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Reboot in New Hampshire

4 Robert Levine

Apparently the New Hampshire Music Festival is doing a pretty thorough 180-degree turn:

Less than two weeks after abandoning pursuit of a new artistic vision and restructured orchestra, which sparked bitter controversy last summer, the Board of the NH Music Festival shuffled directors and management when it met last week.

Longtime director of the Festival and current chairman of its finance committee, Ron Sibley of Plymouth, yesterday confirmed that after a transition period he will replace Rusty McLear as chairman. At the same time, he said that vice chairman Susan Weatherbie and two other Board members have tendered their resignations.

David Graham, the president of the Festival since 1987, will be leaving his position in May. The Festival has also severed its relationships with Henry Fogel, past president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and dean of the Chicago College of Performing Arts who was engaged as Festival director this spring, and Johnny Gandelsman, the celebrated violinist named artistic director in the summer.

…The Board, Sibley said, also agreed to have the property at Red Hill, which was purchased in 2001 as the site of a future concert hall, appraised with the intention of placing it on the market for sale.

After the change in direction announced a couple of weeks ago, there was little question that there would be a shake-up; the only question was how many of the leaders of the Festival would leave. The answer was “all of them.” Obviously this will make planning this summer’s festival an interesting process. But at least the Board didn’t try to pretend that the leadership could hang on after losing a fight over the fundamental nature of the institution.

Are there lessons in this episode? I see at least two. The first is that collective action can be very powerful. A group of musicians, without access to union protections or the process of collective bargaining, faced down their management and board by doing not much more than raising a public stink about what was being done to them and to the Festival - aided by a group of local citizens without access to much in the way of resources either. Non-profit institutions really don’t like public messes, and for good reason: they are far more dependent on public goodwill than are for-profit enterprises.

The second is that change is very, very hard. What Henry Fogel and David Graham were proposing was pretty radical change; if not exactly the “new model” being discussed within the industry, certainly a very different kind of institution and concert experience than musicians and patrons had known for the previous few decades.

Were they right to do so? Were they right to believe that doing so would fix the Festival’s financial problems? I’m inclined to doubt it. But clearly they didn’t make a sufficiently compelling case to the community that the Festival could only be saved by taking a very different road. It was all too easy to poke holes in their arguments, and their proposals. And I suspect that David Graham, in particular, had insufficient credibility as a manager to claim that he wasn’t part of the reason the Festival hadn’t been succeeding financially. Even if he wasn’t the whole reason, their inadequacies were sufficient ammunition for those opposed to the changes they were proposing.

Perhaps the most important lesson of this failed attempt at fundamental change is that such change is only likely to happen when it becomes crystal clear to everyone that there really is no alternative - that replacing the staff, or the board, or simply doing the same things better, will not fix the problems. Claiming that such change might be desirable on a theoretical level - regardless of how plausible the claim - is simply not enough. In practice, improvement is rarely sufficient reason for such change.

Which is why, I believe, institutions usually have to be staring into the abyss before they’re really able to seriously think about stepping back from it.


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4 comments feed top ↑

  1. Comment by Henry Schoenberger
    January 30, 2019 at 4:16 PM

    I am certainly glad that this splendid orchestra will be playing for our enjoyment once again. The comments as to the causes of the confrontation, I think are somewhat off the mark in that they do not stress the actual failures and remedies. The Board of Directors appoint the President. They made Mr. Graham the President at a time when he was an employee, the Director. That was a clear conflict of interest. That act allowed Mr. Graham to consolidate his power by expanding the number of employees answering only to him. He then was able to appeal to the Board that his salary and bonuses were insufficient for the responsibilities, not the least of which included the ridiculous purchase of the Red Hill property. Therefore, in my mind, the Board of Directors should be held responsible. They permitted Mr. Graham to expand his role as mentioned and allowed him to make professional decisions for which he was not qualified. It is not enough to be rid of Mr. Graham; the whole non-thinking Board of Directors needs to take a walk. With a new Board and competent CEO, the financial position should improve and we will be able to enjoy the Orchestra as we have in the past.

