Spotlight on the League of American Orchestras: How the League Benefits Symphonic Musicians
My first association with the League of American Orchestras was back in 1977, when I attended a conducting workshop (as a violist in the orchestra) run by the League (then known as the American Symphony Orchestra League or ASOL) in Orkney Springs, Virginia. Richard Lert was the principal conducting teacher; at 94 he was an amazing link between 20th century conducting styles and those of the Romantics such as Arthur Nikisch. Indeed, Maestro Lert was Brahms’ godchild. Lawrence Leighton Smith assisted Maestro Lert during the workshop.
The workshop was held at a “hotel” that had been a hospital during the Civil War, and we all joked that there were no right angles to be found. I returned the next summer as well, and got to know Cathy French, later to become President and CEO of the League, and Charlie Thompson, a horn player and son of Helen Thompson, who was the League’s first Executive Director. He told me that his mother had intentionally named the organization ‘American Symphony Orchestra League – ASOL’ instead of ‘Symphony Orchestra League of America – SOLA’ “to keep them honest!”
In the intervening years, I have frequently attended League conferences when the conference was in a city where I had a friend to stay with. (Registration at League conferences is free for musicians who play in member orchestras.) When I became involved in ROPA (Regional Orchestra Players’ Conference) in the late 1980s, I was quite surprised to learn of the enmity in which the League was/is held by so many symphonic musicians. Rather than a service organization for orchestras of all sizes, ASOL was seen as a management organization, training managers in anti-union tactics. It was a common belief back then that managers went to the annual ASOL conference to get their “marching orders” as they headed for the negotiating table.
During Cathy French’s tenure as President, musicians were invited to serve on the League Board in 1983; Fred Zenone, former ICSOM chair, was the first musician Board member of the League. The relationship between musicians and the League really began to change in the 1990s, when musicians were invited to attend Conference at no charge. Chuck Olton became the League’s President in 1997; coming from an academic background, Chuck was determined to end, or at least lessen, the animosity between musicians and the League. I met him at a ROPA conference when I was ROPA VP; he attended the ICSOM conference that same year. Later, Henry Fogel invited ICSOM and ROPA to have a more formal liaison with the League, but his invitation was declined.
Since my early involvement, the League has changed its name in an effort to rid itself of its unfortunate acronym, has created a musician track at Conference, and has six musician board members (current symphonic members: Gloria DiPasquale – Philadelphia Orchestra; Robert Levine – Milwaukee Symphony; Robert Wagner – New Jersey Symphony; and Tina Ward – St. Louis Symphony, plus Jennifer Higdon, composer, and David Alan Miller, conductor).
But I am saddened and puzzled when I still hear colleagues blaming “ASOL” for a difficult negotiation. It is certainly true that the League’s Conference provides an opportunity for managers of similar-sized orchestras to meet in private – indeed a large part of Conference is the constituent meetings: Executive Directors, Development Directors, Marketing Directors, Operations Directors, Artistic Directors, Board Members, Volunteers, Musicians, etc. The League enables these conversations to happen, but they certainly do not dictate what is said during these meetings.
I interviewed the senior staff at the League just before the June Conference, and asked each to describe how his/her office benefits symphonic musicians. I thought I was pretty conversant with what goes on at the League, but I was impressed by the breadth of their activities on behalf of professional musicians.
The League of American Orchestras (formerly known as the American Symphony Orchestra League) was founded in 1942 and chartered by Congress in the 1960s. 40 orchestras from 17 states became charter members, looking to the League a means of exchanging information and ideas among “civic” orchestra leaders. Symphony magazine grew out of the newsletter that began in 1942, and annual conferences were instituted in 1950.
The first policy initiative of the League was the campaign in 1950-51 to repeal the 20 percent federal excise tax that had been imposed on concert tickets during WWII. Credit for the success of the campaign was given to Helen M. Thompson, the League’s first full-time paid executive.
