Seattle Symphony Update: A Cautionary Tale?

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In the three weeks since Thomas Dausgaard resigned abruptly as music director of the Seattle Symphony, questions about why have only grown. Since Post Alley’s previous story ten days ago, the orchestra’s leadership – which had refused comment on any details up till then – has now consulted its inner Olivia Pope and, if while still not exactly answering important questions, is trying to backfill the story from their perspective. The musicians’ orchestra committee also convened an all-players meeting January 18 to discuss the situation. And Dausgaard gave an extended interview to Danish National Radio last Friday in which he talked a little more about what had happened.

SSO board chair Jon Rosen and former chair Rene Ancinas are responsible for this situation by virtue of overseeing the orchestra’s governance. Ancinas still declines to answer questions, even about actions he personally took as chair. Rosen professes admiration for Dausgaard even as he forcefully expresses his (and, he says, the SSO board’s) wholehearted, foursquare support for executive director Krishna Thiagarajan.

As you will read in more detail below, Rosen credits Thiagarajan with boosting the orchestra’s financial position, navigating the uncertainties of the pandemic, and making progress on the orchestra’s attempts to diversify the organization. What he does not do – and declines repeatedly to answer any questions about – is to explain why Dausgaard’s sudden departure wasn’t just a very public aberration, but perhaps the most-visible culmination of festering problems inside the organization over the past two years.

The SSO of 2018 vintage, was, by most accounts on an artistic upswing. That makes this a story not of a stumbling organization experiencing a bumpy turnaround as it tried to correct or steer a new course, but instead the dismantling of a successful team culminating in its artistic leader feeling the situation was such that he had to walk away early and publicly from his post as a matter of his “integrity.” One has to ask why.

Some context might help.

Surely one of the most-persistent tropes in writing about American orchestras over the past 50 years is the notion that “classical music is dying.” Pianist and musicologist Charles Rosen once quipped that “the death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition.” Quoting Charles Rosen on the topic might well be the second oldest.

There are currently about 1,600 orchestras in the United States, and though their activities and health are variable, the imperative for change and evolution in the field has been an evergreen theme over the past 20 years. Orchestras, like every other creative industry, have seen their business and audience models upended in the internet age, and the challenges to both being creatively relevant and financially viable have at times seemed existential. More recently, in the midst of the pandemic, in addition to scrabbling to survive, there has been a significant racial and gender reckoning in the orchestra world – who’s onstage, who’s staffing and leading orchestras, what gets performed, and who has access.

Current SSO Board Chair Jon Rosen (from the SSO’s website)

So when Jon Rosen states that the orchestra’s executive director Krishna Thiagarajan was “hired to drive change” in 2018, we should take him seriously. If an organization is measured by its people, change there certainly has been. In little more than two years the majority of the orchestra’s staff (58 of 89), board (27 of 39), and, a few weeks ago, its music director, have left.

Such turnover is unusual, especially for an organization that was winning critical acclaim, piling up attention-getting commissions and Grammy awards, and delivering invigorating programming and community outreach. The orchestra was getting notice nationally as a leader in reimagining how an orchestra engages its community and reinterpreting the concert experience.

Among orchestra staff and musicians there was pride in accomplishments and excitement about prospects with a newly-named music director with whom the orchestra had had a long relationship. The triple departure within a few seasons of board chair Leslie Chihuly, then-president and CEO Simon Woods, and music director Ludovic Morlot all but guaranteed new directions. Finally, with Dausgaard, new board chair Ancinas, and new CEO Thiagarajan, the team was in place.

Rosen declines to be specific about the changes the board asked Thiagarajan to drive, but says the executive director has delivered:  “Under his leadership the Symphony has built an exciting platform for the future—one that embraces diversity through both its people and its music. Our team has built on the successes of past Board and staff leadership to accelerate all-around improvements. Krishna, his staff and our Board have charted a visionary path for the symphony.”

