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 seat-of-the-pants decisions."

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 downtown Newark."

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 years."

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 venues' stages.

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 "labor."

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."

Evolutionary Process
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 says.

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.