Out of the Ashes: The Tulsa Symphony Orchestra
Orchestras in the United States face an array of existential challenges, including declining ticket sales, ever tougher competition for donations, rising costs and labor unrest. Many ensembles go under or are on the brink of doing so.
It doesn’t have to be this way, and the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra (TSO) underscores the point.
Indeed, as we will argue in this and several additional articles, TSO has emerged as the kind of success story that administrators at similarly sized ensembles should seriously consider emulating. Moreover, graduates of America’s finest conservatories can pursue openings at TSO with confidence for several reasons:
- TSO has operated in the black since its founding in 2006.
- There has never been management-labor strife of significance, much less a strike; in fact, musicians enjoy an unusually high level of empowerment as members of the orchestra’s board, administration and committees.
- TSO has the strong backing of donors and, increasingly, the support of all Tulsa residents, not just the concert-going public, because of its strong commitment to community service.
- The orchestra is positioning itself to make its musicians full-time salaried employees.
These, then, are the enviable indicators of a healthy, thriving arts organization. To begin appreciating them fully, it helps to recall the situation during the years between 2002 and TSO’s founding. By all accounts, this was grim enough for lovers of classical music to question the future of professionally played orchestral music in Tulsa.
In 2002, the Tulsa Philharmonic had gone out of business, having endured years of management-labor battles over musicians’ pay along with a strike and bankruptcy. Numerous musicians were out of work. Several were moving to other parts of the country in search of jobs.
Moreover, the manner in which the Tulsa Philharmonic had exited Tulsa’s arts scene did not go over well with the orchestra’s supporters. In a recent interview, Dr. Erv Janssen, a local psychiatrist and amateur double bass player, recalled buying four season tickets to Tulsa Philharmonic concerts shortly before the orchestra ceased operations, only to read in the Tulsa World that his purchase would count as a tax-deductible contribution only. He and other patrons wouldn’t be getting refunds because there was no money for them.
“One of the dynamics in the community was a lack of trust,” Janssen said. “The community didn’t trust the Philharmonic. The musicians didn’t trust each other; there was infighting and conflict. People were uncertain about each other. Some people seemed to have more power than others. Often, one’s personal thoughts and opinions would not be taken seriously or into consideration.”
The bottom line: An orchestra of the Tulsa Philharmonic’s caliber might make a comeback in Tulsa. But donors would not back it unless it radically changed how it did business.
What to do? Fortunately, in the years following the Tulsa Philharmonic’s folding, the late Dr. Frank Letcher, at the time a recently retired neurosurgeon in Tulsa, began researching a bold answer. Among other things, he sought the counsel of Nick Webster, who became an influential arts consultant after serving as the executive director of the New York Philharmonic. Webster strongly advocated for two highly unusual-but-related principles in an orchestra’s culture: 1) the use of consensus for reaching all decisions and 2) the integration of musicians into all facets of operations, including the board, administrative positions and committees.
Letcher backed this thinking zealously — so much so that it would come to guide his founding of the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra, which presented its first concert in November of 2006.
Linda Frazier, who served on the board of the Tulsa Philharmonic and is a longtime TSO board member, states that, “there were foundations in Tulsa that felt the best gift to the new, fledgling Tulsa Symphony would be to support an interim executive director. David Hyslop, who had been executive director of both the St. Louis Symphony and the Minnesota Orchestra, was recommended to us by Nick Webster. David’s time with us was so successful that the Albert and Hete Barthelmes Foundation then supported the hiring of our first permanent executive director, Ron Predl.”
By all accounts, the musician-integrated model has been a major success, having replaced an “us-versus-them” mentality with an “us-only” one. It’s also kept morale high.
- Tim McFadden, TSO’s principal trumpet, helped Letcher get TSO off the ground after playing for several years in the Tulsa Philharmonic. He called Letcher “a genius” for recognizing that musicians are highly educated and capable of doing far more than contributing to a labor pool.
- Steve Craft, a percussionist in both the Tulsa Philharmonic and TSO, has served on several committees of TSO. He said that committee work makes him feel that he and other musicians now “control our destiny” and are a crucially important part of an entire orchestra team whose members are working together effectively.
