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Are Three Legs Appropriate? Or Even Sufficient? Part I

0 Henry Fogel
harmony-graphic Editor's Abstract

For eight years, 1995-2003, the Symphony Orchestra Institute (SOI) published Harmony. It was a journal of thoughtful insight and opinion about the complex dynamics of symphony orchestra organizations. The journal presented essays and reports authored by practitioners, scholars, and other close observers of orchestras. In 2004 when the founder of the SOI, Paul Judy, gifted the SOI to the Eastman School of Music, the Orchestra Musician Forum and its website Polyphonic was created. The Harmony archives were included.

The following article, Are Three Legs Appropriate? Or Even Sufficient? was written by Henry Fogel, then President of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, for the April 2000 issue of Harmony. Mr. Fogel is now President and CEO of the American Symphony Orchestra League. Be sure to watch his interview with Polyphonic.org’s Interview Series Host Greg Sandow!

In our continued efforts to inform the orchestral community, we will feature Harmony articles, from time to time, for those of you who would like to reread them, or for others who may have never had the opportunity to do so before. Those of you who may want original copies of this publication can obtain them free of charge (while supplies last) by emailing info@polyphonic.org. Enjoy…..

Ramon Ricker

Editor’s Digest

For more than a century, the organizational model for American symphony orchestra leadership has been the “three-legged stool.” This model places responsibility in the hands of the music director, the executive director, and the board chairman—theoretically as equals. Author Henry Fogel opens the essay that follows by tracing the genesis and evolution of the “three-legged stool.”He then poses a series of critical questions about this traditional arrangement.

Roles for Musicians

First among these is the role of musicians (or lack thereof) in the overall direction of their orchestras. Fogel suggests that both the insularity of boards and the authority demanded by conductors have been sources of adversarial relationships.He notes that the emergence, in the 1960s, of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) gave a negotiating voice to the musicians, a voice often at loggerheads with “management.”


Using several specific examples, Fogel details the relationship dynamic that exists in many orchestras, and pleads that “hostility and mistrust” cannot be healthy ways to run orchestral institutions.

Toward Healthy Institutions

Arguing that guarding “turfs” and not inviting musicians into serious roles in governance are major barriers to healthy orchestral organizations, Fogel particularly explores artistic direction as an area needing major revision in roles and responsibilities, and suggests that orchestra players could and should be significantly more involved. Overall, no one escapes Fogel’s scrutiny, and his concern for his subject is palpable.


In addition to being a knowledgeable and passionate participant in the orchestral scene, the author is quite a raconteur. His essay is laced with interesting sidebars that illustrate his points.This essay is meaty and thought provoking; we encourage your consumption.



Are Three Legs Appropriate? Or Even Sufficient?


“Three-legged stool” is a term often applied to the authority structure of the modern American symphony orchestra. The “legs” are the music director, the volunteer board leader (sometimes called chairman, sometimes president), and the executive director (sometimes called president, sometimes managing director). Although an organization chart would, in most instances, show the music director and the executive director reporting to the board, or implicitly to its chairman, the idea is that the three manage the operation in some kind of partnership. If one carries this line of thought further, I suppose that the musicians report to the music director, the staff to the executive director, and the volunteers to the chairman. In one form or another, American orchestras have run on this model, with only minor variations, for more than a century and with only a few exceptions. It is worth examining the history of this structure and its structural soundness. One needs to ask: Is this the best way to organize the leadership of a symphony orchestra? Are other approaches possible? Would they make a difference? If so, would it be a positive difference? And I would note right up front that an essay such as this one, by definition, will deal in generalizations.

Philip Hart’s wonderful study of the American orchestra and its history, Orpheus in the New World, is essential reading for understanding how the structure developed, and I have relied on it considerably. From the beginning, enlightened community leaders recognized that it was not possible to compensate an orchestra’s musicians solely from the box office. As early as 1881, Henry Higginson, founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, proposed a guideline that, astonishingly enough, we still use today: 50 percent of the orchestra’s income would come from ticket sales; the rest would have to be contributed in some form. Higginson, in fact, proposed the first orchestra endowment fund, $1million, which, at a 5-percent draw (the ideal for most of today’s endowments),would pay out $50,000, which was the deficit he was projecting at that time.


