Friday, June 19, 2009

CSO suckers us all

Posted By on Fri, Jun 19, 2009 at 11:31 AM

Observer music critic Steven Brown and I do not agree on every note the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra plays — or misplays. We didn't agree, candidate for candidate, on who were the very best fits for the orchestra as CSO searched for a successor to music director Christof Perick. We didn't even agree on what criteria the choice should be based.

Brown factored in how many orchestras each of the candidates was already contracted to, our chances of landing candidates who were auditioning for other vacancies across the country, and what sort of impact each candidate would have on the community and CSO fundraising. My choice was based strictly on the quality and adventurousness of the music I heard at Belk Theater from the ensemble as each of the eight candidates took his shot at the podium. The man who could draw the most from the musicians, I argued, would do the best job of growing Symphony's audience, and funding would naturally follow.

Over two seasons, we chronicled our views on the candidates while CSO surveyed subscribers for their reactions after each audition. Brown and I disagreed on many particulars, but prior to Symphony's official announcement on May 26, we had spoken with one voice in one key respect. Whatever the criteria, the man chosen to lead our Symphony in the coming years, Christopher Warren-Green, ranked closer to the bottom of the heap than the top. What did subscribers think? Well, since CSO hasn't blazoned any contradictory data gleaned from those audience surveys, I suspect the voice of the people concurred with ours on Warren-Green's musical mediocrity.

Their opinion was as unimportant to Symphony management and board members as the critics'.

As Brown dug into the story, it seemed likely that the distinguishing quality that shaped CSO's decision was Warren-Green's willingness to relocate to Charlotte and roll up his sleeves to help with PR and fundraising. Nobody went on- or off-the-record with anything that might imply that Warren-Green was the best — or only — candidate Symphony could get for the salary they offered. Our lordly Arts & Science Council would have had a hissy fit if their chief performing client had made such an embarrassing admission, even if the ASC's own punitive reduction of funding for 2009-10 made a competitive hire impossible.

So we have a new CSO music director who was bought at a shabby auction — sold to the Symphony that's picking up pennies off the sidewalk to pay for him! Either that, or we take management's word and conclude that the whole competition for the exalted position was an absolute sham. Because if it was more about moving to Charlotte than music, patrons who diligently filled out all their survey forms were suckered as surely as the critics who conscientiously weighed in after each audition. So were the aspiring candidates who were lured into the sham competition without being told that moving to Charlotte would be a pre-requisite to standing any real chance of winning. So was Perick, coaxed into lingering on as music director for another season so that Symphony and their board could complete their sham deliberations.

Oh, wait. Perick was presumably paid — quite handsomely — for the role he played in the masquerade. Guess he's making his peace with all this deception better than I am.

Just one other revelation sticks in my craw — as a journalist and as a music lover. Open the July/August issue of Symphony, the magazine published by the League of American Orchestras, and you'll find CSO executive director Jonathan Martin boasting about the process. "We've garnered three articles about each of the candidates — a preview feature, a concert review, and lastly a follow-up story that segues into what's going to happen next," Martin crows, citing the Observer's coverage. "The amount of return has been extraordinary. We get hundreds of responses on each of the guest conductor concert weekends."

Too bad Martin didn't gush so freely on the importance of the input CSO received from the press and public in determining the ultimate outcome. On that subject, Martin was coolly noncommittal. "We're not running a popularity contest," he told magazine reporter Chloe Veltman. "Weighing lots of criteria based on feedback from donors, audience members, musicians, and others can only help us get the right result."

If that helps CSO subscribers feel that their voices were heard rather than merely counted, I envy their gullibility. To Brown and the Observer, so cynically manipulated during this whole charade, I can only offer this feeble consolation: Though I disagreed with it, your top choice for the Symphony vacancy was better than Symphony's.

Sadly, I'm almost sure that CSO subscribers and CSO musicians would agree with me on that. Pity is, none of Symphony's powerbrokers was listening intelligently to our voices. Or to the music.

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