From the mid-1950s onward, the League began collecting financial and operational data and distributing a detailed industry report – the origins of the League’s current database and survey program. The earliest training programs also began in the mid-1950s. A major emphasis was given to conductor training, with workshops held in Asilomar CA and Orkney Springs VA. This emphasis on training young conductors continues today.
The League’s advocacy for orchestras began in the early 1950s and expanded with the creation of the NEA in 1965. The League created a Government Affairs department (now run by Heather Noonan) in 1981 to reflect this expanded effort, and withdrew from the American Arts Alliance to focus on its own advocacy staff and mission.
In 1980, under the leadership of Catherine French, the League formed a Task Force on Artistic Concerns and invited Fred Zenone, National Symphony cellist and Chair of ICSOM, to join the group, part of whose mission was to increase the role of musicians in the League. Fred was later appointed to the Standing Committee on Artistic Policy, and was voted onto the League Board in 1983. Paul Ganson from the Detroit Symphony joined the Board a few years later. In the early 1990s musician members of the Board included Jerry Zampino (Syracuse Symphony), Wil Roberts (Dallas Symphony), and Hampton Mallory (Pittsburgh Symphony).
In June 1997, Charles S. Olton became the League’s President and CEO; under his leadership the League embarked on major new initiatives in leadership development, public advocacy, artistic development, and Board development. The League started its Orchestra Leadership Academy in 1999 (now run by Polly Kahn) as well as many other initiatives.
In 2003 Henry Fogel, former CEO of the Chicago Symphony, became League President and CEO. During his tenure, the League established the American Conducting Fellows Program, placing aspiring conductors in residence at orchestras; Ford Made in America, a consortium commissioning project benefiting small-budget orchestras; and an extension of the existing Music Alive composer residency program, providing for multi-season composer residencies at orchestras. Fogel also visited as many orchestras of all sizes across the country as was feasible
In July 2008, Jesse Rosen took over as President and CEO of the League. I’ll let Jesse tell you in his own words his vision for the League going forward.
Jesse Rosen, President and CEO
Ann Drinan: Tell me how the League works on behalf of symphony musicians.
Jesse Rosen: On the operational level, we have six musicians on our board, in order to ensure that a variety of musician perspectives inform League governance and direction. We also waive registration fees to our Conference for musicians, so they can attend at no cost, and we routinely have a small but consistent delegation of musicians there, including frequent visits from ICSOM and ROPA leadership. Many of our professional development programs require orchestras to involve teams that include musicians, as a condition of participation. And we share our annual Orchestra Statistical Report data with ICSOM musician delegates and orchestra committees.
Beyond that, the basic idea is that there are certain things that individual orchestras cannot do on their own – that’s the place where the League tries to create value and be of service. A good example is the recruitment and development of talent in the field. Leadership development is one of the core functions of the League. Strong leadership leads to strong institutions. There’s a field-wide need to identify talent and attract it to our organizations, and then provide a pathway for individuals to succeed. At the League, initially the focus was around managerial talent; we’ve now expanded it to volunteers, trustees, conductors and composers. We don’t do instrumental professional development because there are many other providers for that, though we do have resources for musicians who are training to become teaching artists.
AD: How do you serve conductors and composers?
JR: We help make the connectivity happen between them and orchestras. Given the large quantity of conductors and composers, there’s no easy way for them to connect with orchestras. Music Alive, our partnership program with Meet the Composer, [http://www.meetthecomposer.org/] is one example – these residencies pay the expenses of the composers chosen and help orchestras and composers match up. The League does a showcase of conductors every two years; the last one was in New Orleans. We showcase eight conductors – they must apply and there’s a screening process. We invite search committees and artist managers to the event; it really helps people’s careers. Recently we’ve coupled it with a Music Director Search seminar; a search can seem like a big mystery if you’ve not done it before.
AD: What about the League’s conducting fellows?