Higginson’s orchestra in Boston was something of a one-man show. There is much documentation of tension between Higginson and conductors, and it is clear from the evidence that the Boston Symphony was Higginson’s orchestra. In fact, he actually managed the BSO for a while, and then assigned one of his corporate staff members to manage it (thus assuring his continuing control, although professional observers have noted that this staffer—Charles Ellis—was not only America’s first professional orchestra manager, but a good one as well). Higginson did not actually turn the BSO over to a board of trustees until 1918.


Chicago, which had been the beneficiary of Theodore Thomas’s traveling orchestras beginning in 1870, became interested in having its own orchestra,and lured Thomas to the city to form one in 1891. Chicago, in some ways, served as the model for today’s orchestral structure. A group of Chicago businessmen under the leadership of Dr. Charles Fay formed an orchestral association that, according to Hart, “would not be dependent on the support of any one man or offer its backers any prospect of profit.” Recognizing that there would be losses at startup, Fay secured 10 pledges of $5,000 per year for three years. He branched out to take smaller pledges as well, but probably did not realize at the time that the idea of a self-supporting orchestra was not realistic. There were few models in 1891. The New York Philharmonic and the New York Symphony were both in existence, but both were functioning more as cooperatives with relatively unpredictable work and compensation than as organizations offering anything approximating steady, reasonably salaried employment for musicians. Only the Boston Symphony was doing that, and it was still being subsidized and run by Higginson. The Chicago Symphony was to be the first orchestral “association” put together by the community, and to have a board that would make important decisions.

Through the first part of the 20th century, as more and more orchestras were formed, a few facts began to crystallize for orchestra supporters everywhere.The most significant was that the box office would never be able to support a symphony orchestra. As one looks at the financial statements of American orchestras for the first quarter of the century, and reads board-meeting minutes (where one senses a decrease in the tone of surprise that accompanies discussions of deficits as the realization sinks in), one sees the careful construction of the board undertaken in community after community.

It is clear that the formation of these boards was at least in part a matter of self-interest. The people who were providing or guaranteeing funds to fill the earned-income gap wished, rationally enough, to have a reasonable degree of control over the size of that gap. The gap could be widened by either out-of-control expenses or income shortfalls due to unpopular programming, and one sees these issues popping up in discussions between board chairs and music directors throughout the first years of the century. The balance between “popular” and “serious” programming was constantly a source of discussion, and occasionally tension, between Theodore Thomas and Chicago Symphony board leaders. On the other hand, the trustees responded to Thomas’s urging to build the CSO its own home, just as Higginson responded to a similar need in Boston, and Chicago’s business leaders rallied around the cause to build Orchestra Hall in 1904.

It can and should be said here that Henry Higginson, who held deeply the belief that citizens must give back to their communities and that successful citizens must give back more, really established the community-based concept that underlies the structure of orchestras today. Even though he initially ran a one-man operation, he eventually saw the need to broaden the base and formed a board similar to the one already in existence in Chicago. The board in Chicago, in turn, was based to some degree on the principles that Higginson had established in Boston, except that the Chicago Symphony decided to share the burden and responsibility among many from the beginning. It was surely these two orchestras that established the model of a community-based board that “owned” the organization. In these orchestras, board members set broad policies, hired the conductors, and, later on, began hiring the managers.

In 1915, the Philadelphia Orchestra engaged Arthur Judson, who was to become a seminal figure in orchestra administration, and whose career spanned 54 years of managing two of America’s great orchestras, Philadelphia and New York—for a good deal of time simultaneously. While Judson publicly spoke about the clear separation of the three “branches” of the orchestra (conductor, manager, board), and how that separation of authority was “sacrosanct,” the truth is that a look at Judson’s own career reveals the lack of clarity in that separation. Judson often “interfered” with artistic issues, frequently mediated between boards and conductors, argued with boards over managerial and fiscal issues, and, in the end, usually exerted his own influence strongly over all the other “stakeholders.”5 It is worth noting, as was the norm in those days, the absence of even the thought that the musicians might be a “branch” of the orchestra organization.