    Henry Schoenberger

  2. Comment by Jay LICHTMANN
    January 29, 2019 at 5:42 PM

    I believe that the essence of David Graham’s plans for a “new model” was simply to bring about a change of guard. Henry Fogel became enamored with the conductorless chamber orchestra from NYC. “The Knights.” He blogged about them back in January of 2008:

    http://www.artsjournal.com/ontherecord/2008/01/toetapping_fun_the_knights_at.html

    David Graham never impressed me as a man with a sophisticated love or knowledge of classical music. He was never interested in our chamber music. I have been to pretty much every chamber music concert that the NHMF has offered since 1983 (some of the best offerings of the festival) and I can only recall him being in attendance at a handful of them. Remember that this is roughly a third of the performances the festival produces. David Graham pretty much ignored them.

    Somehow Mr. Graham got in contact with Henry Fogel. Fogel’s credentials and clout must have impressed Graham and he must have felt that if Henry Fogel was on board, money and prestige would follow. If Fogel wanted “The Knights” he would have to find a way to get “The Knights” in New Hampshire. Of course, the only way to actually have “The Knights” at the NHMF was to get rid of the “incumbent musicians.” Graham and Fogel had to find some way to get rid of the “incumbents” while making their actions look reasonable to the public. This is what they did:

    1) Play up the “times are tough in the classical music business” story. That’s not a hard thing to do. Harp on “declining audiences” and “dwindling support” for classical music.

    2) Put the blame squarely on the artistic quality of the “incumbent musicians.” This alone accounts for declining audiences and funds drying up. Don’t mention what a crummy job management has been doing promoting the festival in recent years.

    3) Announce that there is going to be “new model” at the NHMF. Get rid of the present music director and talk about how things have to be “revitalized” and that performances are going to be “collaborative”, “fresh”, “relevant” and “engaging”. The chamber music approach that this “new model” promises, will bring “an atmosphere of discovery and emotional excitement, creating a fresh enthusiasm for classical music to both old and new audiences.” (Verbatim from management’s press release 7/13/09)

    4) Tell the “incumbent musicians” that they are not being fired, but they must reapply for their positions. Devise an arduous reapplication process that includes having musicians submit recordings of several styles of music and writing essays on “their views as an artist making music in the 21st century.” Also, tell the musicians that the workload will be increased substantially with only a marginal increase in pay and that they will be responsible for “mentoring” students that will added to the festival orchestra.

    5) Give the musicians as few details as possible telling them “this all has not been completely worked out yet” and “this is in process.” When musicians express their concerns about the feasibility of portions of the “new model” blame them for “resisting change” and “not trying to fix the problem.”

    6) Reiterate to the public that times are a changing, we are only trying to fix the broken down model but the “incumbent musicians” are against change.

    Their plan was brilliant! Any musician who still wanted to be in the NHMF and decided to go through the “reapplication process” could easily not be rehired and told they did not demonstrate adequately that they could fit in, in the “new model.” All decisions made by management as to personal being rehired were final, no review process was in place.

    The entire scheme would have worked except management underestimated the public and their love for the “incumbent musicians”. The public didn’t buy that these musicians, who had put on fine performances in the past, were the reason behind the festival’s woes.

    Jay Lichtmann
    NHMF member since ’83

  3. Comment by Sally Davis
    January 29, 2019 at 11:51 AM

    Another problem the Festival had was the purchase of the property at Red Hill. Plymouth State U. had all the facilities needed and was in a central location although not as close to part of the audience as in former years. The choir could finally practice in a choir rehearsal space instead of the seats of an auditorium. In a time when we are trying to save energy building a new facility was redundant and impractical.

  4. Comment by Jay Buckley
    January 29, 2019 at 10:00 AM

    It is my belief that the problem of the NHMF has been a marketing problem. The audience is one that comes to the Lakes Region for a few weeks a year from all over the country, and the Festival has never figured out how to reach those people. The decline in attendance over the last 10 years coincides with the rise of email and other electronic marketing that the Festival has not used.

    Any successful business rests on two critical abilities- 1) To deliver a product that meets the needs of the customer and 2)The ability to put them in a seat. It seems to me that the Festival has for many years believed that if they did #1, #2 would automatically happen. That is almost never true! I have never heard anyone say they don’t attend concerts because of the quality of the music, but I have heard a fair number of people say they are unaware of the Festival.

    I am hopeful that the new management will take advantage of modern means of keeping in touch with concert goers, and revitalize the marketing of the Festival. It does not diminish the art to work hard to let peole know that the Festival exists, and to try to attract them to concerts.