10/8/09 – Plymouth Record Enterprise

Published in the Plymouth Record Enterprise October 8, 2009

NHMF forges ahead with controversial changes

Marcia Morris

For 57 years, the New Hampshire Music Festival (NHMF) has been a highlight of the summer season for Lakes Region residents and vacationers alike.  A deeply loyal local New Hampshire audience has grown up around the popular classical concert series. But increasingly over the past few years, the winds of change have begun to blow over the formerly idyllic summer music season. A growing tension has arisen between patrons and musicians who say that there is something very special about the Festival exactly the way it is, and a determined Festival management that wants to pursue a new artistic vision. Management believes that an alternative approach to making music, one that emphasizes the energy that comes from working with younger, aspiring musicians and a new “collaborative” style will bring in a new generation of audience members.

At issue however, are the jobs of many of the Festival’s talented professional musicians, many of whom have been playing with the Orchestra for decades and are highly experienced members of some of the most prestigious world class orchestras in the country.

What little accord appeared to have been achieved after a difficult summer of discussions between musicians and management of the New Hampshire Music Festival, has thoroughly evaporated in the wake of a finalized version of a personnel policy for the 2010 season which was received by orchestra members last week. 

In an anonymous online poll taken September 29, Festival musicians overwhelmingly registered their objections to the offered terms of the personnel policy for the upcoming summer season by a vote of 59 against, 3 in favor. It was the clearest indication yet of the deep rift between musicians and management over the future direction of the Festival. The Musicians have until October 30 to decide whether they would like to “opt in” to employment for the 2010 season.

However the policy goes on to say that only 20 of the 59 “eligible” incumbent musicians will be offered full-time six-week appointments.  An additional 25 incumbent musicians will be offered from one to four weeks of employment on a part-time basis, with 20 new “non-incumbent” musicians being brought in full-time to expand the orchestra, and 5 to 8 distinguished student musicians added to the roster. An additional 10 musicians will be put on the substitute list. 

According to the management statement, the 20 new non-incumbent musicians will be distributed throughout the Orchestra “to ensure that each section of instruments have a sufficient participation of these musicians who are experienced in the collaborative model we are implementing.” According to the statement, the money to enable the expansion of the orchestra comes from a “generous gift” given explicitly to promote the new artistic vision for the Festival.

According to the “solicitation letter” to musicians received with the personnel policy, the Festival management remains “firmly committed to changing the artistic model of the Festival going forward”, despite concerns raised by patrons, donors and musicians about the potential damage from a dismantling of the existing Orchestra.  Furthermore, the statement makes it clear that musician’s continued employment with the Festival in the future will depend not just on technical proficiency, as in the past, but critically also upon a musician’s ability and willingness to mentor students under the requirement of the new artistic vision, and a demonstrated commitment to the new collaborative model in behavior and attitude during the course of the season. 

In a statement issued by the musicians this week (see Op/Ed page), the Orchestra Committee expressed concern over the continued erosion in the numbers of incumbent musicians that will effectively be able to return to the Festival for the 2010 season, and the complete lack of security for any of the incumbent musicians in ensuing years.

Controversy over the treatment of the professional orchestra members erupted during the 2009 summer performances when management proposed a scheme to have all Festival musicians undergo a “re-application” for their seats for the 2010 season.  Audience members joined a “purple ribbon” campaign during performances in solidarity with musicians.  While the re-application requirement was subsequently dropped during discussions between the orchestra committee and management, concern about the future composition of the orchestra has continued, with fans and donors increasingly concerned over the anticipated loss of so many beloved veteran Festival musicians.

Reached for comment earlier this week, Orchestra Committee members expressed dismay over developments, emphasizing the great value of the special bond the musicians feel for with the Plymouth area and the Lakes Region and the importance of relationships that have grown amongst musicians, their families and local community members over decades of regular summer concert seasons.   They expressed a deep appreciation for the loyal support of the Festival audience members over so many successful seasons.

Disgruntled patrons have formed an organization, dubbed SOON, or Save Our Orchestra Now,  and are deeply concerned and conflicted about how to respond to the current dilemma, with many planning not to renew their subscriptions for the 2010 season and others contemplating withholding financial contributions if the management does not seem to be more responsive to patrons’ concerns.  But it is not clear how that will impact the future of the Festival

For their part, NHMF management insists that planned changes stem from a dedicated pursuit of “greater artistic excellence” and they are confident that in the end, they will create a new level of excitement for musicians and patrons and help to boost ticket sales.