Rosen wrote to me that the unusually high staff turnover was due to resistance of some employees to changes their new boss wanted to make. He also reports that under Thiagarajan’s hand, the orchestra is healthier financially than it has been in years: “Despite the challenges of the pandemic, we have paid off all preexisting bank debt and created a multiyear cash surplus to fund the difficult post-COVID recovery period. These accomplishments are unlikely to have occurred without leadership that was able to navigate the complex federal recovery scheme, work with patrons to continue and often to enhance their generosity, nimbly adjust and readjust to respond to ever-changing circumstances, and manage uncertainty with confidence and fortitude.” He also points with pride to the SSO’s having continued to employ its players during the COVID lockdown, albeit at a reduced level, even as the orchestra’s own financial position was improving markedly.

Thiagarajan himself highlights a programming initiative this month marking the 80th anniversary of the  incarceration of thousands of Japanese-American citizens in camps during World War II as an example of the orchestra’s community engagement under his leadership. And he emailed me in a statement that the orchestra’s financial position is strong:

“As a team, we shepherded the Symphony to balanced budgets over the past two seasons despite the ongoing challenges of the pandemic. We also project a balanced budget this fiscal year. Over the last few years, our foundation’s net assets have grown by $7 million net of distributions, from $37 million in August 2018 to $44 million in November 2021. The Symphony saw an incredible amount of support from our community to the annual fund across all giving levels in 2020 and 2021, resulting in a 32 percent increase in individual gifts in FY21 compared to FY19. We continue to see fundraising growth this fiscal year (FY22), both in average gift amounts as well as in the number of new donors. We expect the current year to be our strongest yet.”

Previous SSO Board Chair Rene Ancinas

Of course, there’s more to a successful arts organization than a healthy bottom line. As previously reported here, Dausgaard’s unusual departure in the middle of a season, the high staff and board attrition, numerous stories flying around alleging Thiagarajan’s brittle, sometimes brutal and ungracious management style, a financial settlement with one traumatized former employee, and a board investigation resulting in executive coaching for the executive director — all suggest that whatever Thiagarajan’s successes, at minimum it’s been a turbulent flight since he took the helm two-plus years ago.

There are, perhaps, reasons to chart a new direction. Despite its creative and critical successes and audience resurgence, the SSO had carried an accumulated debt which had persisted over many years, even as managers had tried to whittle it down. Or maybe the orchestra board was serious about its desire to become more diverse at every level and determined its internal demographics need to be rebuilt, resulting in higher than normal turnover.

Whenever an organization is having problems – as this one clearly is – it’s helpful as a reporter to step back to consider how a successful, well-run organization might respond in the situation. Then you compare it against what the actual response is and the organization’s track record. The Seattle Symphony board has a woeful record stretching back three-plus decades of failing to make tough management decisions and kicking problems down the road.

When Dausgaard suddenly quit, he told The New York Times that there was a culture “ruled by fear” at the Seattle Symphony. He reiterated the point in an interview Friday on Danish National Radio’s P2, saying, “I’m bound by a contract, so I can’t speak freely about it. I have felt threatened and I haven’t felt safe with going to work.”

That’s a pretty big allegation, and board chair Rosen has categorically denied there is a culture of fear. But given the statement, the board investigation, settlement with an employee and the hiring of an executive coach, I checked with a national HR consultant to see what a typical organization would do after uncovering and investigating the issues.

Typically once the organization has dealt with its investigation, this expert says, it then reviews workplace behavior rules, ensures there’s a code of employee conduct, reiterates the need for a respectful workplace, provides training for managers, and sets up a mechanism for employees to report problems that is outside of the chain of command of the executive director. As to whether the rest of the organization is told of the results of the investigation, she says there are two things to consider: first the privacy of those involved, but also the fact that because an investigator talked to employees there are inevitably stories circulating. “You want to deal with them transparently so stories don’t get out of hand,” she says. “But most of all, you work to make sure everyone knows that they should expect a safe and respectful workplace.”

Given that few outside the executive committee were even aware there had been an investigation, it doesn’t appear clear which of these measures might have been taken. Rosen has repeatedly declined to comment on any personnel issues, even generally. And there is considerable reason to believe that the turmoil in staff ranks extended to the artistic side in the person of the music director, where Dausgaard reportedly made a case to the board that he was being undermined.

The executive board investigation of the executive director concluded in 2019. By then, however, Dausgaard himself had been sparring with Thiagarajan for a year and, it was clear to those around him, getting more and more upset. Dausgaard had his own stories to tell. He demanded time with the executive board to tell them of his concerns.

