(The New Hampshire Music Festival Controversy
Commentary From A109 (Cheapest Seat in the House)
Editor’s note: This article was written by Stephen Tessler, retired English teacher and department chair at Winnisquam Regional High School. Mr.Tessler lives in Sanbornton and has been attending the Festival’s concerts for 30 years.
Since the beginning of the summer, the New Hampshire Music Festival has written some well-crafted explanations for its planned overhaul of the summer concert series. The explanations are based on three principles, all valid:
The Festival needs to improve its overall financial situation.
The Festival needs to maintain and expand its audience.
The Festival needs “to take a good organization and make it better” because “you are improving and growing or slowly dying.” (Letter addressed to the NHMF family, October 14, 2009)
How could anyone (especially those concert-goers who love the Festival) disagree with those principles?
And yet, a majority of concert-goers have expressed their displeasure with the Board’s plans by wearing purple ribbons, by writing angry letters, and by organizing themselves into an opposition group.
The audience applauds the Board’s principles, yet condemns the Board’s actions.
“Change is essential for the financial stability of the Festival.”
– David Graham, President and C.E.O., New Hampshire Music Festival
Mr. Graham is right.
He claims that “Word-of-mouth, or community buzz, has always been our best advertising and it has been missing for several years.”
But Graham’s next sentence is confusing:
“This is why we are transitioning to a more engaging model.”
Where did that come from? The reader expected some kind of reasonable follow-up to the word-of-mouth problem, something like, “This is why we are resuming the marketing campaign we had abandoned several years ago.”
OR, “Several years ago, we discontinued the promos on NHPR, stopped placing posters in local store fronts, and eliminated the Friends of The Festival (a volunteer group). Clearly those actions affected the community buzz essential for the Festival’s financial security. This is why we are resuming all those promotional activities.”
OR, “Our classical music concerts generate the kind of enthusiasm seldom seen even at more famous venues like Tanglewood. Our New Hampshire audiences jump to their feet, shout ‘Bravo!’ and applaud until their hands hurt. If ticket sales are going down, we are doing something wrong. Therefore, we are embarking on a public relations campaign to tell the whole state about the world-class music festival in their back yard.”
But Graham proposes NONE of those reasonable solutions.
Incredibly, “Transitioning to a more engaging model” is not only Graham’s best solution; it’s his only solution.
Here’s his argument:
We discontinued our marketing and public relations strategies several years ago.
Word of mouth, “community buzz” declined.
Ticket sales declined.
“This is why we are transitioning to a more engaging model.”
Even if the logic were less tortured, “transitioning to a more engaging model” wouldn’t make sense under ANY circumstance.
First, if audiences are jumping and shouting and applauding at the end of every concert, they are already “engaged.” Their emotional response to the orchestra (and the present “model”) is too powerful, too explosive, to be constrained within their seated bodies. How much more engaged can they be?
Second, the new model is an experiment in collaborative music-making where smaller orchestras (like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra) rehearse and perform without a conductor. However, the new model has never been tried with large, seasonal orchestras. The Festival management has admitted more than once that the new model will have a rocky start. For example, in a letter to subscribers (July 1, 2009), Graham cautions that for several years, “We will not have the complete dramatic impact that [we] believe is eventually possible.” Here’s Management’s awkward position:
It is asking the audience to be patient while the experimental collaborative model fulfills its potential.
It is charging the audience top-dollar ticket prices for an incomplete, work-in-progress that will not (for several years) have the same dramatic impact they have come to expect.
Shifting the Blame (A: To the Orchestra)
At the beginning of the season the musicians learned that, for the first time in the Festival’s history, all of them would be dismissed at the end of the season unless they successfully completed an entry-level re-application procedure. The process provided for no evaluation of their skills as musicians in the Festival orchestra; instead, the process required each musician to submit recordings and to write three essays demonstrating the musician’s allegiance to management’s new artistic model.
Responding to outraged subscribers, Festival management soon dropped the re-application requirement. However, for the rest of the season, the musicians were strangers in a strange land.
According to one musician, the Festival had always been “without a doubt, the most refreshing musical experience of my lifetime . . . During six weeks every summer, a conductor, orchestra, and audience come together in a perfect kismet of artistic unity . . . Such mutual appreciation, and on such a deeply personal level, is amazing.”
Last summer, mutual appreciation and even mutual respect disappeared. Letters from the Festival office continued to address the Festival community as the “New Hampshire Music Festival Family,” but the most beloved members of the family, the musicians, were being thrown out of the house. A year ago (and for years before that), Management and the Board of Directors praised the orchestra’s performances as “exciting,” “brilliant,” or “mesmerizing” This year (in an August meeting with representatives from SOON), the Board called those very same performances pedestrian.
