Thursday, May 5, 2011

Growing Pains

I suppose all the hoopla surrounding Artistic Director Roberto Minczuk and Brazilian Symphony Orchestra (OSB) might be considered orchestral growing pains. The OSB, in an effort to improve its product has declared, not bankruptcy, but a thorough re-evaluation process of its employees, and as the players are not tenured and the orchestra is backed by a group of private investors, they have the right to proceed. Orchestra musicians, like school teachers, or for that matter, any skilled laborers, are not uniformly competent. To make matters more complicated, some have received their positions through the back door as opposed to standardized auditions. Minczuk speaks out here.

I recall a number of seasons that I spent devoted to a professional chamber orchestra in Seattle. Sadly, the organization was later to file under Chapter 7 in bankruptcy court. Although there were no contractual stipulations regarding  seating of section players, colleagues were adamantly opposed to re- assessments.  For example, although a couple of violinists might have been more effective in the seconds as opposed to the firsts, the musicians held their hands up to their ears and shook their heads "No". They wouldn't hear of this. And conversely, a second violinist was discouraged by colleagues from switching to the firsts, even though the over-all sound of the orchestra might have been enhanced. The reason? Any shift in position might have been perceived by the public as a demotion, even though, a second violinist's contribution is of equal, or perhaps greater value to an ensemble, as one must develop strong intuitive powers for the supporting role.

The entire chamber orchestra suffered as a consequence, for by grinding its heels and resisting change or growth, the group resolved to maintain a status quo which was definitely, inarguably substandard, unworthy of donor support; the ensemble was deemed unfit for international stature. With all due respect to my former colleagues, a complete re-evaluation of the orchestra might have offered a life-saving measure and prevented the demise of a thirty year institution which was on the cusp of development.

I recall the words of a wise colleague suggesting that orchestral musicians might open their minds and hearts by engaging in a spirit of willingness to experiment with different strategies. For if one refuses to recognize and honor the superior talents and abilities of a colleague or colleagues, and deny those who are deserving of opportunities a foot in the door, might that be unjust? Is it fair to relegate young talents to the periphery? Might one also make a plea for the booking of fresh soloists rather than the predictable, overpaid few?

In response to warnings of boycotting upcoming auditions for the Brazilian Symphony Orchestra, here is a copy of the letter from the BSO Foundation. Please take a moment to read and share.

To The International Federation of Musicians 
Dear Sirs, given the recent demonstration of the FIM on the international auditions of the Brazilian Symphony Orchestra and in deference to the work and representativeness of the Federation, we have provided some clarification regarding the restructuring process by which the orchestra has been through in the recent months.
We understand  that the “Call for an international boycott” to the orchestra  auditions reflects a biased interpretation of recent events, to reports released on the Internet that often go beyond and distort reality. In respect to the International Federation of Musicians, we want to position ourselves not only in relation to the process that led to the removal of some of our musicians, but also to clarify the basis on which the new auditions for the orchestra are organized.
Fidelity to the institutional mission to build a culture of excellence around the symphonic music in Brazil led the OSB  Foundation to invest in qualifying and broadening its work in 2011. The implementation of performance evaluations for the orchestra was a decision of the Foundation in order, along with the continuing evaluation that takes place in rehearsals and concerts, to recognize the artistic demands of each member of the group, provide suggestions for individual improvement and ensure best conditions for the work of the orchestra.
As emphasized since the announcement of the evaluations, the process did not seek the dismissal of musicians, but a real examination of the artistic situation of the OSB from a feedback on the performance of each member, who also served as official means for repositioning the musicians in their sections.This action was reported earlier this year and, and until the scheduled time for conducting evaluations, some of the musicians of the orchestra had showed dissatisfaction with the OSB Foundation’s decision.
In many negotiations, the Foundation sought to reach a consensus with this group of musicians, meeting with requests such as reducing the required repertoire for evaluations. The FOSB remained steady in relation to the indispensability of evaluations to continue its artistic development, but relaxed various aspects to ensure the fairness and legitimacy of the process with the musicians. No decision taken by  the FOSB, however, was good enough to meet the needs of this group of musicians, and the worsening relationship with them eventually led to their removal.
The Foundation resisted the most to this extreme alternative, which became the only one possible, given the context of insubordination and public defamation, in which it found itself inserted.The chronological report, which is found attached, shows details of the entire process. After the removal of the musicians, the OSB Foundation also undertook a last effort to resume negotiations and reached a consensus with the group about the necessity of the existence of evaluations. Given their requests, we designed a new format for the evaluations, to be held in June, and prepared a final proposal which called for the immediate reinstatement of all of them.
However, from that time on, the musicians have started to pressure the Foundation no longer about the evaluations, but on a point that was non-negotiable for the institution: the permanence of conductor Roberto Minczuk at the  position of OSB Artistic Director and Principal Conductor.
All attempts made by the OSB Foundation in order to circumvent this situation were not taken, given the requirement of the musicians in dismissing the artistic director of the orchestra. Thus,  a polarization of the debate and of the public opinion has been tried,  by shifting the attention from the primary focus: to raise the quality standard of the orchestra, which should be its irrevocable and continuous mission.
In five years under the artistic direction of Roberto Minczuk, the OSB has seen its annual budget leap from US$ 4 million to US$ 22 million, expanding its schedule of concerts and raising substantially the overall sonorityof the group, as it can be certified by the testimony of any reviewer who follows the work of the orchestra. The undeniable progress that have been made in recent years underlies the support from the OSB to the artistic project signed by the conductor for the orchestra, which is not guided by what has hitherto been obtained, but  by  the commitment to develop and further enhance this work over the next five years.In such circumstances, the Foundation made  a clear choice to go ahead in the qualification process for its music and its own organizational culture.
Just remember the pressures of  the  musicians  on  the artistic directors  who preceded Minczuk. By refusing to accept one more constraint from part of its orchestra, the Foundation seeks to break with old institutional vices and strengthen a path in which the value of each musician resides in their own professional merit.That is why the International Selection Process calls for new musicians to the artistic and institutional design of the OSB. For years, we have had about 13 open positions in our orchestra, and that number was recently widened with the removal of the musicians who did not wish to follow the work of artistic enhancement of the OSB.
A total of 33  openings in various instruments are being offered by the Selection Process, with conditions of competitiveness in the international concert music market.By clarifying the whole process that led to the  removal of some musicians, we would like to draw the attention of the International Federation of Musicians, not only to the legitimacy of the OSB Foundation’s actions, but as well to the effort in order to build a culture of excellence in  the Brazilian symphony music. The auditions that will take place in Rio de Janeiro, London and New York in the coming weeks represent another step in this direction and we await the review of the FIM on the organized boycott to the OSB Selection Process.
artwork by Scott Gustafson

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