Dausgaard printed out 104 pages of emails between him and Thiagarajan and notes he had taken of their conversations. He had them compiled in binders with copies for each board member. On a Saturday in February 2020, in the offices of a nearby law firm, he tried to make his case, says one board participant. It was, he says, an emotional, even distraught presentation. The emails documented dozens of ideas and initiatives and projects the music director wanted to pursue, and it appeared he had made no progress on them. He seemed particularly incensed by the lack of responses from Thiagarajan to many of his queries. Remember too, in our previous story, we reported that staff had spoken of hearing Thiagarajan disparage the choice of Dausgaard as music director soon after arriving in the job.

When Dausgaard left, the group discussed the presentation and then-board chair Rene Ancinas told the group he would pursue it further. Ancinas has refused to answer questions about what he did after that. Whatever it was, it clearly didn’t allay the conductor’s concerns. Dausgaard soon left Seattle for his home outside Copenhagen, the coronavirus lockdown went into effect, borders were closed, and concerts were canceled for the rest of the season and the whole of the 2020-21 season. Dausgaard would not return to Seattle until November 2021.

One of the narratives that has taken hold in this story since Dausgaard’s departure is that the Danish conductor appeared to lose interest in being in Seattle during the pandemic. A meeting of orchestra musicians was called last Tuesday by the players’ Orchestra Committee to discuss the situation. At what was described to me by multiple sources as a contentious but ultimately constructive meeting, players grilled the committee members on what they knew about the staff turmoil and management’s actions.

One player who contacted me after the meeting said that support for Dausgaard among the musicians – which had been high when he started, and “about 80-20 positive at the end of the first season” — by the end of last season had dropped considerably, to a mixed 50-50, according to a musicians’ survey. Given there had been no orchestra concerts the entire season and Dausgaard hadn’t been able to get here, I wondered what accounted for the change. This musician told me that there was a perception among some players that Dausgaard had walked away from his music director duties during the pandemic year. The one video town hall the players had held with Dausgaard in the summer of 2020 had been awkward, almost cringey. “We were looking for inspiration, but he didn’t have much to say – he said he wanted to know what we were doing, instead.” The exercise wasn’t repeated.

Dausgaard had continued to suggest to Thiagarajan numerous ideas about what he could do to keep in touch and work with the orchestra during the pandemic; however, the pattern of being brushed off by the executive director evidently continued. By the time he arrived in Seattle last November, Dausgaard had resolved to see if there was still a way to make it work. “I had hoped that the wonderful collaboration I’ve had with the orchestra – the musicians, that I have known for many years – could have outweighed the difficulty I found with the leadership, that has come after I was hired as music director,” he told Danish Radio Friday (a translation from the Danish was provided to me by a Danish Radio journalist). “So it was painful, but in the end I saw no other way than resigning, and a quick farewell rather than prolonging it further.” He added that had he stayed, “I wouldn’t have any integrity left.”

It’s interesting to speculate if COVID had not shut down normal operations would Dausgaard’s connection with the orchestra have deteriorated. Would the orchestra’s board have found a way to mend Dausgaard’s and Thiagarajan’s working relationship?

One might also consider: Perhaps Dausgaard’s ideas were impractical or not very good? Perhaps he might have been difficult to work with? If so, did Ancinas or Rosen try to work with him, as they had intervened to provide Thiagarajan with an executive coach? (They won’t say.) Did they work to mediate the relationship between Dausgaard and Thiagarajan? (They won’t say.) In the end, what’s important is that the board chairs successively failed to deal successfully with what look like significant management issues that – tellingly – resulted in proven talent (including the music director) departing from an organization that had been functioning at a high artistic level.

Even so, let’s allow that mistakes were made and the SSO board has tried to right the course. How would a well-functioning institution act going forward? Are there signs that problems have been acknowledged and successfully addressed, and that the SSO is operating at a high level? The improvement in finances is welcome news. That accomplishment is in line with other orchestras across the country that are reporting improved financials after infusions of government COVID relief, increased giving by donors wanting to help, reductions in operational expenses because of reduced concert presentations and furloughs, and a boost in endowments due to outsized gains in the investment markets.