Worst of all, management issued public statements implying that the musicians, not management, were responsible for the Festival’s financial problems. According to a letter signed by the Board co-chairs, “Declining financials drive the decision to address the artistic product.” By criticizing the “artistic product” instead of evaluating its own management, the Board was blaming the orchestra for problems the orchestra had nothing to do with.
The musicians, not Festival management, would take the fall for mismanaged Festival finances and marketing strategies.
Shifting the Blame (B: To the Audience)
Early rumors that the orchestra might be disbanded at the end of the summer gained credibility during the first concert: the audience learned that all of the musicians’ contracts would be non-renewed at the end of the season.
Management’s attempts to allay audience anxiety backfired. Statements like, “We will continue to have a resident orchestra at the New Hampshire Music Festival” were especially unsettling: The audience was not interested in “a resident orchestra”; it wanted its own orchestra. (After hearing rumors that the Red Sox were planning a move to Sacramento, would any New Englander be reassured by a similar statement: “We will continue to have a resident ball-club at Fenway Park”?)
To show their solidarity with the Festival orchestra, a few members of the audience showed up at the second concert wearing the same purple ribbons of protest worn by the musicians. As a way of mobilizing other similarly minded subscribers, that initial group formed an organization it called Save Our Orchestra Now (SOON). As more people heard about the organization, SOON grew and attendance at its weekly meetings filled the Episcopal church across the street from the Silver Arts Center.
In a few weeks, most people in the audience were wearing purple ribbons.
SOON tried to convince Festival management how strongly the audience objected to the new proposal, pointing out that the “collaborative model” would not solve the financial problems we all agreed needed to be solved, and that sacrificing the orchestra for such a risky adventure might destroy the Festival.
Instead of responding to the audience’s specific objections, Festival management made SOON another scapegoat for the Festival’s problems.
On October 13, Mr. Graham, the Festival’s president and CEO, issued a warning to the musicians. In a cover letter attached to the Festival’s Personnel Policy, he cautioned them to stay away from SOON, saying “if musicians continued to support SOON’s efforts to undermine the Festival’s development efforts, we could fall short in raising the money that would be necessary to fund the positions we outlined in the Personnel Policy.”
Once again, the Festival president was refusing to accept the consequences of his decisions. Contributors are re-evaluating their yearly donations because they strongly object to the planned overhaul of an organization they’ve always supported. They do not need SOON’s intervention (or anyone else’s) to think twice before contributing money to an organization that seems recklessly mismanaged.
Any responsible business manager should have foreseen how donors might hesitate before contributing to an untried and risky venture. If the Festival didn’t acknowledge that likely possibility, then its management was shortsighted.
Towards the end of his cover letter to the musicians, Mr. Graham turns his warning into a threat: “We are aware that some incumbent musicians continue to work to support SOON and the objectives it stands for and continue to criticize the new direction the Festival has chosen to take. As we proceed to implement the Personnel Policy, we reserve the right to fairly evaluate whether those musicians seeking employment in the summer 2010 season can be expected to support the Festival and the new direction it is taking based on all the circumstances.”
In other words, if you continue to support SOON, a group whose sole reason for existence is to support the orchestra and the Festival, you might lose your job.
The Festival is facing a financial crisis because its management has made catastrophic financial, artistic, and marketing decisions. The Festival Board needs to reexamine its budget priorities (e.g., administrative expenses that are twice as high as the national norm, an exciting but ever-expanding building project that may be impossible to fund over the long run) and it needs to resume a marketing and public relations strategy that lets the secret out: the New Hampshire Music Festival is more thrilling, more magical, and just a little less sophisticated than national music festivals in Tanglewood, New York, or Aspen.
And our festival is just a short, beautiful drive up the road.
Yes, the Festival can be improved. A few of the musicians may need to be replaced. The string section needs to be expanded. Some of the programming has become repetitious. Most of the Pops concerts are not selling well.
However, the New Hampshire Music Festival audience (80% of whom were wearing purple ribbons at last season’s final concert) is begging the Festival to reject the complete overhaul proposed by an administration trying to escape the disastrous consequences of its mismanagement. Instead of addressing the source of each of the Festival’s problems, management’s plan blames the Festival orchestra as the source of all its problems. Change the orchestra and its “model,” and the financial problems will solve themselves.
That argument is absurd, dishonest, and just plain dumb.