel salary reductions is certainly not one of them.
        To those musicians would be the object of such re-definition, it is not encouraging that, at least in Detroit, most of the official adherents of the concept are well into the six and seven digit income bracket with no prospect of losing a penny of their income if it were adopted.

  2. It’s odd that while Ernest Fleishmann may have bemoaned the death of the modern American orchestra, he was leading one of the largest, most expensive ensembles in the country. And if I’m not mistaken, the salary of the Detroit Symphony was and is dwarfed by that of the LA Phil. Is it so wrong for the musicians of Detroit to want to maintain their compensation and their standing as one of the few “great” orchestras in this country?

    I think you are right in saying that change is needed and is coming, in how orchestras function and in their relevance. If I’m not mistaken, Detroit has already been leading the way with such things as the Sphinx Competition and minority orchestra fellowships, to name just a few. Also, what is happening in Memphis is commendable. Even with their excting new initiatives, there isn’t a musician in Memphis that would not gladly give up their job to be a member of a supposedly more “traditional” and “great” orchestra such as the DSO. Oh wait…maybe not if the orchestra is gutted. And while this conversation is about change, slowly but surely, more and more orchestral musicians everywhere will make less and less, and do more and more. Is this really how change should come about?

  3. Mr. Eddins, you seem very smug about the idea that you’ve latched onto the wave of the future. I question greatly that having managements trying to stiff-arm orchestras into alternative service is going to have much benefit for the mission of presenting great music to the community. You said it yourself; “I am not surprised by this since this is work most of us already do! Whether it is teaching, community outreach, going into schools, producing, whatever – many of us do this on a daily basis.” Indeed, those of us who want to do this are already doing it, and forcing those who aren’t interested to go out and teach is not going to further the cause of classical music. These types of activities take skills that are very different from playing an instrument and they need to be recognized as such. To give management the authority to make those decisions would take a great deal of trust, and in the Detroit situation, with the infamous Proposal B on the table, they have given us no basis for that trust. I agree that our orchestras are very under used and can have a much greater impact on our community, but to try and bully the musicians into accepting a broad range of alternative service is hardly the way. Also, simply to have musicians available to different kinds of services is certainly not going to solve the problem without innovative thinking and new ways for the orchestra to engage the community. Let’s see some of those ideas first and then let’s work out ways to make it happen.

    • Smug? I’m not so sure about that. I’m as worried as anyone else. This is how I make my living as well, and I am desperately worried that there will come a time when those budget holes will not be filled, and these orchestras that are the flagships of the local music scene for these major metropolitan areas come crashing down. I don’t see how that would be good for anybody anywhere.

      No one can be forced to do anything they don’t want to do. But at the same time the very definition of our jobs is changing. There is precious little arts education in the secondary school systems. The only institution capable of doing anything about that in most municipalities is the local orchestra. Ditto, when it comes to be a clearing house for private teaching, small ensembles, etc. Our society is changing around us and we are being forced to adapt. We might as well make the best of it.

      On another note – please do not assume that I think that the radical changes outlined by Ernest can in any way be fully implemented within the management structure that is prevalent in our business. On the contrary – I think they cannot, for exactly the reasons you outline. What is left unsaid in this post, but what is certainly touched upon in my previous post and many of my other postings, is that the whole system of Board/Management/Musicians I find unworkable for the future. There is precious little trust between those entities, and even worse there are not enough ways for everyone who is connected with orchestras to become fully engaged, or better yet to be fully invested in the long-term health of said organization.

      That is the critical point. Without the one I don’t believe the other will succeed, and vice versa.

      • We have more in agreement than disagreement. You’re obviously very well equipped to engage with your community. In our situation we have our good friend, Tom Wilkins who was wonderful with the community. But I also think of other conductors who were not so successful, like Jersy Semkov. He’s a great musician, but I don’t think you want him going into work with a Jr. high school orchestra. Likewise with professional orchestra musicians. Many are great teachers but certainly not all. I personally feel the negotiating table is not the place to try to impose this kind of change. There are too many subtleties that would make the difference between a successful program and a disastrous one.

        Yes, the new orchestra player needs to be liberal arts oriented for sure. When I do university master classes I tell students they also need to be able to read a spread sheet and understand marketing, etc. There also needs to be more sensitivity among management and especially boards about what makes an orchestra musician tick and the challenges we deal with. In Detroit, we thought we had been moving toward that better world, but that seems to have broken down.