- Kari Caldwell, the former principal cellist of the Tulsa Philharmonic, now holds the same title with TSO. She serves on TSO’s board, was its president for a couple of years and has sat on several orchestra committees. She welcomes the opportunity to bring her and other musicians’ ideas to the table because “we know a lot about what goes on. We’re here every day.”
- Linda Frazier said that it’s “such a pleasure” to work with musician board members. “They have wonderful ideas,” she said. “They’re multi-talented, smart about music, but about so many other things as well.” Frazier added that the adoption of the musician-integrated model made “a huge difference” to bringing donors back to the TSO fold and keeping them there. “They knew that the musicians were going to be invested in the success of the organization,” she said.
So, what accounts for the staying power of the integrated model at TSO? Certainly, a deep understanding of and highly committed embrace of consensus has played a pivotal role. This is traceable to Janssen, who would assist Letcher and McFadden in founding the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra and become one of its first board members. Along the way, he authored multiple documents clarifying how consensus should work for the orchestra.
In the words of one of these documents, consensus “is a group decision that takes into consideration the interest of all concerned parties,” (while some members may not feel it is the best decision, they agree not to undermine it but to live with and support it), “arrived at without voting, through a process whereby the issues are fully aired, all members feel they have been adequately heard, and in which everyone has equal power and responsibility.”
“Different degrees of influence by virtue of individual stubbornness or charisma are avoided so that all are satisfied with the process. Consensus is a mutually acceptable agreement that does not imply total agreement or unanimous assent.”
Janssen allows that reaching a decision through consensus may seem to take considerably longer than, say, proposing a policy and voting on it via Robert’s Rules of Order. But the extra time is worth it.
“What seems to be a longer process is successful because you are already developing buy-in in the process from the beginning,” Janssen said. “You’re not developing antagonism by somebody voting and saying, ‘Your idea doesn’t count.’ Because there’s buy-in, implementation is already underway before a decision has been made. I may not agree with a decision, in other words, but I’m willing to give it a try. That’s an important internal focus.”
This dynamic plays out repeatedly with the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra and helps explain why it is a functional organization. It manifested itself recently as the musicians’ committee tackled a challenging issue with profound implications for the orchestra’s future. This was deciding whether or not to continue offering a travel subsidy to orchestra musicians from out of town who replaced retiring ones.
In the end, the subsidy was adjusted — but not before all ramifications were considered.
On the one hand, there was concern that taking away the subsidy would end up “limiting the pool that might audition,” said Craft, a committee member. On the other, the subsidy didn’t make sense in the grand scheme of things because it took money away from other bigger priorities. It also discouraged prospective orchestra members from making Tulsa their home and contributing to it in a variety of artistic and educational ways.
Another committee of TSO, the artistic committee, comprised of Board, staff, and musicians, also epitomizes the way consensus works at the orchestra. It’s responsible for determining which pieces the orchestra will play on concerts, who will solo in concertos. and who the conductor will be. This is in stark contrast to the situation at most orchestras, which entrust programming decisions to a permanent music director.
McFadden explained that when the artistic committee meets each Friday, each of its members presents his or her ideas for repertoire — then the group hashes out all the relevant implications. The prospect of performing a particular piece may appeal to an orchestra member, for example, but will the audience want to hear it? If a proposed piece requires extra musicians and/or practice time, is there enough money in the budget to cover that? Once programs are decided they are presented to the marketing committee, which is one of the many checks and balances in this model. Artistic looks at programming through an artistic lens while marketing looks at the salability.
“This orchestra’s model is entirely unique to Tulsa, Oklahoma,”, says executive director, Keith Elder. “No other orchestra in this industry has had the same level of success in regard to governance stability of this kind. The Tulsa Symphony Orchestra, which was born from the ashes of the Tulsa Philharmonic, has developed into a model that can be replicated nationally.”
The Tulsa Symphony Orchestra is a self-governing organization. The next article in this series will look at what that means and how it contributes to the TSO’s success.