And it’s difficult to assess what “a culture of fear” might have looked like, as Dausgaard and other departing staff have described. But there are perhaps some small clues visible from the outside. Shortly after my first story, Rosen sent out an email to staff and musicians in which he expressed his and the board’s support for Thiagarajan and wrote, in part: “It is disappointing that the article referenced administrative issues from several years ago which had been formally vetted and dismissed. It is also disappointing – if the article accurately conveys their complicity – that those associated with the organization have chosen to contribute to the article anonymously.”

That email seems not to make any connection between “administrative issues from several years ago” and behavior that led to the departure of the music director. Calling the charges “vetted and dismissed” and those who talked about it “complicit” suggests he believes the charges were unfounded and irrelevant to the current situation. Where an organization with a healthy culture might have used the opportunity in responding to the story to affirm its values and workplace culture and invite participation and pledge transparency, maybe even scheduling an all-hands town hall to clear the air, the message’s defensive tone belies reckoning honestly with a failure. And isn’t that the very least we ought to demand of a publicly-supported civic institution?

That defensive culture may also be echoed by an email Thiagarajan sent to musicians as Dausgaard’s departure was being announced. It informs players of the move and asks the musicians not to talk to the press. All good until here. Then it asks them to report to the SSO’s communications office any colleagues they suspect might be talking to the press.


Addendum: In our previous story, many readers noted my praise of Dausgaard’s effect on the orchestra’s performances and wondered if I had undervalued the impact of previous music director Ludovic Morlot. I can see how they might think that. In attempting to emphasize Dausgaard’s musical accomplishment as a way into the story, I neglected to give full credit to Morlot, who transformed the orchestra in his time after Gerard Schwarz left. He recruited new players and was successful in overhauling the way the orchestra approached music. Dausgaard’s success would not have been so notable if not for Morlot’s good work.

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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.

48 COMMENTS

  1. I agree with the other comment. This writing is too ornate and seems to lack clear perspective. What is the point and how is it backed up by evidence?

  2. “It’s interesting to speculate if COVID had not shut down normal operations would Dausgaard’s connection with the orchestra have deteriorated.”

    I think the answer is a simple yes; it just showed us his true colors faster. People need to get over the idea of waving your arms around being the only thing that matters. The guy was good at that, and I’ll never say otherwise. Sadly as a music director he fell flat. The pandemic was a perfect time to show creation, innovation, and a time to be there(even if you can’t physically be) for your musicians and community. We had a town hall where he read from a script and asked us about our feelings while he’s in some mountain cabin…his grand plan of innovation and working with us was a live orchestra online from our homes. He brought this up endless times as a dig on management(Krishna) for not making it happen. That wouldn’t of worked Thomas; use your brain. It’s a dumb idea and everyone knew it, that’s why it wasn’t going to happen. Why don’t you ask Thomas what kind of salary cut he took to help us out during that time while we’re worried about paying our bills? Real team player he was. Krishna took one. Funny how that isn’t mentioned. Krishna kept our lights on.

    Fast forward to this fall when he FINALLY gets his visa! Thomas is coming! Our savior! You’d think after being away for 18 months you’d want to arrive in your city early. Meet with donors, management, plan, strategize, collaborate even?!. Nope. He books his flight for one day before rehearsal and his exit one day afterward.

    Don’t let the door hit you on the way out Thomas. *cue my tiny violin playing*

    Can we focus on the future please? Your last “article” did nothing but talk about the amazing people that left but didn’t mention one word of the amazing people we have in place now that got us through arguably one of the most challenging two years an arts organization should ever have to face; all on reduced wages and increased workload. I look forward to hiring a music director that makes us sound better and is also dedicated to us and our community. Someone that is here more than the bare minimum, and that brings actual ideas to the table.

    It’s clear you’re getting spoon fed information from a small group of people and you’re taking it as gospel. Not even sure why I bother commenting here but for someone reading this blog they might find it helpful.

  3. Wow, it took a week to rewrite a more boring, less focused version of the same story.

    It’s all starting to sound like a bitter author with an axe to grind.

  4. Thanks for this. Sadly the accurately pinpointed deficiency is reporting structure, first and foremost, and then the failure of this structure to attract appropriate board and managerial talent. Not sure how the SSO recovers from this.

