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Symphony to change how it operates

New managing director will face stiff challenges with new management structure

Thursday, May 01, 2003

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Critic

With a staggering deficit, a changing management structure, an ongoing search for a music director and an expiring musicians' contract on the agenda, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's new managing director will have to hit the ground running.

On top of that, the new manager will have only 24 months to get the situation relatively under control or face the possibility of downsizing the orchestra.

This worse-case scenario, as laid out by PSO chairman of the board Richard Simmons, isn't exactly conducive to a honeymoon period.

"If we can't [solve the long-term structural deficit], you'll find out because we'll have no other alternative but to downsize the orchestra," said Simmons. "I almost regret having made that last statement, but if you can't solve the problem, then you must pick another option. And going bankrupt is not one of them."

To find the person with the skills and experience needed to address the challenges facing the Symphony could take some time.

Although Gideon Toeplitz, who has been the PSO's managing director since 1987, is stepping down at the end of May, Simmons acknowledged that finding the right replacement "might take us longer than June."

Candidates would do well not to focus on how the PSO has been run, because that's about to change. Under Simmons, the PSO is restructuring its top echelon, making the new managing director the unequivocal boss of the music director.

"We are hiring a new managing director who will be the CEO, which means the music director will report to him," said Simmons. Board president Thomas Todd also holds the title of CEO, but his five-year board tenure expires in September. The new management structure was unanimously endorsed by the executive committee, and its passage by the full board is expected to be a formality. "Our search firm has been searching on that basis," Simmons said.

This move brings the PSO closer to the typical orchestral leadership structure.

"Pittsburgh is unusual in that it has both a chairman and a president," said Jack McAuliffe, vice president of the American Symphony Orchestra League, who added that titles don't mean as much as how the responsibility is allocated. "It is more likely that there are two rather than three people running the organization."

Simmons hopes the restructuring will invigorate and empower the PSO to make changes quickly and effectively.

"It makes no sense to me not to have accountability and responsibility residing in one paid individual. And if you don't like him, you fire him," he said. "When it is divided like a three-legged stool, in which the music director currently reports to the chief volunteer, the president, and everyone else reports to the managing director ... it permits divided responsibility and accountability."

He and others in the PSO feel a more defined leadership structure is needed to tackle the symptoms and causes of the PSO's financial crisis.

"We have a critical problem," said Simmons. "We've got to get through this summer with a cash-short flow," Simmons said. "And we have a structural deficit [last reported at $2 million] we've got to deal with."

To this effect, Simmons and the executive board are giving themselves 24 months from now to significantly improve the situation.

"We need two seasons to demonstrate that we can re-attract the audience we lost and bring in new audiences we never had. And, if we can't figure out ways to re-attract [that audience], then maybe we don't deserve to have a world-class orchestra. I think we can prove it, but we can't go to market the way we have."

In addition to its increased fund-raising efforts, the PSO is taking a hard look at what type of concerts it offers to Pittsburgh as well as how they're marketed.

"Most of the marketing initiatives that I think will be successful are those in which we segment the audience," said Simmons. "For example, we know we have substantial numbers of college students going to concerts. I have a program that will kick in next year on how to attract faculty." The Symphony is also targeting Pittsburgh's high tech sector and other business groups. "We're talking of making the Symphony a destination, an event, with dinner or with cocktails, so they can network."

While PSO musicians have been involved in marketing and fund-raising efforts, they have no representation on the committee seeking a new managing director. They are represented instead by an advisory committee.

"We decided that the people who were going to be working for the managing director shouldn't be picking him," said Simmons, though musicians are on the search committee for the new music director. "The search advisory committee is deeply involved in the process, but the executive committee will make the final determination."

Musicians' spokesman Hampton Mallory, who is on the search advisory committee, is satisfied with that explanation. "I haven't felt any part of the search was out of bounds for us. They are interested in our opinion," he said. "We have more input than last time."

There remains the question of what role, if any, the new managing director will have in the upcoming musicians contract negotiations in July and August.

"The new managing director probably won't participate in the negotiations," said Simmons. "Why would you bring a person in who doesn't know anything about the issues? We don't want him sitting across the table from the orchestra. 'Who is this guy,' they would say to themselves. And it could get them off on the wrong foot.

"We have communicated very effectively with the orchestra. [The musicians] know what our financial challenges are, and we don't need to bring in some stranger to negotiate that. We will have somebody that we've engaged to negotiate on our behalf."

One thing that is certain is the Symphony's future hangs on the hiring of the managing director, not just from the business standpoint but for the artistic side. Agents for some candidates to replace outgoing music director Mariss Jansons are concerned the PSO get its finances on firmer ground before it talks with their clients.

Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750.

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