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Saturday, January 25, 2020

Model Of Reinvention: Seattle Symphony At A Crossroads

Ten years ago, a consultant brought in to look at the troubled Seattle Symphony came away declaring it unfixable. Finances were a mess and the orchestra was in debt. Attendance was anemic. Marketing was terrible. Orchestra musicians were in open revolt (one of them suing the orchestra) against music director Gerard Schwarz. A dysfunctional board had lost control and several attempts to oust the music director had failed combustibly, executive leadership was discouraged and weak, and worst of all, the orchestra hadn’t played well in years.

Solution: a new executive director, new board chair, and new music director. But it would be impossible to attract top talent for any one of the three without replacing all three — without this audiences would keep declining and the financial situation would continue to deteriorate. The orchestra wouldn’t play better until there was a new music director. The music director couldn’t be replaced until the board got its act together. The board wouldn’t get better without better executive management. Good executive leadership wasn’t likely until the music director left.

And then, miraculously, improbably even, in short order the orchestra got a new board chair, music director, and executive director. Ten years on, the orchestra has reinvented itself, its finances seem stable, its attendance strong, and best of all, the orchestra is playing better than it ever has, with a couple of Grammys and a Carnegie Hall visit behind it.

SSO board chair Leslie Chihuly with composer John Luther Adams (Image: Brandon Patoc)

Leslie Chihuly, CEO of Chihuly Inc, became board chair in 2009 and seems to have been the catalyst. She saw the end of longtime music director Gerard Schwarz’s reign. Schwarz had been music director for more than two decades, but had battled with musicians, the board, and a succession of executive directors over years. Chihuly rethought how the orchestra marketed itself to the community, raised money to get it out of debt and build the endowment, and oversaw the recruitment of new music- and executive directors.

Simon Woods, the executive director who arrived in 2011 (and who left two years ago to run the Los Angeles Philharmonic), was fond of declaring his ambition to make the SSO “the most innovative orchestra in the world,” (whatever that meant – innovative doesn’t necessarily mean good). During his tenure, nothing about the way the orchestra ran was routine. Concert formats and venues and repertoire were all reconsidered, and – Woods being a former recording executive – he launched the orchestra’s own recording company and recruited and managed an imaginative team of senior managers. He had a particular knack for finding talented people and giving them room to play. No idea was too odd to consider.

Simon Woods (Image: Brandon Patoc)

The third member of the new team was French conductor Ludovic Morlot, who worked on repairing the orchestra’s sound. Under Schwarz, the orchestra played at the extremes – really loud and really soft. It was at its best in sharp-edged Russian scores that called for bright sound and big contrasts, but its string sound was unfocused and unsubtle — the orchestra never sounding as though it was listening to itself and adapting as opposed to stacking up phrases like so much cord wood (and with about as much finesse). Morlot — who arrived in 2011, and labored under the notion he could make a French orchestra out of the SSO (light transparent sound and lucid textures) — went to work on overhauling everything about how the orchestra plays.

Ludovic Morlot

By 2014, three years into the Morlot/Woods/Chihuly era, the organization bristled with new energy, trying ideas and making important artistic partnerships. Late night concerts, half-concerts, informal concerts, chamber music, educational partnerships – the routine became unpredictability. The financial losses also shrank, and a $100 million campaign was launched. In May of that year the orchestra traveled to Carnegie Hall as part of the Spring For Music Festival, with John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, a piece the orchestra recorded and for which it won a Grammy.

The organization’s financial fortunes, attendance and programming had been transformed, but the orchestra’s performances were still a work in progress. The orchestra sounded dramatically better in the overall sense. But performances still weren’t very elastic, the violins hadn’t yet solved their clarity problem, and too many performances were stylistically generic. The orchestra got huge points for its artistic ambitions at Carnegie but failed to impress New Yorkers with its performance.

Advance to winter 2019, and the transformation is much further along. Two recent concerts make the case – Thursday, November 14 in a program of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Angelique Poteat’s Cello Concerto (an SSO world premiere), and Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No.2 (James Feddeck conducting and SSO principal cellist Efe Baltacigil as soloist); and Thursday November 21’s program of Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, with Thomas Dausgaard conducting.

The starkest contrast from then to now is Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The orchestra’s December 1992 recording for Delos, with Schwarz conducting, is a clangy, ponderous effort that tries to bully the listener into submission. Rite 2019 – almost 30 years later with new music director Thomas Dausgaard – is the virtual antithesis of that: nimble and transparent one moment, muscular and bright the next. The gray tyranny of a shapeless time-beating in the 1992 recording has given way to an elastic performance that bristles and pulses but finds breath along the way to pause and luxuriate in reflection. This makes the peak moments all the more intense in a way the louder, rawer 1992 performance never came close to. This recent performance was a good showoff for the orchestra’s principals, many of them hired by Morlot.

The 11/21 program was also an example of the new SSO approach to programing. After an elegiac performance of Scriabin’s slightly nutso Poem of Ecstasy (a piece that sounds more and more conventionally romantic with each passing year), Dausgaard had invited the Juliana and Pava Folk Ensemble to perform some of the traditional Russian themes that Stravinsky lifted for the Rite of Spring. The traditional versions were interspersed between Stravinsky’s rewrites and performed seamlessly between orchestra and ensemble, as if they were meant to be a single piece. The coordination back and forth between the two genres was brilliantly performed.