    • The fact that this has turned into a PR nightmare for the symphony is certainly a reflection of poor leadership and a toxic culture.

    • We can only hope that the people who so badly mismanaged the Symphony do see some light and pull themselves out of this–there’s no one else who can at this point. But no such indication so far.

      I’m still grieving the Morlot era.

  5. Obviously you could not live up to Dausgaard’s standards, hence your ridiculous post.
    If a person was sabotaged before the pandemic, it’s clear enough there was no will on the managements side to allow the maestro to carry out his mission. Being European, he decided to bow out gracefully. Otherwise he could have exposed the whole thing, which he did not.

    • This makes absolutely no sense. Thank you for contributing nothing. Bowing out graciously isn’t running to the NYT and the Danish Radio with a smear campaign.

      Keep boot licking.

  6. By the way, Thank you Douglas McLennan for your insightful investigative reporting.
    I hope it inspires the Seattle Symphony Management to do the right thing. And as you stated “Where an organization with a healthy culture might have used the opportunity in responding to the story to affirm its values and workplace culture and invite participation and pledge transparency, maybe even scheduling an all-hands town hall to clear the air, the message’s defensive tone belies reckoning honestly with a failure. And isn’t that the very least we ought to demand of a publicly-supported civic institution?”

  7. Simply a devastating description of what has happened to our symphony. Until the Board recognizes what a disaster this ED is and fires him, things will only get much worse. No Artistic Director will want to come here after how Daussguard was treated nor any competent arts administrators.

    • Good thing we have a competent artistic director and administrators already Neal! Now we’ll take our time to do a real MD search. The show will go on without a MD and things will run like a Swiss clock(probably even better).

      Relax.

  8. Jon Rosen is Secretary of the Classical KING FM Board and has been since I arrived at KING FM four years ago. He is one of the most principled and wise people I have ever met. When he speaks in board meetings (which is not that often), everyone listens carefully. When Jon raises a concern with me, I act immediately because I trust his judgment and wisdom 100%. Jon is a bridge-builder, and I can guarantee, knowing him, that if there had been a way to work out the relationship between Thomas Dausgaard and the SSO, Jon would have found it.

    When I first came to Seattle and heard the SSO play with Dausgaard on the podium, it felt like a magical experience. However, I do think the model of having the artistic director here for only a few weeks a year is not the right model for Seattle. Seattle audiences love to love their musicians and artists (one of the many things I love about the city). The model might have been workable if there had not been a pandemic, but the time and distance between Thomas Dausgaard and the musicians in the past two years was a formidable barrier.

    I respect Douglas McLennan immensely, and I understand his need to report on what he is hearing; however, I also trust the SSO Board and staff to lead the organization going forward. I’m sad for everyone that the relationship between Thomas and the SSO ended as it did, but I have full confidence that the great people involved will find exciting new artistic leadership and continue to win awards and accolades while delighting local audiences.

    • The question I raise is whether Krishna is working for Jon or just the opposite, a Board Chair doing the Executive Director’s bidding, both newbies. Not exactly Ron Woodard and Deborah Card.
      Maybe Jon should give Ron a call?
      Let’s fix this mess.

    • Ms. Barnes puts her finger on the problem, which was the decision made in haste to have a music director who didn’t want to move to Seattle, particularly given the Symphony’s steep financial challenges. It’s been a long, bruising (and secretive) effort to rectify that crucial error.

      • Perhaps a problem, but certainly not the problem. The problem remains. If the SSO were a publicly traded entity, the next board initiated move would be swift, decisive and enabling of a return to a productive environment sorely needed to eliminate the division evident in these posts.

      • As noted by insiders in previous posts, Thiagarajan was openly trash-talking Dausgaard before his formal appointment even began. There was no way Dausgaard’s tenure was going to end well as long as Thiagarajan was in the corner office.

