A row over re-audition procedures at the Brazil Symphony Orchestra has prompted many local musicians and overseas colleagues to black out their facebook photos in protest.
I write in an open letter format to support your intention to renew the Brazilian Symphony Orchestra, OSB, and establish a higher artistic level. The OSB used to be a leader among Brazilian orchestras, but thanks to your work and leadership during these past years as well as the dedication of the musicians who kept the orchestra alive for so many difficult years, we see that the orchestra is now receiving its deserved high recognition.
However, I beg you to reconsider the strategy of imposing internal auditions to the entire orchestra, or even to a single musician. This strategy has been used before in Brazil, at OSESP, leaving scars on the music market up to this day that affect musicians and the conductor himself. At that time, however, the OSESP internal auditions brought in judges from outside the organization, reducing or eliminating the perception that non-artistic standards – that is, a personal preference of the conductor – would be used in the process of choosing musicians.
To justify these auditions, much is said about the need to raise the level of our orchestras to international standards. Ironically, there is no precedent of great international orchestras going through internal auditions to reach that level. Instead, the major orchestras in the world reached a high plateau after the onset of labor movements that gave support to the musicians, giving them job security and reasonable working conditions that foster this high standard.
The Berlin Philharmonic began its journey as a significant leader among orchestras of the twentieth century after a movement in 1882 when 54 musicians complained about working conditions and formed a new group, leaving behind their conductor. And Chicago became a leading international orchestra after the departure of Fritz Reiner and the formation of its musician’s committee which defended the labor rights of its members. In fact, Chicago’s first int
ernational tour was only in
1971, eight years after the departure of Reiner, a period in which the Musician’s Committee established the foundations for better working conditions.
Against this historical movement you cannot fight. The days of the “Godfather” in factories and industries is now long gone. Today, modern enterprises value the feedback within the firm, with “bosses” and “employees” in constant two-way communication toward a better quality product. Neither Embraer nor Petrobrás order the re-interviewing of all its engineers. This is the secret of the success of large companies as well as major international orchestras. The election of internal auditions goes in the opposite direction to these modern ideas, and makes the OSB under your leadership look at the year 1950 as an example for the future. You do not deserve this comparison, Roberto, and you need to change the course of this discussion.
The auditions have other negative consequences. They create a work environment of “us against them” where the first possible opportunity is used to score points against the other party, generating distrust, unnecessary friction, and none of that is commensurate with good music, where harmony should reign, mutual respect, artistic cohesion, and that great moment where the orchestral conductor and orchestra are “one”, and form a magical partnership. A “partnership”, however, indicates a horizontal working strategy, side by side, between conductor and musicians. And not something vertical where the maestro is on top and his decisions are untouchable. The respect musicians must have for a conductor is not really different from that which an engineer has for the administration at Embraer or Petrobras, and it depends on a two-way street where the leadership “makes sense” for the highly trained technicians who assemble the company’s product. If, from the point of view of musicians the leadership of the conductor “makes no sense”, this musician will not produce his best work, unless the desired product is merely that of 100 musicians playing together. But looking at your career, Roberto, you know how to achieve more, and you deserve more than that. Perhaps other conductors settle for less, just as well as some companies accept a lower standard. But for a top-notch institution, we demand the highest quality in everything we do, on all fronts.
It is also wrong, therefore, for musicians to demand the immediate dismissal of a conductor. You have a 6-year contract, and you should have the right to carry it through without interference or internal strife against you. Shouldn’t you also lead by example and give the musicians their own permanence without the presence of internal strife that threatens their job security and livelihood? Wouldn’t it make more sense to ensure the reasonable job security for all – musicians and conductors as contracted – leaving them free to create music without wasting time and resources, and the wear-and-tear of internal auditions and dismissals?
Mind you, Roberto, your situation is quite different from Neshling’s when he did the auditions at OSESP in the 90’s. You conduct the world’s finest orchestras, Philadelphia, New York Phil, and have an important position in Calgary. All of these modern orchestras have “horizontal” agreements with their musicians. You need not be equal to Neshling to uphold your reputation as a great orchestral leader in Brazil, and do not need to use techniques which are discredited internationally to command respect and discipline from your orchestra. A wrong choice now could cause complications and raise suspicions in your reputation abroad. You do not deserve any of this after devoting so much to your career, and we need you in Brazil as a modern leader.
The OSB is an excellent orchestra, and includes many of the best orchestral musicians in Brazil. The institution itself owes them a big thank you for keeping this orchestra alive through many years of labor conditions that fell way below expectations. If there are musicians who no longer keep up with the work demands, maybe you can bring to OSB the separation principles already existing in Calgary and other foreign orchestras that you have already conducted. A musician facing dismissal deserves to know the reasons for his impending termination, and a real chance to offer improvements. If the termination is still desired, the musician deserves to defend his case through the Musician’s Committee, so as to prevent non-artistic reasons from permeating the decision to fire him. After that, if the dismissal is truly inevitable, then please give the musician some mercy and the dignity of a proper separation, with a round of applause, a certificate of appreciation, at least some recognition that his days in OSB were of value, for which the institution thanks him. Please consider the human being inside this musician because this message will then be clear to those who are remaining in the orchestra, that it appreciates those who actually produce its sound.
These musicians have families, Roberto. They have bills to pay. The path to the desired major renovation of an orchestra is not through the removal of musicians, but by encouraging them to produce the best music they ever played, nurturing their self-esteem. I agree, however, that it is much more difficult for a conductor to work under these conditions, where 100 musicians have their own opinion and often opposed to that of the conductor. It is also much harder for Dilma Rouseff to govern our country than it is for Kim Il-Sung to govern his. For this is the system we live in: a democracy, where there is freedom of e
xpression. An orchestra or company is not a democracy, but we Brazilians are democratic people, it is in our veins. We breathe the dialogue and free expression in all our affairs, and it is up to the smart leader to know how to transform all this energy into productivity. The experience with democratic values has its price, especially for those who lead. We cannot cede to autocratic values simply because or whenever they suit us. We are Brazilians, we do not respond well to autocracy, and that’s a good thing. The orchestra, as a micro-society, also breathes democratic values even if the format of the organization is contractual and business-oriented.
I ask you, my dear friend, to reconsider and cancel those auditions. You are in an excellent position to bring to Brazil the standards of an international orchestra. Do it. Bring to your country the true standards that made a Philadelphia or Cleveland Orchestra what they are today. Raise the level of productivity of the musicians, but please do it with respect and dignity.
Let’s turn the page and close this chapter of layoffs, misunderstandings, biases, authoritarianism, and the inevitable lack of artistic consensus it brings. No more mass layoffs of musicians, and no more demands for the immediate departure of the conductor.
We count on you, Roberto, on the musician who you are and what you represent for the future, to lead the OSB without internal auditions, not because it’s easy but because it is difficult. But it is the right thing to do.