JR: We had a conducting fellowship program for six years – we’ve just ended it because the design was very expensive, and we felt that the League could make a greater contribution to conductors’ development by equipping them with musical leadership skills than with practical skills. The new seminar we are developing with Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony will introduce up and coming conductors to innovative ways of broadening the scope of the music director’s role, so they can respond to the needs of our time.
AD: Have you partnered with music conservatories?
JR: We piloted a partnership with Peabody [The Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University] and the Baltimore Symphony. The program was for conductors who still needed to complete some conservatory work but also needed a mentoring relationship with a professional orchestra and music director. The idea was to bridge what you learn in school to working for a professional orchestra. The League’s investment in this program was contingent upon the school and the orchestra continuing their partnership after the funding ended (after two years). I’m pleased to say that the mentoring program continues on to this day. Joint programs like the one between Peabody and the BSO would be so helpful to replicate; after completing the program, the student has already acquired some of the habits and routines involved with music making in the professional world.
AD: You mentioned three major focuses – what’s the next one?
JR: The second major focus of the League is on advocating for orchestras, both in Washington and in the press, and with other key stakeholders. Heather Noonan [VP for Advocacy] can describe our advocacy in Washington, and Judith Kurnick [VP for Strategic Communications] can talk about our relations with the press. Advocacy requires coordinated efforts, and the development of messaging for the field at large.
Our third focus is around knowledge and information. The League has collected annual operating and financial data for years, plus the salary survey and the repertoire survey. In a larger sense, we’re trying to identify all the information and data that is relevant and important for orchestras to know about. We’re creating new practices, and making research available online, either within or outside the field, like the review of audience demographic research we commissioned a few years ago. Our goal is to make sure orchestras are operating with as accurate a picture of the field’s circumstances as possible. We try to connect the dots nationally; orchestras tend to run their own organizations within their own environment. We look at industry trends and frame what we think are the critical issues that orchestras should be paying attention to, by looking over the horizon a bit.
AD: How did the League begin sharing its data with musicians and orchestra committees?
JR: The League convened a task force to update our Orchestra Statistical Research survey form so that it responds to the needs of both musicians and managers in today’s environment. The group involved orchestra managers and ICSOM, ROPA, and AFM representatives; this came on the heels of the decision to make our financial data available to ICSOM delegates. This was a big policy change for the League, driven by former League CEO Henry Fogel, as historically this information was only given to orchestra CEOs.
AD: What do you think are the most important issues facing orchestras and how does the League help?
JR: We start each year with a strategic and operating plan, laying out the core work we have to do. We are now two years beyond the end of the last strategic plan, but too much is changing quickly to do another 5-year plan. We need to respond to immediate circumstances, and our priorities are strengthening governance practices, helping with financial sustainability, and nurturing creativity.
We use our magazine, Symphony, as a vehicle for providing information and perspective that illuminates these issues in the field. If you bundled our four recent articles on churn research, the Patron Growth Initiative, and the patron model in St. Paul, you’d have at hand the latest advances and innovations in orchestra marketing in the 21st century.
Our attention is on how orchestras can generate more revenue. Our work at the League is about disseminating good practice in governance through web-based and live seminars; responsible fiscal management through diagnostic tools and independent consultations; and helping gifted composers and conductors find their way into orchestras through the programs I mentioned earlier.
AD: How do you personally spend your time, as President and CEO of the League?
JR: My first priority internally is making sure the League is institutionally sound, which involves board development and board recruitment, fundraising, and League strategy – making sure we’re focused on the right things. My chief function externally is to be the principal spokesperson for the League. I do 10 to 20 interviews a month with press and broadcast media – it takes a lot of time in preparation. We did over 300 in 2009 when the economic situation was so dire; we do 200 a year normally.
I also represent the League to key stakeholders: I’m the vice chair of the Performing Arts Alliance, an advocacy body, and I represent our field to national arts funders and to the nonprofit umbrella group Independent Sector, which involves a critical piece of federal advocacy.