  9. So what’s the takeaway of all this? The current culture at the SSO appears to be fractured with the inevitable taking of sides leading to, likely, a polarizing and perhaps toxic workplace. Thiagarajan‘s email reproduced in the story is taken straight from the McCarthyism playbook. That’s certainly troublesome. People are entitled to express their own perspectives. The SSO certainly appears not to value free speech and if an insider is a “whistleblower”, better watch out! Given recent events, as set out in the now two stories on the SSO, building bridges and moving forward constructively as opposed to creating a climate of paranoia, fear and tattletaleing would appear to be a preferred approach, one would think. Why foster a mean-spirited workplace in which people are being encouraged to turn against one another and look over their shoulder?
    A word of advice to the SSO: Get your house in order – and fast. And do so by bringing the various players together. It’s called leadership. The common purpose of building a meaningful orchestra creating relevant and important art in and for its community should always be foremost. Check your egos at the door. And a standing ovation to the writer! Bravo, Sir!

  10. Thanks for your good reporting. I don’t mind disagreeing with you about the merits of Dausgaard; you’ve hit the nail on the head — someone has to say it — the Board is responsible and yes, it is a debacle. Glad to hear the musicians are coming together.

  11. Not sure why this is being framed as some expose. Sounds like the music director didn’t do their job and quit in a huff. Is anyone surprised that the executive director is a diligent manager or that things were tense in an organization that earns their keep performing when they couldn’t perform? What’s the point of this? If someone wants to level an accusation of being “unsafe” they need to explain what that means. A lot of words over two articles here, but haven’t heard if the music director took a full salary while not working for all that time?

  12. The above”discussion” perfectly exemplifies the reason that unmoderated anonymous colloquy is not permitted in serious venues when the subject matter is serious with real community impact. Let us close it and invite (or accept) contributions dealing factually with definite points relating to this chronicle if unfortunate events from persons sufficiently confident to present their positions as identifiable individuals..

  13. Lot’s of good comments. A few observations:

    1) Thomas Dausgaard is an excellent conductor. Losing him is a devastating loss for the orchestra. Even “Musician” concedes as much. Anyone who has heard him conduct our orchestra live or has listened to his many recordings should be able to reach this conclusion easily. Mahler 10th, Strauss Alpine Symphony, Nielsen’s symphonies all with our very own orchestra are some of the best among modern recordings. HIs Sibelius is the best I have heard in Seattle in the 20+ years I have followed the orchestra. His scheduled Beethoven cycle with the symphony would have given Seattle some of the best Beethoven in the world. We only need to listen to his Simax recordings of the complete symphonies to know he is a world class Beethoven conductor.

    2) If the Seattle Symphony wants to be a great orchestra, it needs to break itself of the compulsion to have the music director live here. Seattle was lucky with Gerry Schwarz and Ludovic Morlot. Any music director worth having is going to want to have a robust guest artist schedule and maybe one or more additional postings. Seattle is a provincial town. Mr. Thiragajaran at least has this correct. I want the best possible music to be performed on stage. I wanted Seattle’s orchestra to build on what Mo. Morlot gave us following years of atrophy under Mo. Schwarz. That will not happen with a music director who is fine to camp out in Seattle and guest conduct the 2nd and 3rd rate orchestras of the world.

    3.) Finally, a CEO’s primary job is to manage and nurture and organization that allows AMAZING music to happen. Being successful requires a mind for servant leadership that just seems absent in the present situation. Maybe Mo. Dausgaard is a febrile eccentric who is high maintenance. So be it. Thiagarajan’s job is to make it work with the music director, the musicians and the team he inherited. He can add his own people as natural attrition happens.
    Thiagarajan has engaged in administrative malpractice. The current situation is worse than even the misguided austerity measures from 2010 management tried to impose on the orchestra. The current crisis threatens the artistic credibility of our orchestra.

      • So much negativity from people who seem to know nothing about how an orchestra runs and like to feed a false narrative for their own self aggrandizement based on second hand information from people who clearly have some bitter axe to grind. Talk about making a mountain out of a mole hill.
        Let’s review
        Has the orchestra stopped playing great music. No
        Is this the first time a musical director has ever resigned . No
        Has there ever been a change in management anywhere where some existing team members are not happy. No
        Move on negative people surely there are real issues to be upset about.

