Collaborations on a Theme
by Rebecca Winzenried
Who's responsible for shaping the artistic vision of an orchestra? The New Jersey Symphony explores the question as it continues on its own particular evolutionary path.
The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra begins its 80th season this month in what
could be perceived as a state of transition. Zdenek Macal, who led the orchestra
for ten years, stepped down as music director last May-although he is now music
director emeritus and will return for several concerts over the next two
seasons. A search committee is undertaking the task of identifying new artistic
leadership, but it is proceeding without a set timetable or a predetermined idea
of what that leadership may be. And to top it off, a wealthy patron has dangled
a tantalizing offer to outfit the string section with rare antique instruments,
provided the orchestra can locate $25 million to purchase them.
The situation would spark more than a bit of nail biting at most orchestras.
The New Jersey Symphony, in characteristic form, views it as an opportunity: yet
another chance to confront the status quo, open the lines of communication, and
try some new ideas. The orchestra has formed an artistic planning committee,
consisting of musicians and staff, to handle programming and scheduling of this
season and the next, with the possibility of continuing its work into the
future. Meanwhile, a search committee, also consisting of musicians and staff,
plus board and community members, is proceeding from an unusual premise: Is
hiring a music director, in the traditional sense, really the best way for this
orchestra to carry forward?
Surprising approaches, yes. But such outside-the-box thinking has caused
hardly a ripple around the NJSO's headquarters in Newark. Perhaps it's because
the orchestra has spent the last decade building a culture of cooperation among
the members of its "family"Ñmusicians, management, and boardÑthat has cooled
once slow-simmering feuds and brought the various parties together on decisions
behind-the-scenes. Now the same approach seems poised to have a visible impact
on the orchestra's artistic future.
Trust. Communication. Flexibility. Leadership. Certain business-world
buzzwords pop up again and again in conversations with members of the NJSO. It
wasn't always so. Ten years ago, the orchestra was, in the words of Principal
Bassoonist Robert Wagner, "the basket case of the orchestra world." Tensions ran
high between musicians and management, the board was considered unresponsive to
labor issues and ill-equipped to handle orchestral matters, and financial
crunches kept the organization perpetually on the brink of collapse.
The quality of the music was never really in doubt. The NJSO had been built
with top-notch players from the New York City area, and had collected favorable
reviews both locally and for its appearances at Carnegie Hall. Yet the orchestra
suffered from a problem with its image: It didn't really have one. The New
Jersey Symphony Orchestra was viewed largely as a traveling group made up of
freelance musicians who spent more of their time on the Upper West Side of
Manhattan than in the Garden State. True to its statewide name, the orchestra's
schedule kept it shuttling among eleven different venues around New
JerseyÑalthough performances in locations from Trenton to New Brunswick to
Morristown to Princeton only seemed to emphasize the NJSO's status as a regional
orchestra that was not really connected with any one community. Home base was
Symphony Hall in downtown Newark. But even loyal patrons were not enthusiastic
about traveling into one of the country's most infamously blighted urban areas
for nighttime concerts.
Virtually all those elements were about to change. Nearly simultaneous shifts
in leadership in 1991 signaled a turning point. Within a year, Newark
cardiologist Victor Parsonnet became chairman of the board, Lawrence Tamburri
joined the orchestra as executive director from the Richmond Symphony, and
Zdenek Macal, who had been at the helm of the Milwaukee Symphony, was hired as
music director. The particular synergy of personalities and philosophies infused
the orchestra with a new energy and set it on an entirely new course.
They started with basic operating procedures. "We began instituting some
methodology for how to do things," recalls businessman Victor Bauer, who joined
the board at around the same time and now serves as vice chair. The orchestra
had been unable at times to put together basic financial numbers, and ideas like
the 1970s-era decision to split board leadership between two individuals had
only served to muddy the waters. "It was a matter of trying to bring in some
rational business organization," says Bauer, "so there were no more
Among the new tenets of the orchestra was the inclusion of musicians in
planning and decision-making processes, beginning with the music director search
that resulted in Macal's hiring. It was a logical step for the new leadership
team. After all, whose work is more closely identified with, and immediately
affected by, the music director? "It's about building a workplace that people
are happy to go to," says Tamburri. "Now, maybe you can have a workplace that
you hate to go to and still be good at your job, but it's not very likely."