A Consideration of Power

It is, in fact, the size and enormous variety of constituencies, “stakeholders,” that must be at the core of any examination of orchestral structure.The history of orchestral structure has been shaped by power, the power that accrues to those who have wealth and/or access to wealth, and those who have achieved positions of social or corporate power. It is community “leaders” who have generally assembled orchestral boards, usually choosing people who resembled themselves. Because the community group came together first, and then assembled the necessary professional forces (conductor, manager, musicians), more-or-less automatically the board of directors had a kind of supremacy: it came into being first, it hired the professional forces (and, by implication, could also fire them), and, of course, it had deep roots in the community.


I was present in Syracuse, New York, in 1960 and 1961 when a board of directors was assembled to form an orchestra, and so I saw (from a distance at first) the process at work. Social and corporate leaders who had borne responsibility for other major charitable undertakings in the city were brought together by a few leaders (in this case there were in particular two women, Eleanor Hancock and Carolyn Hopkins, who deeply believed that Syracuse should have a professional symphony orchestra) who galvanized the rest into meaningful action. It has always taken that leadership, whether from a Chicago business executive in 1890, or social leaders (often women married to leading businessmen or having received major inheritances) as in Syracuse, to rally other forces together to form the organizational structure.

But once an orchestra was assembled, other stakeholders began to assert themselves. It was in 1920, for instance, that the musicians of the Boston Symphony Orchestra went on strike. This was astonishing to the conservative Brahmins who ran the symphony. It was hard for them to recognize that their highly conservative, anti-union attitude wouldn’t win the day, because as with many boards of that time, they only talked with one another, and with people who thought exactly as they did. When the musicians demanded the right to unionize, and the board resisted (music director Pierre Monteux was caught in the middle and, in the end, the Boston Symphony lost one of the century’s greatest conductors because of this conflict), the musicians rebelled and struck.Eventually the musicians won. But the point is not to examine labor history, rather to look at structure—not as it exists on paper, but as it exists in reality.The reality of the board of trustees in Boston in the first two decades of this century was an insulated group which made all decisions without consulting the outside world. They kept financial matters secret and policies were set without input from any other constituencies, either inside the organization or in the rest of the community. That insularity may have led to this early example of a labor action as board members failed to consider views other than their own.

Simultaneously with the development of the power of the board came the European-schooled conductor with little patience for the idea of orchestras as examples of shared power. Stokowski, Koussevitzky, Szell, Reiner, and many other early- and mid-century music directors of American orchestras came from an era of the dominant maestro. This trend may have begun with the emergence of Mahler and Toscanini at the Metropolitan Opera and then at the New York Philharmonic. There were no lay boards in Europe (certainly none with any authority), and these conductors were accustomed to the idea that everyone did what conductors told them to do! Musicians did not object to long rehearsals dragging into overtime because the maestro was not yet satisfied. The prevailing theory was that while an orchestra was a collective of professional musicians, musical results were only guaranteed if a single, dominant leader (the conductor) was given the power to weld these musicians into a unified whole. While there is, of course, some musical logic in that thinking, it is also fair to say that it is a short leap from that kind of power to employment and personnel policies that would make any modern-day human resources professional shudder. These conductors learned in the opera houses of Europe that the best way to exert their power was totally.


There is a story about this kind of insularity, probably apocryphal but nonetheless illustrative; it is a favorite of mine (and I actually kind of hope it is true). The story is that Harvey Firestone wanted to improve the image of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co., and suggested to his advertising agency some kind of cultural radio program which Firestone would sponsor. The agency met with various network officials, and came back with a proposal from one of them for what would eventually become “The Voice of Firestone.” The suggested broadcast time was 3:00 p.m. every Sunday, and Firestone angrily rejected it. Slamming his hand on the table (so goes the story), he said, “Don’t you realize that everyone is playing polo at that time?” Whether or not this story is true, it does serve to illustrate the potential for insularity when a group of people of like mind and background form the policy making body of an organization that is, to a large degree, a public trust, and an organization that has such a range of constituents.