        • Has the orchestra stopped playing great music. No

          Thomas Dausgaard would have brought Amy Beach’s symphony to life in a way Lee Mills didn’t. An average work like the Beach symphony would have come to life under Dausgaard’s direction. The orchestra has always sounded professional and certainly up to the task in most performances. But great? World class? Transcendental? Sometimes they have reached this apex. Not with the regularity of peer orchestras in similar markets – Pittsburgh, Minnesota, St. Louis come to mind immediately. More often this orchestra was scraping to reach that next level. Dausgaard enabled this more often than either of his predecessors even though I liked a lot of Ludovic Morlot did with the orchestra. Where Dausgaard could have taken the orchestra is apparent when you’ve heard orchestras like Minnesota and Pittsburgh perform.

          Is this the first time a musical director has ever resigned . No
          – I believe this is the first time a music director has resigned in Seattle in the middle of a season with time left on their contract.

          Has there ever been a change in management anywhere where some existing team members are not happy. No
          – This is correct, but generally you do not see such a rapid exit from the institution. More importantly, the people who left went on to better positions. Juilliard > Seattle Symphony; Cleveland Orchestra > Seattle Symphony; Atlanta and London Phil > Seattle Symphony. Which speaks to the talent that was there in the administration. Also worth mentioning that some of the people who bolted were with the orchestra during the trying final years of Schwarz’s tenure. So it’s not as if they didn’t know how to work in tough/toxic environments.

          • Everyone thinks they’re a fortune teller. Please give me an example of a group Dausgaard has taken to the next level? He has no track record of this. BBC Scottish? LOL. They have always been a ragtag/freelance level ensemble. I heard them almost trainwreck the 3rd movement of Mahler 9 a few years back at the proms. The SSO continues to improve with each new hire – no matter who is on the podium – and the few toxic members who remain in the ranks will not prevent this, not that they care about artistic excellence anyways. Here’s some advice: more practicing and less spewing lies to “reporters.”

          • No question about it. The orchestra continues to improve. And yet, there is a still a long way to go interpretively. And who stands on the podium does matter. For instance the John Adams concert earlier this month. A more naturally gifted conductor would have benefited the performance. During Morlot’s tenure you were up and down depending on what he was conducting. Taras Bulba was terrible while Dutilleux was always excellent. In each you did was asked of you, but a memorable performance requires more.

        • I didn’t answer your question Orchestra Veteran – I think the BBC Scottish is an orchestra that improved mightily under Dausgaard. The Mahler concert you are referring to haappened in 2014 I think, under Donald Runnicles. Both is recording of Kullervo and the recent Bartok disk are a testament to this improvement.

  14. The SSO is a non profit organization, so in this case the CEO’s job is to make sure he can keep the lights on downtown and pay the musicians.
    If you would like actual financial data on the SSO finances, the last 20 years of the SSO’s 990s are available for anyone (even Doug) to read at https://projects.propublica.org/nonprofits/organizations/910667412 Keep in mind the last two years have had delayed information filings with the IRS, that kooky pandemic! so this is not current with 2021.
    I’m still confused about what the festering problems actually are, as they are not identified here.

  15. Yes, many enlightening and insightful comments that shine a bit of light on the

    Management tensions are a given in a creative organization. But fixing the bottom line may not be worth sacrificing the organization’s reason for being, its unique character, artistic standards, and creative spark. Even in a pandemic.

    It’s troubling to me that an indication of SSO’s priorities may be the board’s cohesive support for Thiagarajan, which implies their consent for him telling employees to rat out their colleagues. This inappropriate statement corroborates Dausgaard’s comments about feeling unsafe. It has “smoking gun” overtones. If there is missing context it would behoove the board to provide it publicly as soon as possible. Otherwise it stands as a glaring symptom of unprofessional and disrespectful management.

  16. “Typically once the organization has dealt with its investigation, this expert says, it then reviews workplace behavior rules, ensures there’s a code of employee conduct, reiterates the need for a respectful workplace, provides training for managers, and sets up a mechanism for employees to report problems that is outside of the chain of command of the executive director.”

    This demonstrates succinctly why it’s so important that Thiagarajan be replaced. The facts demonstrate that whatever Dausgaard’s own failings, Thiagarajan had rejected Dausgaard’s appointment from the outset, and did not support him in any way. On the contrary, he blocked many of his initiatives. It’s hard to overstate what kind of impact that can have over time. Dausgaard likely just “checked out” after dealing with this for years, but what did the board know? Were I in Dausgaard’s shoes, I’d certainly have gone to the board to raise my concerns.

