The Last of Eos



Jonathan Sheffer
Photo by Laura Rosignol

I was vacationing in Bangkok when the tsunami hit on December 26th. I had left New York on the morning of the 23rd, the same day that the Times announced, in a two-paragraph notice in the “Arts, Briefly” section, that the Eos Orchestra was closing its doors after ten years. As the entire world watched the devastation that week, I suffered a very private kind of loss, one literally drowned out by events not far from where we were staying. Friends and family called and emailed in large numbers, bewildered by the surprise end of the organization, and concerned about my Asian itinerary.

In the six months since, I’ve had ample time to reflect on Eos, not only what occurred in its last months, but its entire 10-year history. Requests for interviews came quickly at the end of December, and inquiries have continued from music writers, online journals, bloggers and other interested parties. Rather than unloading all the emotion of this disengagement prematurely, I wanted to wait and see if I could understand what happened before I tried to explain it. When I finally realized that masses of people were not going to take to the streets to protest the end of Eos concerts, I saw that a small but interested public who had either heard the orchestra or heard of something called Eos might be curious to know why it ceased to function.

Ironically, Eos’s decline during the past year happened against the backdrop of the rise of Red {an orchestra} in Cleveland, now entering its fourth season. The opposite trajectory of these two groups perfectly manifested all that was problematic with Eos, and all that is right with Red. With only my programming ideas in common, Red and Eos, each in its own way, embody all the challenges and rewards facing the smaller, more iconoclastic arts groups in America.

To put it in the simplest terms, Eos existed and Red now continues for two specific purposes: to engage and entertain audiences; and to actively address at all times the big questions about what constitutes “classical” music in contemporary culture. I feel so strongly that we who present and perform concerts must consider the needs of the audience first and foremost, and that we must glorify the traditions while, at the same time, radically rethinking the way we do things. My particular program choices may not be to everyone’s taste, but they represent sincere efforts to shake the tree, and in the process, examine the traditions of a beloved art form.

Eos and Red differed most significantly in their inception: unlike Cleveland, where I was hired in 2001 by the board of Red to work collaboratively to realize our shared vision, I began Eos more or less unilaterally in 1995 on a suggestion from a conducting teacher about how to jumpstart my career. After working in Los Angeles scoring and conducting films for almost a decade, I wanted to return to New York and address the question of how to make concerts more narrative and more collaborative. The entire history of Eos was about trying to clarify that mission, to excite people about it, and to widen the circle of audience and funders beyond my friends and family. At its height, Eos was raising over $1 million each season from individuals, foundations, government agencies and corporate partners. Operating in a media-hungry city where the main industry is finance, we were able to make some headway by being written about in national publications from time to time, which in turn brought opportunities. By the time it was all over, we had played 83 concerts of 55 different programs, toured to 16 cities, released 5 CDs, were the focus of a lavish PBS special on Aaron Copland, were nominated for a Grammy, had appeared on public radio countess times, and published 4 books of essays and images that made connections between music, events, ideas and people.

I spoke to the Eos board on December 9th last year, reluctantly making the argument about why I thought it might be time to end operations. As I told them, there were three principal reasons why, after nine years on the scene, I felt we could not go forward with confidence: our financial prospects; the perception of our work in the public; and an unresolved conflict with the musicians’ union. The board had always been magnificent at going out to find support for Eos’s activities. Now I was asking them to help me find a way to exit gracefully.

Regarding our financial prospects, like any artistic director, I had always functioned as a partner with conventional fundraising activities, and with diligence and careful planning we were able to attract a wide range of donors over the years. After 9/11, I made the decision that I must diminish my unusual role as a supporter of Eos, for personal, financial, and organizational reasons. I felt that the greatest gift I could give the organization—the board, the staff, the musicians and the audience—was to challenge it to be completely self-sufficient. In essence, the story of the last three years of Eos was one of a difficult journey of discovery for all involved. We considered many strategies to achieve fiscal health during this time, including reducing the number of concerts, cutting staff, moving offices, and finding new sources of funding. All were tried, but none proved decisive, and we were largely hamstrung by commitments to other presenters of expensive projects going forward for two seasons.