I’m very involved in planning our annual conference. And I visit orchestras; I try to do a mix of orchestras from small to medium to large. Typically I will spend time with all constituents during my visit. I was recently in Houston, where I met the staff, gave a presentation to the full board, and had dinner with the board leaders. On other visits, like to Memphis, Dallas, Colorado, and Portland for example, I also met with orchestra committees and/or committee chairs.
Polly Kahn, Vice President for Learning and Leadership Development
Ann Drinan: What is your position at the League?
Polly Kahn: My title is VP for Learning and Leadership Development. Basically, I have the fun (and the challenge!) of developing and producing the range of learning opportunities available at the League – including the national Conference, Learning Online offerings, Orchestra Management Fellowship Program, new music and conductor programs, and Orchestra Leadership Academy (our stand-alone seminars), among other things.
AD: Are musicians regularly involved in any of these activities?
PK: Musicians are involved in virtually all of these. The learning opportunities we make available are intended for anybody who cares deeply about the art form. We approach a huge range of topics – (except how to play a musical instrument, of course) – everything else, from marketing to strategic planning to innovative practice to communication skills. We also teach a basic understanding of how nonprofit budgets work – all of these are available to people who care about orchestras. Some of our programs have a modest tuition associated with them, but many have no cost. We have hugely grown our online resources with webinars and Vlogs – all of this is available at no cost, some to members only and others to everyone.
AD: I know many musicians attended the League’s El Sistema conference in Los Angeles in 2010.
PK: Yes indeed. Another example is our Essentials of Orchestra Management course, intended for people committed to a career serving American orchestras with less than three years of experience on the administrative side. The course takes 30 people a year; via competitive application. Easily a third of our attendees are working musicians. Some are also fulfilling an administrative role, and others are musicians who are in a career-transition moment – their active life as performers may be ending and they are expanding their knowledge base and interaction with others.
And, both of our new Orchestra Management Fellows for this year – Eska Laskus and Agnieszka Rakhmatullaev – are also professional violinists.
(Just as a side note, close to 20% of our faculty are active musicians, including composers).
AD: Can you identify a few major areas where the League is an asset to musicians specifically?
PK: I agree with Jesse’s three points: leadership development, advocacy, and knowledge & information. I would reinforce the point that the League staff are advocates for the art form – for the institution of orchestras. The intention in all our learning and leadership forms is to create the platform where people can learn together. In in-person events, the driving energy is that there are many points of view brought forward. We believe that there’s an inherent good in people learning from each other, across the functions that they fulfill within orchestras, or when engaged in new learning outside the orchestra.
We’re in the midst of a changing society with new learning situations; this learning involves lots of different points of views, and a willingness to learn from folks other than ourselves. This makes us all stronger.
Heather [Noonan] will describe our advocacy work in DC, where we work collaboratively with the AFM
AD: What about online resources?
PK: We have several new pieces of work that we’ve developed this year and just launched. One I especially like is our SMART tool – the Strategy and Money Alignment Readiness Tool. It’s intended to help orchestras better understand their financial status in real time, meaning where they are today. They can then align that understanding with their planning going forward. It helps orchestras understand what’s in their short-term horizon, and helps them figure out what current financial health triggers they’ll need to get there.
We have tools and materials available that allow for complete transparency and clear communication around those realities. We partnered with TDC (Technical Development Corporation), a financial and strategic planning company in Boston who built a package specific to orchestras. One of the expectations is that the information be shared with key stakeholders across the organization, including musician leadership. We recently completed the pilot design, and we’ve now reached our capacity for this year with 40 more orchestras participating. SMART is an example of a piece of concrete work we designed to help everyone in the organization understand where they are. It helps to identify what concrete pieces of information an orchestra needs to ask the hard questions going forward.
AD: So managements should share this information with musicians in order to participate?