    And frankly, the biggest question IMO is this: Why was the board of directors unable to suss out this conflict prior to appointing Thiagarajan? Either Thiagarajan is a complete sociopathic liar, giving outward praise to Dausgaard and telling the board that he would support him, or he gave concerns and the board appointed him anyway. Or, no due diligence was had there. The relationship between the executive director and the music director is the most important one you can have. The SSO board seem a hapless bunch, and that’s perhaps the reason they are sticking by their man — at least for now.

  17. Thank you SSO Guy, but I wish people would being using their own names. Is SSO guy an SSO employee? They have some excuse, if they might be fired for speaking up, which itself would be an outrage. I do SO MUCH agree with your comments about “servant leadership”. Morlot should never have been fired or pushed out, and Dausgaard did go to the Board with 104pp of email documenting the totally dysfunctional relationship with Thiagarajan. The Board apparently blew him off, as they did earlier serious complaints about Thiagarajan. They had an extremely distressed conductor and THEY DIDN’T CARE. If a Symphony does not make its music making its first priority by supporting its musical director, it will die. A non-profit does make money — I’ve run two and some do not even depend on donations. A Symphony will always need donations and that’s fine– the mix of earnings and donations will be whatever is needed to support its mission. The mission — here, making great music — is the overriding priority. If the President and Board can’t support a musical director to that end, it’s they who need to depart. They failed to do this twice in a row with Morlot and Dausgaard.

    I’m using my name. I’m a musician with no possible connection to SSO other than as a listener and donor. I want a good SSO back! The musicians in the orchestra are playing great, but that’s not enough without better organizational leadership.

    • I am not disparaging anyone, I am trying to be thoughtful on this thread. I have reasons for remaining anonymous. Not a musician, but could face retaliation nonetheless.

  18. Howdy SSS (Seattle-Symphony-Stressed),

    I’m stoked to see names (Doug, David & Roger) I recall from my long ago “daze” in Seattle thriving in the here of the now!

    As for Dausgaard, I caught his revelatory Stravinsky evening, had a chance to briefly chat with him about Langgaard & TRULY appreciate him having brought the uber-divine PatKop to town 2 years ago for a revelatory rendition of Kurtag’s Kafka cycle for soprano & violin.

    Regarding the convoluted politics of what Doug so thoroughly puts forth in his articles, oy, wake me up when this annoying sheeeeet clears & the OSO gets back to where they once belonged.

    Cheers,

    Bob Priest
    Marzena & Seattle Spring (’86 – ’92)

  19. It’s rare to see not only this volume of discussion, but as well the level of passion and fierce difference over Daugaard, SSO management, and the orchestra’s board. My own experience as an occasional writer – almost fully in retirement now – is that current SSO management is more resistant to press queries than at any time in my memory. Basic emailed question get no response, and rarely even acknowledgment. It seems clear from the reportage here and in comments that serious issues remain re both management and board.

    I would just add a personal note, as a paying SSO customer (season ticket buyer) and non-musician – that the arrival of Dausgaard was a revelation musically, taking nothing away from Morlot, who I was sad to see go. His Sibelius series back a couple of seasons in particular. Those of us who sit in the seats can’t know what goes on between concerts, only what we see and hear during performances. On that test, Dausgaard, every concert, was a pleasure to watch – the resulting music a pleasure to hear. That I will miss.

  20. As indicated by the recent internal communications from both Rosen and Thiagarajan, they are taking names (literally) on anyone who doesn’t get on board with the ‘nothing to see here’ mantra. Thiagarajan has repeatedly proven that he doesn’t hesitate to sabotage a career if he’s feeling threatened, which seems to be most of the time. That’s a part of the culture of fear that he’s built – and it’s working quite well because unlike Dausgaard, he has the full support of the board.

  21. Went to the concert last night and heard our amazing orchestra. Great crowd, probably 75% full. Doesn’t seem like an organization that is imploding like you’d think from these articles and comments. Thunderous applause after every piece and an appreciative audience!

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