Keith Johnson to NHMF Board

August 3, 2009

Board of Directors
New Hampshire Music Festival
52 Symphony Lane
Center Harbor, NH 03226

Dear Board Members:

I am writing to give you an overview of developments that have taken place since last summer within the New Hampshire Music Festival in order to clarify for you views commonly held by members of the Festival Orchestra.  It hardly needs saying that the past year has been a difficult one for members of the Orchestra and for the Board as well.

First of all, we would like to express to you our thanks for your efforts on behalf of the Festival, including your generous financial support and your attendance at Festival concerts.  We are not unmindful of the time and labor you devote to your responsibilities.

If you will permit me, I would like to share with you a brief history of the Festival’s relationship between its orchestral players and Festival management, including the board, over the more than four decades with which I have been associated with the Festival.

In the early, struggling stages of the NHMF all matters tended to be handled informally, and since the number of people involved as players and management was relatively small, the lines of communication were casual and direct.  This easy and open style evolved of necessity as the Festival grew in budget, number of programs, and the  number of people involved.  Yet we were, at least for many years, able to keep an open and collaborative approach between management and employees in determining program and personnel matters as well as other work related issues.  Players and board members were on a first name basis in most cases, and members of the orchestra were frequent guests in the homes of board members.  There was a strong sense of shared stewardship in the success of the Festival. There are a number of instances in which children of Festival musicians have been named in honor of board members or Festival employees.

While it may be naïve to presume that such informality might continue as the Festival developed, it was hoped that the cordial and open communication that proved so productive might be maintained.

In the minds of many of the orchestral players, a change has evolved over the past two decades during which there seems to have been a decided attempt to create separation between players and board members/management. The orchestra committee has asked on several occasions to meet with the board, but in each instance the request was refused.

In the summer of 2008 an orchestra committee met twice with members of management.  The first meeting was held in Plymouth on July 22, 2008 between David Graham and the Committee (Valerie Watts, Chair, John Fetter, Keith Johnson and Corey Smith [alternate] ).  During this meeting David Graham made the following points to the orchestra:

The Festival in 2009 would be as was in 2008 in all substantive matters.

Paul Polivnick would conduct all classical concerts in 2009.

All aspects of the Festival were “on the table” for review.

Details regarding future changes would be sent to members of the orchestra no later than late fall of     2008.

A subsequent meeting was held on August 5, 2008. Attending from management were David Graham, Edward McLear and The Rev’d Michael Graham and for the orchestra, Valerie Watts, John Fetter and Keith Johnson. The commitments made at the meeting of July 22, 2008 were restated, and an additional commitment was made following a discussion in which management informed the orchestra committee that changes were under consideration regarding the artistic purpose and structure of the Festival.  The orchestra committee was assured that:

An artistic advisory subcommittee of the Board of Directors was studying many possible     directions in which to take the Festival but that the musicians of the orchestra committee would be given an opportunity to have input regarding the subcommittee’s recommendations before any final decision was made.

In point of fact, the actual actions taken by management were as follows:

1) The number of Classical Series concerts was reduced by fifty percent. The number of “Pops”     concerts was doubled. The choral conductor of more than forty years was notified in December     2008     that his services would not be needed for the 2009 season, and the chorus that had been an integral part     of the Festival for more than fifty plus years was dropped. The orchestra librarian was not rehired, and     no replacement was hired until after the resulting chaos at rehearsals during this season’s opening week     forced management to hire someone.

2) Paul Polivnick was relieved of his conducting duties except for the opening concert of the 2009     season and a replaced by a series of young guest conductors.

3) “ALL” aspects of the Festival were not reviewed.  There was, so far as anyone outside the Board     knows, NO systematic review of the administrative structure including financial     management,     productivity or development and publicity efforts.  Only artistic matters appear to have been under     scrutiny.

The first information members of the orchestra received regarding the proposed changes to the very structure and nature of the Festival was in a letter to the musicians dated July 1, 2009.  

NEVER at any time during the course of the 2008-2009 year did any member
of the orchestra or of the orchestra committee receive ANY communication regarding the drastic changes which were presented in the letter to the orchestra of July 1, 2009.

When asked why there had been no communication as promised to the orchestra committee, management stated that it was because the orchestra had chosen to seek collective bargaining through the American Federation of Musicians.  There is simply no connection between the Festival’s stated promise to communicate to the musicians and any efforts by the orchestra to consider a collective bargaining agreement as allowed by Federal law.  There was no legal agreement between members of the orchestra and the AF of M during the past year, and any implied or inferred representation of such by any party is incorrect.

As members of the board are no doubt aware, the Festival’s management and the orchestra committee representing the full Festival orchestra have been meeting frequently throughout the 2009 summer Festival season.  The meetings have been marked by cordial, respectful and open discussion, and there are signs that we are making some slender progress even though no items have actually been finalized as of this date.