PK: Yes. It’s a good example of using resources and learning to get the objective information out to everyone.
AD: What’s the League’s basic philosophy about knowledge and information?
PK: I truly believe that a wider engagement is inherently beneficial, even when it may be really tough to do in the short run.
The League is a place that wants people in our virtual living room together so we can learn together. In finding common ground, of course, sometimes we’ll disagree. We wish everyone would recognize how very welcome they are!
Judith Kurnick, Vice President of Strategic Communications
Ann Drinan: Your title is Vice President for Strategic Communications.
Judith Kurnick: Communications involves more than just being responsive, both with the local and national press. Our objective is to provide a national perspective about a situation, to help situate a story into a broader context, as well as provide a comment. It takes a lot of preparation, both in terms of keeping track of examples in the field in the most current way, and in managing expectations.
Most reporters who contact us begin with a focus on orchestras’ challenges. In response, we have to be transparent and acknowledge challenging realities, but we also provide a balance by pointing out what is positive and encouraging. We cannot control what they publish, but we can seek ways of expressing things so that we put the field’s best foot forward without sacrificing our credibility.
AD: How would you describe our “best foot?”
JK: We talk about the positive changes orchestras are making to stay strong for the future, new approaches to finding new audiences and new revenue. We showcase creativity, such as promoting the NEA and ASCAP grants for innovative programming, by putting out our own press releases. We also emphasize the vast variety and range of orchestras, and the ways they are making a difference in people’s lives. For the 10th anniversary of 9/11 we collected information on what orchestras were doing across the country to commemorate the event and put out a national release.
AD: How does the League make use of social media and the Internet?
JK: In addition to our very robust website, the League puts out the Hub for members, we have Twitter and Facebook accounts, and we publish SymphonyNOW, a weekly online magazine about orchestras that is available to the public. The impetus for creating SymphonyNOW was to increase news reportage of orchestras at a time when arts coverage is being cut back. We also contact the individual orchestras we feature to ask them to tweet out the story or write about it on Facebook.
The other big piece of my job, which I do in collaboration with Heather [Noonan, VP of Advocacy], is working to improve the public perception of orchestras. When I first came to the League four years ago everyone had their own agenda about what is “better PR.” So we did some perception research with the public, and found some big gaps between how orchestras view themselves and how the public views them. Orchestras tend to focus almost exclusively on the quality of the art form. Our research showed that quality is seen as a given, but that people measure the true value of our art form based on how much of the community is able to hear it. Orchestras still are perceived as elitist, catering to people with limousines and tuxedos, and this is hurting us in many ways, because the perception does not match up with the reality of what orchestras are doing every day to strengthen their communities. Heather can speak about how this image affects government policy, and we also hear it from our non-profit colleagues. There is even concern about whether the arts, particularly orchestras, deserve to be classified as non-profits – the thinking is that we charge a lot for tickets and we reach mostly wealthy people, so why should we get the same tax breaks as social service agencies? It’s an urgent challenge for us correct the perception of orchestras, what they do, and who they serve.
We also found there is definitely a lag in awareness of the things orchestras are doing differently these days. For example, we know that many orchestras are focusing on innovative ways to work in the community, but there’s very little knowledge of that work in the public arena.
AD: How are you working to change that perception?
JK: In addition to what we communicate ourselves, the League is working to help orchestras understand this information and develop ways to communicate about what they are doing to reach a broader audience. We have created a messaging framework and toolkit to help orchestras communicate their public value. A national group of nonprofits has already showcased ours as a best practice in the field.
AD: What do you mean by “messaging framework?”
JK: A messaging framework is a set of overarching statements that you use to communicate key messages, supported with examples and data. For example, one of those messages is about how orchestras contribute to education. But it is also important to show why that matters to the community. In this case, we begin by observing that ‘lifelong learning is essential in the 21st century.” Our corresponding public value statement is that “orchestras provide and champion lifelong musical experiences and participation in the creative process.” Of course there are lots of different ways to illustrate that message, and lots of different channels for getting it out. We hope that having a unified framework will help orchestras to both communicate and act in a more focused way to serve their communities.