Of course, having musicians sit in on interviews with music director
candidates was hardly standard operating procedure at the time. Even NJSO
leaders admit they weren't entirely aware of the new path they were forging. "I
don't think anyone really knew what was happening," says Parsonnet. "They just
knew that they had to do something to get away from the way things were done in
the bad old days."
Granted, not all musicians, trustees, or staff members were sold on the idea
of sitting together in meetings and planning sessions. A good number were
vehemently opposed on the grounds that labor and management should notÑcould
notÑmix. Parsonnet persisted, encouraging the parties to stop thinking in labor
vs. management terms and to begin thinking about the roles each played in
running their businessÑmuch as he had to do as director of a hospital. The
philosophy was no doubt helped along by a certain flexibility that was second
nature to NJSO musicians and staff, a product of so many years on the road. The
NJSO was used to adaptingÑto demanding schedules, to travel, and to the
inevitable crises that came with playing venues up and down the state. "If
you're not flexible, you can't be in the New Jersey Symphony," says Wagner.
A couple of benchmarks provided signs that the orchestra was on its way. In
1995, the State of New Jersey approved a special grant that essentially wiped
out debts from state loans the orchestra had received. Then in 1997, for the
first time, the orchestra and musicians settled their three-year labor agreement
months before the deadline and without contention. Groundwork laid earlier in
the decade was jelling as the NJSO looked forward to what it could accomplish in
the soon-to-open New Jersey Performing Arts Center. "What we had was a promise
for the future," says Bauer. "We had great musicians, they loved playing for
Macal, we had the prospect of a wonderful new hall. We were on the same page. We
had to make it work."
Home at Last
If we build it, will they come? The answer wasn't clear when
the orchestra moved into its new home at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center
on the edge of Newark's downtown in 1997. The neighbors were ambivalent. Bauer
remembers approaching an area businessman about the donation of computer
equipment and being told he was wasting his time: "It will never work in
Five years later, NJPAC has confounded the naysayers. Some three million
people have attended programs at the multi-use hall, which hosts concerts of
popular music and traveling shows as well as the orchestra. Favorable reviews of
the venue and ensuing development of nearby restaurants and businesses are
indeed attracting people to downtown Newark. The NJSO has increased its
subscriber base from 13,000 to more than 25,000 statewide, and single-ticket
sales have risen substantially. "The performing arts center really was the
difference," says Parsonnet. But he adds, "It's the old chicken-and-egg thing.
Which came first, the orchestra or the concert hall?"
Whatever the answer, the orchestra's profile is on the rise. The premiere
last March of composer Hannibal's God, Mississippi, and a Man Called Evers, a
work that examines the life of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, was
greeted enthusiastically by diverse audiences. The project was praised in a
Newark Star-Ledger editorial, which said, "Big-league symphony orchestras take
risks, and that's what the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra did. At a time when
most regional orchestras rely solely on classical standards and marquee-name
guest artists, our symphony underwrote a new work by a composer without a big
reputation." Bauer notes that the orchestra is getting more attention from
potential board members. "We're becoming the place to be involved. Going to a
symphony concert is an event now."
More headlines came the NJSO's way with the announcement last spring that
longtime supporter Herbert Axelrod was offering to outfit the violin section
with instruments from his multimillion-dollar collection of Stradivaris and
Guarneris for $25 million (half their estimated value). Over the summer, the
orchestra was working on locating benefactors who could make the purchase
possible, with the hope that the deal could be sealed by fall. Meanwhile, string
players were lent more than a dozen of the instruments to try on for size and,
in true democratic NJSO fashion, were rotating them among the desks. Wagner had
a chance to sit in on chamber performances with players who were test-driving
their Italian wonders. "It was like playing with a new group, the joy that was
expressed," he says. "I saw one person smile who I'd never seen smile in 20
Insiders are confident that the project will happen: Axelrod has exhibited a
desire to have the collection stay with the orchestra he has known and followed
for decades. The collector's expressed wish is that the instruments will elevate
the NJSO's level of playing, its artistic reputation, and its image. Having
fifteen or twenty rare violins, and possibly violas or cellos, in the company
could make the NJSO a world-class attraction in itself; and the chance to work
with such an ensemble might prove irresistible to potential music directors.