When I made my presentation to the board last December, knowing the difficulty we faced in this area, the most pressing decision before us was whether to perform the remaining concerts of the 04-05 season, which included a big tour to California and our debut at BAM Opera, and the specific challenges of fundraising in the face of termination. Despite the overwhelming success of the 2003 gala, in which members of the audience sat among the orchestra for a swirling program of showpieces while aerialists circled above them, and which raised around $400,000, it was felt that an organization planning to close could not go out and solicit large donations in good conscience. As a result, the rest of the season, including two programs at Zankel Hall, was scuttled. This may explain what appeared to be the “sudden” end of Eos, which was anything but.

The second major reason that I considered ending Eos had to do with our “reputation.” Here, a varied and complex picture emerges, one that is bound to be more subjective than factual. Throughout its history, I honestly never knew how well the orchestra was “doing.” When we reflected on our progress, we always weighed the balance between artistic validation and risk on one side, and greater fundraising and ticket sales on the other. In that sense Eos was no different than any other performing arts group in America, large or small.

There was a lot of press around Paul Bowles’s return to New York in 1995, to hear our inaugural concerts and participate in our recording sessions. At the same time, there was some whispering about Eos being a vanity production, one more dedicated to PR razzle than musical dazzle. Yet what seemed to strike a universal, diatonic chord from the outset was the unusual nature of our programs. Feature stories, arts listings, and reviews all focused on a mix of repertoire, format and other kinds of performers that felt unique to Eos.

Over the years, we received a lot of praise, more often for our ideas than our performances. The audiences, more fashion and visual art oriented than the typical music audience, were usually more attuned to the overall aim of Eos to provide a viable kind of thought-provoking evening than whether our Schubert held up to scrutiny.

From the outset I always tried to design programs that I thought achieved multiple things at once: to make a powerful argument, to be an engaging entertainment, and to attract the curiosity of the press. The latter, plus my own predilections, drove the unique nature of our programming, a mixture of scholarly research on known composers, rediscovery of neglected ones, and unusual juxtapositions.

It was my perception that Eos’s tango with the press produced some revelatory and exciting stories, as well as a frustrating scarcity of appreciation for our role in the debate about how to invigorate concert music. I felt we were addressing big issues with every single program, about the survival and relevance of concerts and live performance in an age of instantaneous, hand-held entertainment. We took nothing seriously except music-making; every other aspect of concert presentation was fair game for reinvention. Semi-staged operas, collaborations with actors, puppets, film, moving the orchestra around the stage, speaking to the audience, pre-concert chill music: all were part of the mission of changing the preconceptions of what constitutes “tradition.” Eos was always seen as a lively circus of new ideas, yet the debate about how to fix orchestras went on without us.

Without a doubt, Eos’s portrayal in the press had a significant impact on our “success” in terms of board recruitment, fundraising, and ticket sales. The problem was not the amount of press we received; Eos was certainly written about, more than most groups. But in terms of criticism, the response was contradictory, and there was frequent disagreement between critics about the quality of this performance or that. The range of reactions, from high praise to pillory about each particular concert, always seemed to me to reveal more about the critic than the performance.

Finally, there was the situation with the local musicians’ union. With repeated criticism of our playing mixed with praise for our programming ideas, I sought ways to improve the orchestra over time. There was never any doubt that Eos was, from the outset, composed of some of the best freelance players in New York, whose skill I could only marvel at. But I was looking for a remedy to the problem of how to command their attention outside of the scant hours we rehearsed together, because I felt we could never grow artistically otherwise. As a kind of antipode to the traditional freelance orchestra, after seven years of programs, I had in my mind a different kind of ensemble, based on a European model: a group of musicians whose commitment could be manifested thorough preparation before rehearsals, involvement in artistic planning, and a regard for the fortunes of the organization that might extend beyond a paycheck. Based on the limits of my own talents and personality, to this day I don’t know if I ever inspired this kind of participation; I know that I asked for it frequently and at times I believe we all glimpsed the artistic high ground together.