The messaging framework is part of a Public Value Toolkit – a set of resources we have been developing with a few pilot orchestras. We’re working with orchestras in a range of sizes (e.g., Texarkana, Vermont, Los Angeles, Boston, Utah, Toledo, Pacific, Pittsburgh) – all of these orchestras have either had to make the case for public value or are concerned about it. For example, Vermont was lobbying against a tax on tickets. LA was focused on the public value story with their community work inspired by El Sistema.
We’re also focused on engaging orchestras’ boards of directors in thinking about community roles, because it takes an organization-wide commitment for community engagement work to be taken seriously by the community. Programs that are effective involve the music director and the artistic side of the organization as deeply as the administrative side. Communications staffs need to broaden their focus beyond selling tickets, to thinking about other connection messages that more accurately convey the breadth of what orchestras offer their communities.
AD: From your perspective, how would you describe educational activities in our field?
JK: Orchestras’ commitment to education has increased enormously in the past ten years. This includes doing things that go beyond the stage – for people who don’t or cannot get to the concert halls – but the information about these initiatives may not be showing up in the press. Social media is a new opportunity for us, and one of the communications goals of the League is to create a story bank, an online collection of narratives about what orchestras are doing. The story bank can be text, audio, video – whatever works – that we can share via social media.
It’s also important to get beyond discussion of excellence. People want to know who you are reaching with your artistic programs. So it’s important to stress not only what you’re doing artistically, but also what the experience feels like to audiences.
AD: How do you respond when you get a request for a statement regarding a specific orchestra?
JK: We contact orchestras before we respond to reporters. Before we talk to a journalist we confirm with our member orchestra that it’s a legitimate journalist; that the orchestra is aware that this journalist is writing about them, and what specifics about the situation we need to be aware of. We want to present an accurate national picture and to display orchestras in the best possible light.
Heather Noonan, Vice President for Advocacy
Ann Drinan: How long have you been with the League?
Heather Noonan: I began at the League in 1996, a time of intense political pressure at the federal level. The National Endowment for the Arts and arts education funding were on the chopping block. Since then, the League’s policy efforts and our participation in a broad network of coalition efforts, have flexed and grown with ongoing and evolving policy challenges.
AD: How would you describe what you do in terms of representing orchestras to the government?
HN: There is so much diversity among our field of members, that there is a great breadth in the range of policy issues that affect the capacity of orchestras to serve their communities. Our job in Washington is to be alert to policy developments that could impact orchestras, their audiences, and their communities, and to be an effective voice in representing the diverse range of US orchestras. We also provide resources to help orchestras be effective advocates in their own communities. And, we provide technical assistance to help orchestras navigate federal policies, such as the U.S. artist visa process and compliance with nonprofit regulations.
Our primary role is to advocate on behalf of orchestras to Congress, the White House, and to Federal agencies. This advocacy encompasses policies that are wide ranging – basically we deal with any policy issue at the Federal level that could impact orchestras. A few are obvious: funding and research for education, NEA funding, and FAA regulations – we want musicians to be able to travel comfortably and reliably with their instruments.
Other issues we are pursuing include establishing a visa policy that permits international musicians to come and go easily for concerts, and the continuation of the benefits of tax exempt status for orchestras. The latter is a huge issue for nonprofit cultural organizations right now. The largest form of federal support for orchestras is their nonprofit status, including the deductability of charitable contributions and tax exemption. The government is considering reexamining which organizations are worthy of being tax exempt, while also considering reducing tax incentives for charitable giving. Given that roughly 40% of orchestra revenue comes from private contributions, nonprofit status is essential to enabling orchestras to serve their communities. It’s imperative that cultural and arts organizations make a compelling argument in support of their tax exempt status.
