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Symphonic Divergence 

by Robert Herold

All the panelists who participated in the Gonzaga University Organizational Leadership symposium on symphony orchestras last month directed criticism at the New York Times' gloom-and-doom report on the state of symphony orchestras. Still, none actually took direct issue with the specifics as they might apply to the Spokane Symphony. In case you missed it, in a much-discussed pair of stories, Times reporters observed that funding for symphonies is becoming increasingly hard to come by because old money is drying up, corporate dollars are increasingly directed away from the "flyover cities" and programming is failing to broaden the audience base. In response, the panelists pointed out that the Spokane Symphony remains in reasonably good financial health, a condition that, by inference, can be expected to continue so long as the Spokane Symphony stays the course.

Certainly the Spokane Symphony Orchestra must be regarded an organizational phenomenon. Had we listed Spokane's most remarkable institutions in our 10th anniversary special Inlander edition, the SSO would have appeared at or near the top of the list. Consider just a partial list of critical factors that the SSO leadership has successfully managed and navigated for so many years:

Community: The SSO has been sensitive (some would say, overly sensitive) to the prevailing culture. From Don Thulean's blitzkrieg playing of the "Star-Spangled Banner" all those years ago, to the patience showed during yet another ASO (that's "Automatic Standing Ovation"), the SSO has smiled and moved on quietly. Notably, however, both Gunther Schuller and Fabio Mechetti report that they experience greater programming freedom in Spokane than they do in many other larger cities.

Change: The SSO has sought to reduce risk through incremental change. Many organizations try to do too much too soon -- which leads to short-lived exhilaration, followed by the shock of overextension. Reflective of the SSO approach, William Simer, president of SSO, points out that the financial health of the organization remains relatively good, if for no other reason than unearned income projections have never relied on large government support, cuts to which have jeopardized other organizations.

Cutting Losses: In a study about good luck, research showed that most people who experience what they called good luck are people who cut their losses. They don't wallow. The SSO has gone about things in much the same way. Less successful organizations might dig in their heels and become defensive when faced with the obvious truth about, say, a disastrous hiring decision. Not the SSO. The organization has avoided compounding mistakes.

Taking Opportunities: These range from strategic, mid-course corrections, to important synergistic relationships. Most recently, of course, we see the leadership seizing on the one-time opportunity to restore the Fox Theater. Then there was the crucial hiring of Gunther Schuller in the '80s. Or consider the SSO's partnerships with our local universities, most importantly EWU. All institutions have benefited: Our schools have better music programs than they otherwise would attract, and the SSO is a better orchestra because of their presence.

Mission-Centered Leadership: This has sustained the organization; it is hard to leave the field when the leadership shares your foxhole, your hopes and your aspirations.

Heading into this new era described by the Times' writers, the SSO leadership will no doubt continue to rely on the institutional culture and strategies that have sustained it these many years. But the broader outline of the problems remain, and no one who has watched the old Spokane foundations close down and corporate headquarters relocate out of town can conclude otherwise. John Hancock, the SSO executive director, said as much when he stated that audience expansion now ranks No. 1 on the SSO's list of things to do. And this brings us back to a second of the Times' expressed concerns: programming. Indeed, how to expand the audience base at a time when music tastes don't run to the classical and people have so many other options (CDs, downloading, movies, etc.)?

Here we do see the formation of philosophical fault lines. There are those who believe symphony orchestras are museums, curators to a canon of literature and culture. Others argue that this attitude, if not reconsidered, will serve as a self-confirming prophecy of the doom discussed by the Times' writers.

Kendall Feeney, whose imaginative Zephyr series, designed around 20th-century music, enchanted and stimulated Spokane audiences for a decade, shares this concern. In her article, "When the Classics Become Tedious," she makes the case for more programming of contemporary music. "Much of the music written before the 20th century seems to reach me from an increasing distance," she writes. And while acknowledging the distinction between art and fashion, a distinction made clearer over time, she makes the case for an evening of music that "includes discovery, surprise and wonderment at new or rarely heard sound combinations."

Fabio Mechetti, however, arguing in support of the universality of the Western classical music tradition, might point out that while Shakespeare's plays were written 400 years ago, they remain no more distant today than when written. My dear brother, Jim, a mildly defensive modernist architect who practiced in Boston, made a different but still related point when, after he first laid disapproving eyes on Seattle's Smith Tower, said, "Just goes to show that buildings don't have to be new to be ugly."

So comes this important debate, a debate that the new generation of leadership at the SSO is being challenged to join.

Publication date: 11/20/03

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