This kind of contextualization in connecting orchestral music to the world outside of it is apparently a hallmark of Dausgaard’s approach, and it’s the kind of thing that can help listeners connect to what they’re listening. It was revealing to hear how closely Stravinsky cribbed from these songs, oblong beats and chromatic tonality and all. At the same time, I have to confess this realization made me a little sad. Rite of Spring has always felt so forward-looking, so shockingly modern and dissident, even a century after it was written. That it is so firmly – literally – rooted to its folk past (rather than just using it as a reference or starting place) isn’t something I really want to consider, since it goes against what I now realize were my modernist rejectionist fantasies about what the piece is really about.

This was my first experience of Dausgaard, who seems like an expressive, sensitive conductor if a little restrained. I was impressed by how well the orchestra was transformed from when I’d heard them in Carnegie, and I’m eager to hear him again to understand what he brings to the orchestra.

And herein is the challenge for the SSO. Having righted itself and made huge progress over the past ten years, the orchestra is at something of a crossroads. Woods left two years ago this month. Morlot finished up his tenure last season, and Chihuly has passed on the board chair to a successor (though staying involved as chair emerita). As early as 2015, as the SSO’s reputation and fortunes were on a steep rise, there were stories of increasing tensions between the three leaders as success started to fray the relationships.

That all three departed in such a short time of one another is a challenge, though Dausgaard isn’t technically new, since he had been principal guest conductor of the orchestra since 2013. He was something of a safe choice as he is apparently well-liked by the musicians and the orchestra avoided a search process. But the Danish conductor doesn’t live in Seattle and he continues to lead the Danish National Orchestra and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra back home in Scandinavia. One wonders how connected he’ll be to Seattle, particularly after the SSO spent so much time in the past ten years trying to integrate itself into the community beyond the concert hall.

SSO executive director Krishna Thiagarajan

On the management front there are also questions. Krishna Thiagarajan joined the orchestra in September 2018 as executive director after running the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Over the past year most of the star senior management team he inherited has left for other jobs, including longtime communications VP Rosalie Contreras who went to Juilliard, marketing pro Charlie Wade, and development VP Jane Hargraft who went to run development at the Cleveland Orchestra. One of the biggest losses was Elena Dubinets, the artistic planner who was responsible for many of the organization’s best ideas and departed this fall for the artistic job at the Atlanta Symphony. The prestigious jobs these executives left for testify to their talent. But I have been hearing ripples of increasing concern about the departures and artistic and managerial direction in recent months.

And then there’s Chihuly, who was the spark for the SSO’s resurgence. As her successor, the board tapped René Ancinas, chairman and CEO of Port Blakely. Ancinas is a fourth-generation member of the real estate company’s founders, and is a clarinetist who has degrees from Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. On paper he seems another safe choice, but he is relatively unknown in the city and he may not bring a vision comparable to Chihuly’s.

Orchestras everywhere have struggled to reinvent themselves in the face of declining subscriptions, funding pressures, and changing tastes. The SSO has made significant progress at a time when other orchestras have had difficulty just maintaining. Some of this has to do with playing better. But a big part of it is also the culture of reinvention the orchestra has fostered. Now the culture will be different, and the question is whether it can sustain its current path or even wants to. The orchestra that the consultant dismissed as unfixable a decade ago was turned around because the right combination of leaders with vision came along at the right time. That’s not easy to replicate.

From the outside, perceptions of arts organizations’ fortunes are often out of sync with the realities inside. The Seattle Symphony that sounds so good today, which sells a lot of tickets (at least it seemed so the two times I was there) and appears financially stable, is the product of ten years hard work and an effective team of leaders. What’s next is still very much an open question.

Douglas McLennan
Douglas McLennanhttps://www.artsjournal.com
Doug is a longtime arts journalist, and the founder and editor of ArtsJournal.com, he's frequent keynoter on arts and digital issues, and works with a number of arts organizations nationally.

2 COMMENTS

  1. A few footnotes:
    1. A wise musical friend has observed that the SSO, which used to be “an orchestra that happened to be in Seattle” has now become “a civic institution that happens to be an orchestra.” Many other orchestras are going down this path, which can be done cynically and greedily or also done creatively. The creative road appears to be what the SSO is traveling.
    2. In the Gerard Schwarz years, the SSO played lots of Wagner for the Opera and developed a dark, rich, burnished, Wagnerian personality. In the Morlot years, it added a French sensibility: perfumed, colored, transparent. It’s now a complete orchestra.
    3. The SSO annual budget is now about $34 million, and it has staffed up considerably in recent years. The danger of such growth is heavy investment in fundraising and marketing and seeking non-classical audiences (just look at the programming this December). I would expect more attention to costs and overhead expenses.

  2. This is a welcome education on recent history and orchestral character. I will be a better listener for this, and I may actually buy a ticket, something I haven’t done for years. Thank you!

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