We also work on a few surprising episodic issues, such as endangered species legislation. This is an issue for orchestras because some musicians travel with instruments and bows made from endangered-species wood. Disaster relief is another – in the past, performing arts organizations were ineligible for FEMA relief, so the League joined others in advocating for improved policies in 2008 that makes them eligible. The Nashville Symphony was among the first to access FEMA support when their hall was flooded in 2010. We obviously hope that no one will ever need to avail themselves of FEMA support, but Nashville was able to tap into considerable Federal funding to help them reopen Schermerhorn Hall, thanks to the 2008 policy change.
AD: When you’re not advocating on the Hill for a specific policy, how do you spend your time?
HN: We must be constantly aware of the policy environment to be aware of what might be coming up. This vigilance gives us the opportunity to act proactively in support of cultural organizations. The League is active in a wide range of coalition efforts with groups such as Independent Sector, the Arts Education Partnership, and the Performing Arts Alliance.
AD: How closely do you work with Hal Ponder, Director of Government Relations for the AFM?
HN: All of the League’s advocacy work is done in partnership with other cultural and nonprofit organizations. Among the wide range of partners with whom we work, the AFM is pivotal for the League. Coincidentally, our offices are two floors apart in the same building. Hal and I spend a good bit of time together in meetings, mapping out priorities, and some of our best strategic conversations happen as we share cabs to the Hill.
AD: What issues have you partnered on recently?
HN: The artists’ visa issue has been a major initiative of the League and the AFM, over the course of many years. The League leads a coalition of arts organizations to advance our visa policy – we have collectively been effective over time in gaining significant improvements. The AFM has been leading efforts to improve FAA regulations – the League has partnered with the AFM on that effort, lending support and joining in advocacy efforts. It’s very much a shared agenda. .
AD: How much time do you spend on Capitol Hill?
HN: It really varies. Part of League’s work is to be in the Congressional and Federal offices, in front of the policy makers. We also work to equip orchestras to be effective advocates for these issues – it’s important that politicians hear directly from their constituents. We coordinate issues so that orchestras can make their case when their representatives are back in the district.
AD: How would you describe your years with the League?
HN: It’s been fascinating to be at the League over the years and see policy concerns cycle through. When the economy gets tight, the question is, “Do the arts rank among the policy priorities?” It can be a challenging assignment to prove our case. Over the past 16 years, I’ve learned a great deal from the full range of stakeholders within our membership of orchestras. Their inspiring work at the community level makes it extremely fulfilling to represent them in federal policy discussions.
While I’ve been at the League for quite a while, over the years, the cast of characters inside the beltway changes – there’s always a new wave of people coming to DC. And the new people come in with a lot of energy. Sometimes we align with them, and obviously sometimes not. Bridging the differences is an ongoing challenge!
Robert Sandla, Editor-in-Chief, Symphony Magazine
Ann Drinan: Tell me about Symphony magazine. How long have you been editor?
Robert Sandla: I’ve been with Symphony magazine for four years – since 2007. The magazine is published quarterly, and is both print and online. We have four people on staff working on Symphony and our other publications. Since the print edition of the magazine has a focused distribution, we started putting the whole thing online when I arrived, so that it is freely available to everyone.
The notion with that is to spread the word about orchestras and their activities as widely as possible. Symphony is certainly a trade publication – we run serious articles, interviews, provocative essays, the latest research about the orchestra field – but we hope that there is something of interest to anyone who loves orchestras and classical music in every issue. We report on developments within the orchestra field, but we also want to showcase the central role orchestras can play in the larger cultural conversation.
AD: What do you publish online besides the actual magazine?