Imagine, then, these maestros’ reactions to coming to America and finding either trustees or managers— laymen, mind you—trying to tell them what to do, perhaps even advising them on programs. The result over time was an uneasy truce wherein the balance of power was divided among the three legs of the stool, and just how it was allocated depended to some degree on the personalities involved and how they interacted. There are plenty of examples of great conductors losing battles with boards and managements. Arthur Rodzinski comes to mind. He didn’t last long as music director of a number of orchestras, Chicago being his briefest tenure (one year). He could not or would not find a way to work within this shared power system, and the result was his consistent failure as a music director despite extraordinary musical abilities. But, on the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that Dimitri Mitropoulos may have failed in New York (despite having given many wonderful performances) because he did not exercise his powers with sufficient strength. Szell would appear to have been the model for the mid-century music director. He unquestionably built a great orchestra in Cleveland, one that remains as his legacy today, some 30 years after his death, and he did so in part with the force of his own powerful personality, but in part by building a constructive partnership with his board and management.

The conductors who tried to bypass or eviscerate their boards rarely succeeded. Eventually, they found that the ultimate responsibility for making decisions—the legal and corporate responsibility—rests with that board. While most conductors, particularly through the 1950s, did exercise complete control over their musicians, they eventually figured out how to develop some type of give-and-take relationship with board and management. And that simply solidified the three-legged stool concept—a concept which had little role for the musicians.

If one goes back to that concept of the “stool,” one is actually led to ask a number of questions:


  • Are important elements left out of the governance and policy setting of orchestras?
  • Is it possible for an important artistic organization—one that must take risks—to exercise leadership in artistic direction with an evenly balanced structure, or does artistic leadership require that primacy is given to the artistic director?
  • How, in today’s orchestra, with long absences of the music director, should responsibility and authority be allocated?
  • Why has the basic organizational structure of American orchestras been unexamined and unchallenged for more than 100 years? And, more importantly, if change is desirable, how can it be brought about?





Enter: Musicians

Many of these questions, it seems to me, center in particular around the role of the musicians. While there are some examples of more cooperative approaches to running orchestras, and even a few truly or hybrid cooperative orchestras such as Louisiana and Denver, in general it is fair to say that the adversarial nature of the relationship between the musicians and the administration of orchestras (whether represented by the management or the board) is still the norm. This relationship may well go back to the kind of paternalism demonstrated by boards at the beginning of the 20th century, and may have its roots in the events leading up to the 1920 strike in Boston. I would note that the separation of musicians from the governance process is very unusual in the professional world. Faculty members have a great deal of input into the policies of the universities at which they work, and hospital administrators seek input from doctors as they make major decisions.

The adversarial relationship goes back not only to insularity and paternalism of earlier boards, but also to the total authority demanded by conductors up until the middle of the 20th century. The idea of musicians as something other than anonymous cogs in the orchestral machinery ran counter to the attitude of the old-school maestros as well as old-school trustees.

Sir Georg Solti was, particularly in his later years, an extremely humane conductor who did not abuse players and in fact treated them warmly. His attitude was, however, typical of the kind of paternalism and authoritarianism of which I am speaking. He frequently referred to the Chicago Symphony members as “my children,” and when I was once passing on to him the reaction of some musicians to a guest conductor, his response was, “Who the bloody hell do they think they are telling you what they think of conductors?”

So it is not surprising, then, that no role of importance has developed for the musicians in the governance of orchestras. Add to this the managers—who already face a huge range of constituencies and probably wish to simplify their lives as much as possible—and it is not likely that pressure for change will come from the administrative quarter.

