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.
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.”
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.