The discussions have thus far concerned primarily matters of termination, re-application and employment, the number of players considered to constitute the core orchestra, developing an equitable evaluation system, and the possible loss of professional musicians who would be supplanted by student performers and the likely resulting loss of musical quality.
It would be a dereliction of our responsibility not to mention the orchestra’s deep concern as to whether current management has thoroughly thought through the specific challenges their radical ideas for changing “how music is created in the 21st century” will actually be implemented.  We are very concerned that management’s ideas could ultimately result in the demise of the New Hampshire Music Festival.  US orchestras are among the most respected in the world, and only one major symphony orchestra, the Pittsburg Symphony, has ever made a serious attempt at a so-called “collaborative” model.  They abandoned it after an earnest but unsuccessful trial period.  

Members of the Festival orchestra have distributed NHMF management’s proposals to professional musicians in leading orchestras and music schools throughout the US, and the responses have been negative.  

There have also been subtle and some not so subtle suggestions that the quality of the NHMF orchestra needs to be higher.  While striving for higher quality is always appropriate, the question that begs to be answered is just how bringing student musicians into the orchestra to replace experienced professional performers would elevate performance quality.  

It might also prove instructive to members of the board to know the names of the many distinguished orchestras and music schools from which current and former members of the NHMF orchestra have been drawn or to which Festival players have matriculated.


San Francisco Symphony
Pittsburgh Symphony Concertgebouw Orkest
Berlin Philharmonic
Chicago Symphony
Boston Symphony
Cleveland Orchestra
National Symphony
Metropolitan Opera
Dallas Opera
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Seattle Symphony
New York Philharmonic
New York City Opera
Chicago Lyric Opera
Alabama Symphony
Minnesota Orchestra
Milwaukee Symphony
Phoenix Symphony
Detroit Symphony
Rochester Philharmonic
Buffalo Philharmonic
Kansas City Symphony
Nashville Symphony
Des Moines Symphony
Boise Symphony
Indianapolis Symphony
St. Louis Symphony
Columbus Symphony
Houston Symphony
Monte Carlo Symphony
San Francisco Opera
Los Angeles Opera
Oklahoma Symphony
Akron Symphony
Tulsa Philharmonic

Music School Faculty Members:

University of North Texas
Indiana University
University of Illinois
University of Michigan
New England Conservatory
University of Southern California
Peabody Conservatory
University of Wisconsin
University of Alabama
Miami University
University of Iowa
University of Oklahoma
Oberlin College Conservatory

I have long found it noteworthy that of the many players who have worked in such orchestras, almost to a person each will tell you that his or her favorite job was working for Tom Nee or Paul Polivnick in the New Hampshire Music Festival Orchestra.

Perhaps the most important factor in considering the current state of the New Hampshire Music Festival is what role our devoted patrons and contributors play in the Festival.  Their attendance is of great importance and is directly tied to the financial viability of the Festival’s future.  The enthusiasm the audiences show not only by their attendance but also by their response to performances is a strong indicator of the Festival’s success with its traditional artistic mission.  Many are dismayed that the new hall currently under consideration may be configured in such a way as to prohibit a full sized orchestra and chorus from performing there, severely limiting artistic efforts.  

We have heard numerous comments from management about the decline in attendance throughout the country at orchestral performances as well as here in New Hampshire.  What we have not heard much about are the places where, even in these difficult economic times, concerts, operas and recitals are very successful, some wildly so.  In my metropolitan community, the Dallas Symphony plays regularly to full houses; the new $300 million Winspear Opera house  (In the interest of full disclosure I am a member of the Dallas Opera Orchestra.) is completely sold out for the next two years; the Ft. Worth Symphony plays to full and enthusiastic houses and programs a substantial amount of exciting new music from Latin and South America.  The list goes on: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Cleveland.  The formula for a musical institution’s success requires three things:

Choose fine music.
Play it well.
Aggressively market the product.

If the New Hampshire Music Festival Board wants the Festival to continue to improve in product, audience participation and national recognition we urge you to support your musicians, engage a Music Director of the talent, vision and humanity that both Thomas Nee and Paul Polivnick brought to the Festival, and insure that any facility constructed for the Festival’s musical performances is suitable for the kind of performances it will showcase.

The New Hampshire Music Festival has had a long, distinguished and at times, challenging history.  What we need is a close look at our resources, our infrastructure and our commitment to present fine music played by dedicated, talented performers supported by management’s best efforts to let our part of the world know about the treasure that is the New Hampshire Music Festival.

Thank you again for your efforts on behalf of this Festival that means so much to all of us.


Keith Johnson
Co-principal Trumpet, NHMF &
Regents Professor of Trumpet
College of Music
The University of North Texas
Denton, Texas