Change of Command
When management learned that Macal would not opt to
renew his contract, set to expire in 2004, an artistic leadership committee was
formed to discuss how to proceed. The music director had helped give the
orchestra a voice and had forged a good working relationship with the players.
But - with utmost respect to Macal - the NJSO was not in the same place it had
been during its last music director search. The committee of staff and board
members, musicians, and community members was more accustomed to testing
unorthodox approaches. They started dissecting the very idea of artistic
leadership. Since the NJSO is not a full-time orchestra and typically works with
a number of guest conductors in a given season, a new thought emerged. What if
the orchestra broke with the traditional music director model and opted instead
for, say, an arrangement with two or more principal guest conductors?
No one is saying that's what will transpire, but the orchestra is officially
keeping its options open and has not set a timetable for hiring. "It's possible
someone will come along that everyone loves, everyone gets along with," says
Michael Lawrence, manager of artists and programs. "That would be great, that
would be our music director. But maybe there are other ways to approach this."
The artistic leadership committee, which is pointedly not called a music
director search committee, recommended the formation of a separate
staff-musician task force to assist with program planning. Again, it's a
different approach, says Lawrence. "Who often has the longest tenure in the
orchestra? It's not usually the staff but the musicians. At the same time, they
often don't have a voice in what they play."
For the 2002-03 season, the artistic planning task force was charged with
completing a schedule that had been partly programmed by Macal. That involved
about half of the eighteen classical series programs. Rounding out a season that
takes off from the theme of American Roots-music with an American voice written
during the 80 years of the orchestra's existence-presented a whole new learning
curve for the eight-member group. Five musicians, including Concertmaster Eric
Wyrick and violist Martin Anderson, participated. At the time of the season's
announcement, Anderson, a 22-year NJSO veteran, called it "an eye-opening
experience. Before working on this project I couldn't have imagined the
complexity of the process." The planners went from thinking primarily about what
kind of music they would like to play to worrying about logistics, the
availability of guest artists and conductors, their repertoire, and
marketability of programs. (The task force consulted the NJSO marketing
department, among others, on its choices.) The seven venues statewide in which
the orchestra now regularly appears presented a whole set of issues alone, notes
Lawrence. Certain theaters, he pointed out, have limited space both on and off
stage. For the orchestra to play a single program in two or three places it has
to cover all the basics-such as whether all the musicians can fit on all the
The task force's efforts included a November 29-December 3 program that has
no conductor. "We wanted to show that our strength is in our orchestra, so it
wasn't just a parade of guest conductors," says Lawrence. The only name
announced for the program, which includes Dvorák's Serenade in D minor and
Vivaldi's Four Seasons, is that of Concertmaster Wyrick. Artistic direction for
the "Virtuosi of the NJSO" program shouldn't be that much of a problem, however,
given that some of the NJSO musicians are regulars with the New York City-based
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, a group that never works with a conductor.
After working out the 2002-03 season, the task force reported to the board,
which voted to continue the initiative indefinitely. Some changes were
instituted. The working group has been pared down slightly, to three musicians
and two staff members. Participation in what is now called the Artistic Planning
Committee is a paid position for the musicians, reflecting the time commitment
and additional training involved. Armed with technical and team-building skills
picked up last spring at a "Programming with Vision and Purpose" seminar of the
American Symphony Orchestra League's Orchestra Leadership Academy, the committee
has begun tackling the 2003-04 season.
It will be the first schedule programmed entirely without a music director.
Which leads to a broader question: How might the involvement of staff and
musicians in the programming process, even as an interim step, affect the
artistic leadership search? "I don't know if it makes it more difficult to
attract someone who really wants to put an artistic stamp on an orchestra," says
Lawrence. "Maybe someone will be energized by it. If you have a really good
working relationship, that opens a world of opportunities." Tamburri
acknowledges that the unusual artistic development is bound to have an impact on
potential music directors. It is one of the issues discussed with candidates,
along with other aspects of the NJSO's collaborative culture. And it's another
reason the orchestra is taking its own sweet time to find the right fit.
The whole process has been a curiosity to the rest of the orchestra world.
