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Musicians as managers

1 Robert Levine

My orchestra managed to startle a fair number of people the other day:

In a surprising development, principal trumpeter Mark Niehaus has been named the new president and executive director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the MSO announced Wednesday.

Niehaus succeeds MaryEllen Gleason, who has resigned after two seasons as the MSO’s executive to pursue other opportunities, according to a statement from board chairman Douglas Hagerman.

The MSO also announced a balanced budget for fiscal year 2012, which ended Aug. 31, noting that major gifts from the David and Julia Uihlein Charitable Foundation and William and Polly Van Dyke made that possible.

Niehaus taking over as the MSO’s top executive might be likened to the Packers naming Clay Matthews their president. Niehaus has been the MSO’s principal trumpeter since 1998, and has been a featured soloist, but will now put down his horn and pick up spreadsheets and donor calls.

“Mark has emerged in the last couple years as a valued board member, a valued representative of the orchestra and a really great spokesman for the orchestra,” Hagerman said. “When we appeared in Carnegie Hall, the person who stood on stage and introduced us to the national audience there was Mark.

“The reason he’s emerged as our best spokesman is you can feel the passion for the music, for the orchestra, and for the Milwaukee community every time he speaks. That same passion is critical for the orchestra to achieve all of its long-term goals,” Hagerman said.

There’s been a certain amount of “new model” talk about the appointment of a serving member of the orchestra to the CEO position. It may well be a first for a major orchestra to catapult one of its own into the top administrative spot, but in fact lots of managers were, at one point in their career, professional musicians. Clive Gillinson might be the prototypical example; he joined the London Symphony as a cellist in 1970 and, after serving on the board and as Finance Director, became Managing Director in 1984, a position he held for 20 years with great distinction before moving on to run Carnegie Hall. But there are others; one is a bassist I played with in my second orchestral job in London Ontario who went on to become President and CEO of The Cleveland Orchestra (Gary Hanson, for non-insiders). Some, like Hanson and Gillinson, became outstanding orchestral CEO’s; there are others who didn’t.

There seems to be something intuitively satisfying about the notion of someone who’s spent years working as an orchestra musician moving into running an orchestra. I’m not sure why; there’s little about playing in an orchestra that teaches much about orchestra management or leadership. I’ve encountered very few musicians who are suited either by temperament or natural ability to run an orchestra; fortunately for my orchestra, Mark Niehaus is one of those few.

No doubt it will help him to understand what life is like on stage. But I suspect his real advantage will be the credibility he’s built with key people in Milwaukee through being principal trumpet and the sense of institutional history and purpose that it’s hard to get in any way other than to spend years married to an institution the way musicians are married to their orchestras. Those are hard things to get by importing an experienced orchestra administrator from somewhere else.

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  1. Pingback by New Paradigm? | non divisi
    September 20, 2019 at 11:57 AM

    […] was certainly a shock to anyone familiar with traditional arts management dogma. As my colleague Robert Levine has noted, this isn’t exactly new thinking, although it may be the first time a major orchestra has […]