RS: SymphonyNOW is a weekly online publication about orchestras and the classical music scene that we launched just a year ago. By creating an online publication, we can get stories out into the world right away. When Matt Haimovitz performed in Zuccotti Park as part of Occupy Wall Street, we interviewed him about why he wanted to appear there, and what he thought his music had to contribute to that movement. We use video, sound clips, and photo galleries to capture orchestras and classical music in surprising ways. We publish original feature articles and videos that are both serious and inspiring and also lighter in tone. We include pithy quotes from the press, and links to other sites. SymphonyNOW has one or two new features a week, plus a blog by Jesse Rosen, the League’s President and CEO.
We publish a broader variety of stories on SymphonyNOW than in the magazine because anyone can read it and their interests may not be so specialized. A rising tide lifts all boats – the more editorial coverage of orchestras and musicians there is online, the better. Do a Google search for “orchestra” or “symphony” and more information will show up about a huge range of orchestras and musicians because of outlets like SymphonyNOW; more activity online means that more people can encounter the work that orchestras are doing.
We also publish the Hub website every day; it aggregates news stories, press coverage, information about the orchestra field. The Hub is available only to members of the League, and it provides a wealth of information for people working in this industry.
AD: How do you find your stories?
RS: We talk to a lot of people. We monitor the scene as it happens. We take notice of what’s on the Hub site – much like Arts Journal, we pick up five or six important news items about orchestras every day for the Hub, so over the course of a year we will have reviewed thousands of articles about orchestras. We find out what arts organizations are saying about themselves. We look at the broader cultural and economic scene. We use League information and resources, general news, trend spotting, and talking to people from all over the orchestra field.
Not every article will appear to be about the art of music-making, but all are informed by some of the latest thinking in the field, so they’re in alignment.
We feel an obligation to cover all orchestras, of all sizes. The larger orchestras have their own professional PR staff, so working with them is pretty straightforward, while working with smaller orchestras takes a different approach. If I were to step back and list the names of all the orchestras in this issue of Symphony, well, it’s all over the map – literally. We really try and devote space to all types of orchestras – to spread the wealth.
We’re paying attention to the industry – we cover various things as they emerge and follow trends. For example, we wrote about Kickstarter before everyone knew about it. It’s not huge for orchestras but it’s interesting, and a new development. We wrote about orchestras performing in unusual venues like Le Poisson Rouge and other places exactly seventeen-and-a-half minutes before other publications took notice.
AD: How do you make your editorial decisions about what to cover?
RS: We cover things very seriously because we want to have all sides of a story. We look at things thoughtfully and carefully. Take Detroit – it was a tough situation from all sides, but we stay above the fray. The Hub had 40 or 50 items over time about Detroit that gave you the arc of the whole situation, from multiple perspectives. And when we published an in-depth feature article about Detroit, our reporters did the stuff they were supposed to do – they included statements from management and from musicians. Both parties were represented in our coverage. We do publish editorials but we carefully state that this article is someone’s personal opinion.
The Spring issue of Symphony has an article about Detroit one year later – where do things stand? How are they doing? Is the situation improved, sustainable? We are committed to candor because credibility is important to us.
AD: Is Symphony intended basically for orchestra managers?
RS: It’s a publication that covers orchestras. Musicians are the lifeblood of orchestras, so the magazine covers many topics that should be of prime interest to musicians. The January issue featured an emerging artists piece – we asked a roundtable of young musicians to talk about their concerns as they make the shift from the conservatory into the profession. We ran an article in which an orchestra manager and a musician who is also a union leader offered contrasting viewpoints on the future of orchestras. Bruce Ridge wrote a thoughtful and provocative essay for us. We have run articles about artistic issues, about the shifting demographics of audiences, about the spate of new concert halls and performing arts centers, about the different ways orchestras large and small are connecting with audiences – all of which, I would think, are of interest to people who work in this field. And since there are no orchestras without musicians, we feature lots of musicians both inside the magazine and on our covers, and we have lots more diversity, in terms of both ethnicity and gender. We aim to let many voices be heard.
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