"So many people have asked ÔWhy are you doing this?'" says Tamburri. The short
answer is that collaborative artistic planning is just one more step in the
evolution of the NJSO. "We wouldn't have thought of doing this ten years ago."
But musicians are now involved in virtually every decision-making process, from
finances to hiring. Even the very language of the orchestra has changed.
Everyone is careful to refer to "staff," not "management" and "musicians," never
Tamburri is quick to point out that the NJSO should not be considered the
poster child for "How to Run an Orchestra" or "Enlightened Management Practices
101." Orchestra leaders readily admit that it has benefited from a particular
set of circumstances and leadership. At the same time, Tamburri does not agree
with critics who suggest that the NJSO's progress is entirely dependent on the
personalities who have guided the orchestra over the last decade and that its
collaborative management style cannot be duplicated elsewhere. "That's not
correct, either," he says. As Bauer sees it, "Our way of doing things may not
work for everyone. It's not even all there for us yet."
Wagner, who has been with the orchestra since 1979,
believes that a basic institutional shift has taken place. "It is fragile and it
could be broken, but there's a cultural change." Musicians who have long been
reluctant to participate in activities off stage are coming around, he says.
"Even the diehards can be engaged, if you ask them."
Musicians and staff members who join the NJSO today are briefed about the
history and culture of the orchestra, to bring them up to speed on how things
operate. Even without it, the atmospheric changes would be apparent to
newcomers. "Any time you have that kind of collaborative atmosphere, it's
helpful. It's a wonderful asset for an orchestra to offer to continue to draw
good players," says violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins, who joined the orchestra
three years ago.
She has been particularly grateful for the more unusual opportunities
afforded NJSO musicians, such as the Leadership/ Professional Development Grants
that allow individuals to pursue personal study or career development. The
program, made possible by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, awards
up to $5,000 per year to individual musicians for personal projects they might
not be able to afford or have time to pursue otherwise. Hall-Tompkins, for
instance, had been planning to travel to Europe to study with members of the
Berlin Philharmonic, but was waiting for the right time and opportunity. That
moment came at the end of her first season with the NJSO, when the grant program
was announced. "I couldn't believe my ears. It was so easy," she says.
Connections made during her time in Berlin spent "just soaking in the
atmosphere" resulted in the production of her first CD. That recent recording,
in turn, is the product of a second Mellon grant.
Grants are awarded based on a relatively simple proposal procedure. Musicians
are asked to outline the project, its goals, and potential impact. Proposals are
reviewed by a committee of musicians, board, and staff. The program is an
obvious way for the NJSO to offer additional compensation for musicians that
official contracts don't include. And some of the projects have come around to
impact the orchestra directly. Wagner used one grant to study with his former
teacher in San Francisco, a reunion he had not been able to undertake for 20
years. But the bassoonist, who has served on a variety of orchestra committees,
also obtained a grant to spend time with the London Symphony Orchestra to study
its musician and management operations. Flutist Kathleen Nester used one grant
to develop a communications and team-building seminar for the orchestra's
woodwind section, to facilitate interactions on and off stage.
Longtime leaders acknowledge that the endeavors can only help musicians on a
personal level, and the organization on a larger level. Parsonnet's vision of
the future involves nothing less than the New Jersey Symphony becoming a
world-class, full-time orchestra. "This orchestra can do anything, it can play
anything. The closeness between the colleagues is a wonderful thing to see," he
says. At the same time, the work is not done. "Finances are always a worry.
We've got to build the endowment. We've got to pay the musicians better," he
The 2001-02 season was rocky for the orchestra, as it was for many performing
arts organizations. A faltering economy and worries over terrorism caused
single-ticket sales to nosedive and donations to dwindle. The chain of events
for the NJSO began with the forced cancellation of the season-opening gala,
which had been scheduled for September 13, 2001. Single-ticket sales had
rebounded by January of this year, and by mid-summer subscription sales for
2002-03 were seven percent ahead of the previous year's pace.
The real test will be how audiences react to this season and the next, as
changes in the orchestra's artistic leadership and its new programming endeavor
become apparent. "That's the ultimate barometer. Are people going to buy the
season?" says Wagner. But then again, he says, maybe New Jersey audiences will
embrace the way things are in Newark. "Our whole bent is to do something new."
Rebecca Winzenried is managing editor of SYMPHONY.