11/26/09 – Anonymous Letter

Anyone likely to read this knows that humanity is an essential aspect of the arts. When performances work, both players and audience feel the connections between artists performing together. What sets live performances apart, beyond the acoustical differences, and the real-time potential for unexpected nuance, is the awareness that real human beings who enjoy what they do are recreating great examples of human achievement. Audiences know this. They also like knowing the performers a bit as people. In a sense, it is the collective soul of the performers that makes the process attractive.

One of the reasons NHMF has been a special experience for so many people is that Tom Nee was able to create an atmosphere of mutual love and respect that was transformational. The tradition of personal connections between orchestra members and the orchestra’s audience continued after Tom left. I had the extreme good fortune to play in the NHMF orchestra. I treasure those memories, and, like many of my colleagues, would rank the opportunity to play in a fine orchestra, whose members are uniquely committed to excellence, as the primary reason for being there.

I live and teach in New Hampshire. I am personally appalled by the disrespect evidenced by the management of the NHMF, especially for the musicians, but also for their donors and audience members. David Graham has personally taken a fine New Hampshire tradition and, under the guise of “improvement,” created an atmosphere so polluted by duplicity and deceit that I hope in the future it will be presented as a great example of the worst form of management. The musicians’ website tells the story, and I would particularly refer to Keith Johnson’s excellent summary as well as Deb Stuart’s letter expressing her concerns about educational programs.

While I find the treatment of the musicians of the festival beyond contempt, I would like for a moment to address a more personal concern. Several years ago, I received a fund-raising letter from NHMF, the first I had heard for a very long time regarding the building project that had been planned beginning with the purchase of the Red Hill Inn in 2001. What concerned me was the assertion that contributing to this project was essentially going to provide music education for the children of the NH Lakes Region. The festival website states that they have raised $10,000,000 for this project.

I am not unfamiliar with the concept that big donors get more excited about building projects than they do about sustaining the work of musicians and teachers. But in a state like New Hampshire, that’s a lot of money. I agree with Deb Stuart that there has been an attempt to inflate the perception of the current educational offerings of the festival. I work in music education, and have watched as financial aid funding has dwindled with the declining economy. Even a small fraction of that $10 million would have made a huge difference to a lot of kids who can no longer afford lessons. Claiming that contributions to this building project will serve the kids of New Hampshire was blatantly manipulative and deceptive. It would be interesting to know the population of school-age children in the Lakes Region in the winter and to figure out how many musical services could be provided for them with that kind of money. It is not difficult to figure out the real purpose of this building project, but it’s hard to justify that kind of spending for a six-week festival.

Which brings me to blatant speculation. My view of what happened at NHMF is that this grandiose building project was taking forever to get off the ground. Publicity for the festival season was essentially invisible, and audiences were smaller. For as long as I’ve lived in New England, I have repeatedly had to explain about this wonderful music festival in New Hampshire to everyone – even musicians.)

So how to pull this off? Easy! Deflect attention from organizational issues – blame the quality of the orchestra for low attendance, bring in big guns in the orchestra management world to clean house. After all, you wouldn’t want to put this orchestra in a multi-million dollar facility. Rather than addressing individual personnel issues, make a new plan with new participation requirements. Bring in new players to “teach” the veterans about the new model. Oh, and if they return, make sure to have on-going assessment to make sure they measure up. Who in their right mind would want to work in that environment? What happened to the soul of this festival? As much as I grieve Tom Nee’s death, I’m glad he never had to know about this.

One of the other motivations for replacing the festival orchestra with The Knights (which would seem to have been the cunningly disguised goal from the beginning), would seem to be that Henry and David were bored and wanted more exciting concerts.  Robert Levine has described this goal as unrealistic. In addition, I think it is a mistake to assume that the needs of two men who have been in music management for many years would be the same as those of the audience for the festival’s performances. The challenge of getting people to continue coming to live orchestral concerts is something all orchestras face. I personally believe that a dedication to ensuring that orchestras survive does not mean radically changing the product, but rather educating young people about this music.

Another question that needs to be addressed is how do orchestras ethically deal with aging musicians?  In a culture that idolizes youth, it’s not surprising that a vibrant young group like The Knights would have a lot of appeal. (However, I question whether they would have been willing or able to participate in the NHMF at the salary offered in the past.)  But orchestras also must have respect for experience, and appreciation for the stability and expertise that comes with long-term commitment to an organization. And we need to find a way of providing a better way to allow aging musicians to exit with dignity. The method David and Henry chose was about as heartless and unethical as I can imagine. Given that the festival was able to produce excellent concerts for all these years while paying these musicians a small percentage of what their work was worth, this gutting of the orchestra is beyond reprehensible.