In 2002, I convened a small group of players and contractors to discuss whether we would be better served with a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), which would codify our work rules for management and players alike. While I was reluctant to give up the flexibility of our arrangement, I also thought it might be useful to be able to rely upon a contractual set of standards. However, these discussions never resulted in any action.

At the same time, I tried to involve the players in committees to assist with programming ideas and fundraising. At my invitation, a group of fifteen players met once, but failed to convert this enthusiasm into an effective way to be involved in the operations of the organization. Requests that the musicians help sell tickets to concerts did not prove fruitful either.

Then, in March of 2004, during rehearsals for The Valkyrie, I had a dispute with one of the musicians. The union took up the player’s complaint, which triggered a process that forced Eos to recognize the union’s right to negotiate on behalf of players who had signed a petition. While other issues were placed on the table, and we all felt that agreement could be reached on many of those, job security was the only real issue—the insistence upon a roster of players who had logged many concerts with Eos and were therefore, in the union’s view, entitled to continue unconditionally. This was inimical to achieving a higher standard in the long run, and after a few more performances during the balance of the year, I felt it was time to move on.

I want to be very clear: I don’t wish to criticize the union. They generally ennoble and protect the lives and livelihoods of musicians, which is to me a nearly sacred cause. That is the irony of this situation. But I don’t think the process worked in this case, for either side. Of course, they were just doing their jobs, and they no doubt view what happened in rather starkly different terms.

As I have said, there were many reasons for the ending of Eos, and all weighed equally in my decision to cease production. This nexus of challenges that finally proved too overwhelming for Eos—financial pressures, artistic reputation and artistic freedom—has been, up to now, absent in Cleveland. There are probably many reasons why, but the most important is that Red was formed and continues to be supported by a community-based group of concerned and committed people who have all but upended their busy lives to see that the organization thrives and grows. Also, Cleveland, while possessing a rich musical tradition, is a place that embraces innovation as a meaningful part of the city’s revitalization, and so more value and attention is focused on Red’s activities. I bring the same enthusiasm to Red that I felt for Eos, but largely without the angst. It is my great hope that this marvelous experiment—social and musical—can continue for years to come, inspiring all who come into contact with it, for that is, in the end, why we ever wanted to be musicians and why we spend out lives making music.

The lessons of the end of Eos and the beginning of Red have to do with their relative success at achieving a successful synthesis of the organizations’ product with the environmental forces that confronted them, and confront every such orchestra in the country. I have tried to describe the differences (and similarities) between the two groups in specific terms: the ways they were begun; the different cities in which they operated; the role of the press and performers in achieving the organization’s goals. I began Eos as a programming experiment, concerned only with content; by the end I had become an evangelist of vertical integration, concerned more with communities and cooperation. Eos may have been the victim of its own success, wherein expectations constantly rose, only to be constantly dashed.

Wherever orchestras (or opera and dance companies) are in peril, it is usually because there is a dissonance between the mission and the community; and by community I mean both between colleagues in the industry and between the orchestra and the audience. In the case of musicians, economic forces put them at odds with organizations; with the press, an uncomfortable adversarial relationship produces misunderstanding instead of thoughtful participation in the process of presenting the arts. Musicians in management, critics who have been performers, board members who have dialogue with the audience: only by walking in each others’ shoes can we hope to work harmoniously, holistically, to ask the tough questions and share the rewards.

I believe that we have come to a time when the various strata of cultural communities, from the individuals who control and assist funding, to boards and management, and finally, critics and audience, must have greater access to each other, and view each other as partners instead of potential adversaries yoked together by a common purpose. Labor disputes, bad press, and withholding funding all emanate from misunderstandings that are the result of poor communication. The future of the art depends upon listening to one another, without fear, and open to the possibilities of the new.