        • Without ANY DOUBT!!! To be sure, people must find what they are best at and adapt accordingly. Just as if you are looking for a conductor for the Sibelius Violin Concerto, please don’t call me. I am the world’s WORST Sibelius Violin Concerto conductor. I don’t say that proudly, I just don’t have a clue about that piece. However, if you want to talk Stravinsky, Bartok, Gershwin, and a few others, I’m perfectly game. Plus I’m willing to try out other rep in order to find out what I am decent at.

          I am tremendously worried that without a comprehensive re-organization then the DSO and many other orchestras like it will face some very lean artistic times, something that I think would be even worse than lean financial times. I’d be much happier if that did not happen but I do not see a way out of the current mess that the industry is in. What I hope is that there are orchestras who can make this transition without having the financial shotgun pointed at their heads.

  4. Does anyone know where the full text of Fleishmann’s graduation speech “The Orchestra is Dead. Long Live the Community of Musicians” can be found? Apparently it was the commencement address at the Cleveland Institute of Music in May 1987, but I couldn’t locate it via Google or scholarly publication databases. It be great to see what he said precisely.

    Although I can see why professional musicians feel that they’ve earned the right to focus exclusively on their instruments at the level of the top U.S. orchestras, I’m confused as to why DSO is worried about being the ‘first’ if the musicians in Memphis have already embraced “service exchange.” If it’s already being done by a union orchestra, then DSO is not the first, right?

  5. On a related note – I detect a lot of worry about musicians being asked to do things not directly related to playing their instruments. But is that not exactly what we ask of every incoming Music Director? The MD is expected to raise money, do PR, do community outreach, attend this party or that soiree, buttonhole politicians, etc. This is the very definition of the modern MD, and it is at the core of why Barenboim left Chicago.

    I do not see how we can any longer just play our instruments and expect that everything else will just work out.

    • Absolutely true that music directors are being asked to do far more than the traditional artistic duties associated with the position. At the same time, it is fair to point out that most organizations are adding compensation over and above payments for artistic duties. Likewise, an increasing number of groups are beginning to distinguish payments between the artistic and non-artistic duties and responsibilities.

      As a result, adding duties and responsibilities over and above the artistic duties already assigned to a position would (should?) only result in increased payroll expenses, thereby defeating the goal of controlling costs. At best and from a purely financial viewpoint, it isn’t an option that a number of groups could implement if desired.

  6. Lean artistic times have already begun. In Detroit, the best musicians will not even audition for positions that have recently opened up. I refer you to Mark Abbott’s article on the DSO musicians’ website. It is all well and good to say that the best musicians will eventually come around to the new order, but the facts speak for themselves.

    The musicians and their supporters are not anti-change. They have for years been looking to their management for new and creative ways to make the orchestra financially viable and at the same time musically excellent. Management has let them down. Instead they have, in your words, had “the financial shotgun pointed at their heads.”

  7. Fleischmann’s idea of a community of musicians that serves a variety of needs in the classical music community (including outreach to spread the music) is a reasonable one, especially for regional orchestras. The idea that a board of directors and staff is going to impose that idea on the musicians completely undermines any definition of community that interests me. When I wrote about the Detroit on my blog recently, a cellist in the orchestra (not the one quoted in the Free Press story, which was written from the point of view of the board and failed to describe the position of the musicians in a useful way) commented, saying that the board’s approach was not collaborative and instead combative. This is the real problem at the Detroit Symphony, because it makes going forward so much more difficult.

    • I have no direct knowledge on how the management of the DSO is approaching this, but I couldn’t agree with you more. If these changes are brought about through dialogue and collaborative thinking they have a chance to succeed. Otherwise it will engender more mistrust and bad will.

  8. As a point of clarification, the Memphis Symphony has not adopted a system of service exchange. The additional, optional, work opportunities are over and above our normal artistic duties, do not displace artistic services, and are paid in addition to, not as a replacement for, our normal scale wages. It is maybe a subtle point, but it is a big reason why we have had musician buy-in to the extent we have had.

  9. Please delete my earlier misspelled comment:

    I think that Fleischmann’s “community of musicians” was about giving musicians a renewed sense of purpose and larger scope of music-making possibilities, and the Detroit situation doesn’t seem to be about that at all. I would also suggest the Memphis model only slightly resembles what Fleischmann was talking about.

    In any case you can read it for yourselves because this speech (as well as another speech he gave about government funding) is available at the Association of California Orchestras website.

    Orchestras have been experimenting with their legal structures, ticket pricing, and mission for years. (The Utah Symphony merged with the local opera company, and the the St louis Symphony ran its own community music school for awhile) but it is hard for me to believe that an orchestra, or any other organization for that matter can radically enlarge its mission while having a much smaller budget, and it seems to me that is the real reason progress in this area has been so slow.

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