VNPAC: Stranger Here Myself

It’s a strange thing to attend a large conference in your own city. After a few sessions, you begin to feel that you are actually out of town yourself. All I needed was a party to throw me out of whack. After driving from the hotel over to the Woodruff Arts Center yesterday for the ASO concert and enjoying the Tune-Up Reception that followed, I completely forgot that I had arrived by car. It was after midnight when I finally made my way back to the garage, only to find it locked down for the night. I barely made it, at a full sprint, back to the final bus leaving for the hotel and avoided being stranded in Midtown Atlanta. I did eventually make it home, but my wife wasn’t thrilled to come downtown in the middle of the night to rescue me.


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After sheepishly retrieving my car this morning, I got back on track and attended the Peer-to-Peer Roundtables at the hotel. The massive hotel ballroom contained 29 tables, each with representatives of 29 respective sessions. Each session lasted 20 minutes. The idea was to gather a quick bit of information then move on to the next table of your choice. I chose to sit in on two of the sessions: the first, a presentation by the American Composers Orchestra on Earshot – the National Orchestra Composition Discovery Network given by Michael Geller, executive director and Cindi Hubbard, Earshot manager. Geller and Hubbard did a wonderful job communicating the various ways that they could facilitate composer residencies and how such programs truly enrich an orchestral season. I was thrilled to note that the table was packed with interested administrators! The second session I attended was entitled High Impact, Short-term Composer Residency Programs and was given by Paul Winberg, executive director of the Eugene Symphony Association. I was drawn to this session because it represented the efforts of a smaller orchestra to engage living composers. The real interesting discussion, however, occurred after the session was over. It became very clear that Winberg was a driving force behind the residency program. We composers often feel that if we could only reach a conductor with a score, we might have an opportunity for a performance. That’s not necessarily always true. Sometimes the path to performance goes through an executive director’s office.


Later in the day, I attended the General Session: There Are No Crises, Only Tough Decisions. This was a joint session shared between the League of American Orchestras and Chorus America (holding their national conference in Atlanta concurrently with the LAO—I’ll be covering some of the Chorus America sessions tomorrow). The session began with music; a short concert given by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Brass Quintet.

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After the splendid performance, there were greetings offered by Ann Meier Baker, president and CEO, Chorus America, and Jesse Rosen, president and CEO, League of American Orchestras. Phillip I. Kent, chairman and CEO, Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. representing Atlanta’s thriving business community, and Wayne Brown, director of music and opera for the National Endowment for the Arts, also greeted the attendees. The meat of the session, however, was the keynote address given by Russell Willis Taylor, president and CEO, National Arts Strategies. I found Taylor’s talk to be even more provocative and entertaining than the keynote given by Ben Cameron yesterday. And that’s saying something! Sharp, witty, and thoroughly engaging, Taylor had the audience’s attention instantly. Like Cameron the day before, she pulled no punches and gave a very frank assessment of the current state of the profession. She began by pointing out that there is no question that the orchestra, indeed all arts organizations, are at a turning point. The delivery structure of these organizations is simply not sustainable. In similar fashion to Cameron, she did not lay the blame for this solely on the current economic downturn. We are not so much in a financial crisis as we are in a crisis of legitimacy.

Taylor then employed the time-honored tradition of biting satire to make her following points. She proposed twelve rules that any organization actively seeking to fail should follow:

  1. Keep fixed costs as high as you can and variable costs as low as you can.
  2. Confuse core values with core competencies.
  3. Believe that growth only means getting bigger and more expensive.
  4. Never make empirical decisions. Ignore data.
  5. Create more value for employees than customers.
  6. Fear new technologies of all kinds.
  7. Pretend that liquidity doesn’t matter – a lot.
  8. Blame your customers.
  9. Pursue transactions rather than relationships.
  10. Compete rather than collaborate.
  11. Ignore the global pro-am revolution.
  12. Don’t accept that uncertainty is the price of innovation.
Rules 10 and 11 were especially interesting to me. Because our field is so small, competing with one another is a losing proposition. Taylor adamantly believes the only way forward for arts organizations is through collaborations. I was also taken by her comments on the pro-am community. For those unfamiliar with the term “pro-am,” it refers to individuals who were trained in one field but whose livelihood is in a completely different field. In the area of music performance, many pro-am (i.e., professional amateur) musicians play at very high levels. They simply do not make their living as professional musicians. Orchestras ignore these performers at their own peril. For the composer, acknowledgement of and working with pro-am performers is a vast untapped resource.

What if we do not wish to fail? Echoing ASO President Stanley E. Romanstein, Taylor insists that orchestras must get involved in the schools. If there is to be an audience for art music in 30 years, we must begin with children entering kindergarten today. Taylor also strongly encouraged the notion that orchestras must create relationships not simply audiences. I could not help but be struck that these words are also very true for composers. As an orchestra seeks to build a relationship with its performers, board, audience, and outside stakeholders, we composers must not simply look for the quick performance. Relationships work both ways. We must ask ourselves how we can be an ongoing contributor to an ensemble’s musical life. What does the ensemble need from us? How can their needs and ours be met in a mutually beneficial manner?

After Taylor’s wonderful keynote, I attended two follow-up symposia. The first was an enormously entertaining and informative session titled The Atlanta Symphony War Room: A New Approach to Collaborative Decision-Making given by Robert Spano, musical director, John Sparrow, V.P. for orchestra initiatives and general manager, and Charlie Wade, V.P. of marketing and symphony pops. It was fascinating to hear these three gentlemen speak of the process of collaboration when developing a season. All voices and concerns, whether they be artistic, financial, or educational, are taken into account. Once a decision on a program is reached, the music director and all the senior administrative staff are united, whether their program is successful or not. All have a shared vision and shared accountability. It is a wonderfully innovative model that has developed in Atlanta over the past ten seasons. As a composer, it is always interesting to peak into the process of repertoire development. Our secret impulse is to shove a score into a conductor’s hand. Somehow we think that this approach will yield a thoughtful look at our work and an enthusiastic invitation to present our music. This happens about as many times as a kid is signed to a major league baseball team for making a great foul-ball catch in the stands. It was, however, very gratifying to learn that all members of the Atlanta war room are very open to new ideas and repertoire, especially works by living composers. Some pieces have even been championed by musicians in the orchestra and brought to the attention of the director. For me, this process amplified Taylor’s keynote call for relationship building. As composers, if we continue to develop good relationships with various groups and musicians, we put ourselves in a position to be noticed in higher and higher circles.

The final session of the day I attended was a follow up to the keynote given by Russell Willis Taylor. I couldn’t help but ask Taylor how she saw contemporary music fitting in with her notions of change within the orchestra. Her answer was for composers to remember what the cost to an audience member is to attend a concert where our work is being performed. It is not simply the $30+ ticket but also the cost of time, the cost of learning the polite norms of the concert hall, and the cost of paying attention to unfamiliar music, among many others. In other words, the cost is quite high. Taylor reminds us that we do not decide value—our customers do. Her solution for us is sampling. Give away small bits of our recorded music for free or program small excerpts more regularly. The cultivation of new music, according to Taylor, must occur in a very calculated way. She believed that sampling is one effective approach.

The second and final symposium having concluded, I left the hotel with a head dizzy with new ideas. Luckily, I remembered where I parked this time. I’m looking forward to another interesting day tomorrow.

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