Welcome to the League, dedicated to helping orchestras meet the challenges of the 21st century.
by Melinda Whiting
This summer, the American Symphony Orchestra League quietly passes a milestone: the 50th anniversary of its first-ever course in orchestra management.
In August, 1952, the League was ten years old and still an adolescent organization, founded as a loose collective serving what were then referred to as "community orchestras." Larger orchestras joined in as the League engaged with other groups (including the American Federation of Musicians) in an ultimately successful lobbying effort to repeal a wartime tax on concert tickets, and by 1952 the League was becoming more truly representative of the large and varied field of American orchestras. It was also sowing the seeds of services that would grow into essential supports for an ever-more-complex industry.
One of these was an information-packed newsletter--a precursor of the pages you now hold in your hands. Another was the aforementioned lobbying effort--the ancestor of today's advocacy on behalf of orchestras, arts education, and federal arts funding.
And there was that management course, held on the campus of Brevard College in North Carolina over six days in August, 1952. The League's chief executive, Helen Thompson, proclaimed it "the first course in symphony orchestra management ever presented in the entire history of orchestras." There is no reason to doubt her assertion. Most of America's orchestras had only recently become institutions that were continuously active and complex enough to require day-to-day professional management. Like the nation's population, orchestras mushroomed after the war. A pressing need for training naturally followed.
Thompson brought leading orchestra managers to the League's Brevard course to outline strategies for budding administrators. And she was determined not to neglect their relationship to matters musical; conductor Antonio Modarelli, the music director of Thompson's own Charleston (West Virginia) Symphony, spoke to participants about the particular artistic mission of community orchestras. Within a month, the League also held its first conducting symposium in Philadelphia, for some 50 young conductors of youth and community orchestras. The overwhelming success of these events made it clear that training would be a major commitment for the field's key service organization.
Today, the League's Orchestra Leadership Academy (OLA) embraces the descendants of those early training efforts. An annual course, Essentials of Orchestra Management (described in detail by Chester Lane beginning on page 59), has taken place in some form or another every year since 1952. Its offspring are many: more than 20 specialized courses, as well as the intensive, year-long Orchestra Management Fellowship awarded annually to a half-dozen promising administrators. Likewise, the 1952 conducting symposium gave birth to a tradition of conductor training. Today, the Donald Thulean Conducting Workshops offer intensive guidance on and off the podium in semi-annual three-day sessions. (This is in addition to the League's frequent co-sponsorship of such special programs as the forthcoming Synergy for composers and conductors, to be presented this September by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.)
Together, the Academy's offerings serve some 500 "students" annually. And they are not just executive directors and conductors. Staff members, musicians, trustees, and volunteers are also eager--often impassioned--participants. Topics run the gamut from conflict resolution to marketing basics, and from the off-podium demands of music directorship to responsible board service. The courses are experiential, practical, and focused. (They're also cheap: Overall, tuition charged amounts to about 25 percent of the cost of OLA seminars, thanks to generous outside funding sources; and most short seminars are scheduled adjacent to League meetings and Conferences to make the most of tight travel budgets.)
It's quite a different story than it was in 1952, when a handful of community orchestra managers gathered on the pastoral grounds of Brevard College. But in the best sense, it's just the same.