Plus ça change…

By Frank Almond
non divisi


By now most everyone has heard about the latest developments in Detroit. My first reaction was one of shock and surprise; the surprise lessened considerably after I thought it through a little more. In fact, I found myself wondering why she hadn’t bailed out sooner. But nobody should misconstrue what’s happened- a major loss for the orchestra at a precarious time, and a definitive vote of no confidence from one of its most prominent and visible musicians.

I don’t know Emmanuelle Boisvert very well, only peripherally during our time as “co-concertmasters” in Seattle, more recently through some informal email exchanges, and of course from her excellent reputation. On the surface, it might seem odd that the CM from Detroit would up and leave after 23 years for an associate position in Dallas, a group with a traditionally smaller budget and perhaps less historical cachet. But I also played in Dallas several times this year as CM (the orchestra had many guests this season), and there are a lot or compelling things happening there. Attention Mr. Woodcock/Teachout/ other Chicken Little charter members: the Dallas Symphony has it going on.

As I can attest, and as Ms. Boisvert noted in her eloquent statement, the Dallas orchestra currently functions in an atmosphere of respect, ambition, financial stability, and an upward artistic trajectory. Jaap van Zweden has big plans, and despite some recent leadership changes on the admin side, things are moving in a notably positive direction. Contrast this with the catastrophic events in Detroit over the last year coupled with their current habitual inertia and the Board’s evident refusal to make the necessary leadership adjustments at the top, and a large middle finger is not unexpected from any musician.

Consider the colossally tepid statement from the Detroit board chair, Stanley Frankel:

“The DSO learned of this disappointing loss just this morning. We thank Emmanuelle Boisvert for her many years of dedicated service and artistic excellence and wish her much happiness and success in her future endeavors with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

Retaining and attracting top talent remains a priority for the DSO at every level and under the leadership of our Music Director Leonard Slatkin, the DSO will continue to achieve tremendous artistic success while building a sustainable and viable business model going forward.”

Huh? 23 years as Concertmaster, and that’s it? Incidentally, the silence from Executive Director Anne Parsons was notable, as was the absence of a comment from Music Director Leonard Slatkin (in my opinion he’s about the only beacon of hope left around there).

I have news for Mr. Frankel, the Board, Ms. Parsons, and other subscribers to the absurd notion that top musicians can be easily and quickly replaced without substantially damaging the brand name and artistic quality: that won’t happen.

A great ensemble (or business, or team) is dependent on well-developed and sophisticated working relationships that can take years to refine. Further, musicians who stay for decades develop deep roots in the community, which benefits everyone. At this point Detroit has very little chance of attracting anything close to experienced “top talent”, especially for the position of Concertmaster. Of course there are legions of kids coming out of music schools who will play beautifully. Over a period of years (yes, years), some will be hired to replace departing musicians from this season. With rare exceptions they will be stand-ins; proxies for experienced artists that made the orchestra what it was for all those years before the strike.

My sense is that Ms. Boisvert will not be the last veteran musician to depart Detroit over the next several months; time will tell. Beyond the strike-ending settlement, I suppose one can hope that the Board will eventually realize what other changes are necessary to stop both the hemorrhaging of talent and the Detroit Symphony’s race to the bottom.

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