There are, of course, exceptions. Some orchestral organizations have either explored in the past or are currently exploring different kinds of organizational structures and behaviors. But this pattern is still not the norm, and it has almost always occurred as a result of crisis. The idea that an orchestra is a professional organization, perhaps closer in concept to a law firm than to a manufacturing plant, still has a long way to go to gain acceptance, not only from management, but from musicians as well. Many musicians are more comfortable not participating in the decision-making processes. It is, after all, easier to criticize decisions that one did not participate in making, and one can comfortably avoid the difficulties of responsibility by being on the outside. But is it healthy?

I would submit that, until the 1960s, most orchestra leaders (management or board) would not have included the musicians as “stakeholders.” Prior to the development of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM), and the strengthening of the role of the orchestra’s own musicians (instead of union officials) in determining the direction and outcome of negotiations, musicians were really seen as the hired help. There are many stories that illustrate the ways in which musicians were thought of and treated, and such stories are the background for some of the hostility that remains in today’s labor-management relations. Many thoughtful people dislike the term “labor-management” when applied to symphony orchestras and their musicians, and I believe they are right in their distaste. The term does tend to put musicians in the category of laborers rather than professionals, and if we’re ever going to change that we probably should start by using different language. Even “musician- employer” relationship, which might sound clumsy at first, is less filled with stereotypes and would be preferable.

The musicians of one orchestra in a Southern state still smart when they tell the story of one of their board members stopping a musician from walking into the main public entrance of their concert hall on a performance night, violin in hand. “You aren’t supposed to come in here. This is for the public. You have a stage door in the back.” This is a true story, not one of those urban legends that get around; other board members of this organization have confirmed it for me. This story serves to symbolize how many of those in power viewed their roles and places in society, and the place of the “hired help.” While this particular form of behavior may well have been unusual, the attitude behind it was far less so, and was usually demonstrated in more subtle ways. A more important story, because it reflects institutional rather than individual behavior, concerns the New York Philharmonic in the late 1950s. Invited to perform in the Edinburgh Festival, the Philharmonic was not at that time a 52-week contracted orchestra. The deal that the Philharmonic management negotiated with the union was that each Philharmonic musician would receive a salary for the one week in Edinburgh. For the two weeks on the ocean, traveling to and from Edinburgh, each musician would receive the trip free (including meals), but no salary. This was at a time when the Philharmonic did not pay its musicians enough to live on, so they had to take on a variety of summer jobs, including teaching (and playing in the Lewisohn Stadium Symphony Orchestra) to round out their incomes. But here was a negotiation in which their own union basically forced each member to give up two weeks of the summer, and either be separated from family or pay to take family with them, for absolutely no compensation. I don’t know what you call that; I call it indentured servitude! The trip was not voluntary; if you were a member of the Philharmonic, you accepted those terms.

Stories and situations such as those in the sidebar on this page led to the change, in the early 1960s, in the way in which orchestral musicians interacted with their organizations. The formation of ICSOM and eventually the Regional Orchestra Players Association (ROPA) and the shift of power from local union presidents to member-elected orchestra committees happened quickly, and by the mid-1960s, the norm had been established:the musicians of an orchestra would, while still in the framework of a union organization and with assistance from both the union and the conferences inside the union, determine their own contracts in direct negotiations with management.

Although orchestra administrators still talk about the importance of this shift, it doesn’t seem fully understood by those outside the profession, including board members. Board members often blame “the union” for negotiation difficulties, when, in fact, the negotiation tactics and directions are usually set by the players. Certainly there have been cases in which union leadership, at the local or national level, has galvanized and/or united an orchestra behind certain positions. But just as often, the musicians have dragged a union local kicking and screaming into a strike that the union did not want and could not easily afford. And without question, prior to the direct involvement of symphony musicians, both the threats and realities of strikes were far less frequent (though not completely unprecedented). The abilities of management to convince the local union president of financial limitations seem, in hindsight, far more developed than their abilities to convince their own musicians of those limitations.

One cannot understand the musician-employer relationship without understanding this background. Until the power shifted to the musicians acting on their own behalf, there can be no arguing with the fact that musicians were underpaid and had to accept some working conditions that most would agree were unreasonable, particularly in relationship to job security; and that they had no recourse from conductors’ abilities to schedule overtime at rehearsals or recording sessions without warning. Managers and board members would protest that they were powerless to address the problems. They were raising as much money as they could raise, there simply was no more. And, of course, they could not control conductors. No one could!

But the power did shift, and the musicians started to threaten to withhold services unless certain wage and working-condition demands were met. What is startling is how quickly the managements and boards found the solutions that they always denied were there. Fundraising, generally a private, discreet affair conducted among a few wealthy trustees, became public and aggressive throughout the 1960s and 1970s. I remember that when I went to work at the New York Philharmonic in 1978, the first development director had only recently been hired. Now the development department is the largest in most orchestra staffs, often by a significant number.It is hard to remember that as recently as 25 years ago, there was virtually no professional component to fundraising, and that this change was brought about solely by the musicians’ demands backed with the strength and unity that permitted them to threaten, credibly, to strike. Orchestras expanded their concert seasons, and undertook serious marketing and audience development, also as a result of demands for higher pay. Prior to this power shift, the position of managements and boards had been that there was little that could be done that would enlarge the size, as well as the philanthropic generosity, of the music-loving audiences. But when pushed, these same managements found the wherewithal to present perhaps twice as many concerts in the “winter season,” and summer seasons as well, and to raise much more money.



Power Conflicts and Organizational Trust

It is important to understand the relationship dynamic underneath these facts.Having been told for many years—even decades—by their managements and by their own union leaders that the orchestra organizations were providing for their musician members as well as they possibly could, the musicians found that when pushed, those managements found solutions they had previously believed, or claimed to believe, were unattainable. This is crucial because it is at the root of much of the distrust that still exists today in orchestras. “They weren’t truthful with us then, so why should we believe them now?” is an often-voiced question. Managers like to think of this as “ancient history,” because the 1950s and early 1960s is a period that predates the careers of most of today’s managers. But it doesn’t necessarily predate the tenure of the musicians in our orchestras, the majority of whom either lived directly through that period or represent the immediately succeeding generation, who came into the profession hearing the stories from those who lived through it, and also studying with teachers who lived through it. Unfortunately, the truth is that when the balance of power favored managements and boards, they took full advantage of that balance.

It has been easy, therefore, for the musicians, both within their own orchestras and through the vehicles provided by the union, ICSOM, and ROPA, to remain mistrustful, and to view any attempt to bring them into positions of governance as nothing more than “co-opting” for the sake of disempowering them. There is safety and comfort for both “sides” in continuing the appearance of hostility.Despite the fact that, intellectually, it makes no sense to view hostility and mistrust as healthy ways to run an institution, there is a certain convenience for all parties, particularly in that it gives them someone to “blame” when things aren’t going the way that they want. How many times have we heard managers blame financial shortfalls on greedy unions or players, never questioning whether, in fact, the organization under their leadership is truly reaching its potential in earned and contributed income? Conversely, how many times have we heard musicians blame managements and boards for “simply not doing enough,” when by any reasonable measure of the resources of the particular community it would appear that those resources might well have reached a peak? Just because a management was wrong in 1955 when it said “there really is no more money here to be raised,” it is not automatic that today’s management is wrong when making the same claim. Nor is it automatic that they are right. But objective analysis becomes impossible when the parties enter the discussion or exploration with completely adversarial attitudes and more determination to “win” than to examine.

Considering the history of symphony orchestra organizations in this country, it is not surprising that what has largely resulted resembles more a contest of wills than it does institutions in healthy alignment. We began the 20th century with the dominance of either boards or their leaders (such as Higginson in Boston). As the organizations grew in complexity, they needed stronger managers, and, at the same time, the strong-willed maestros came along in most of our major orchestras. The most skilled managers have been the ones who could, in fact, deal with the powerful maestro on one hand and the strong-willed board chairman on the other; often the manager was in the middle.

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