London orchestra fails in manager search

London orchestra fails in manager search


norman lebrecht

August 10, 2016

The Philharmonia announced this morning that it had failed to identify a successor to managing director David Whelton, who is retiring next month after nearly 30 years.

As an interim measure, joint principal trumpet Alistair Mackie will manage the company until a suitable candidate is identified.

Horn player Kira Doherty will chair the board in his absence.

This is not a brilliant outcome.

Five months ago the Philharmonia released its inventive director of Creative Projects James Williams to become manager of the rival Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

james williams



  • Alexander Hall says:

    Since applications for the new position of CEO (rather than merely Managing Director) closed on 29 February, it has taken quite some time to realise that the calibre of what was needed was simply not there in the in-tray. David Whelton’s shoes will not be easy to fill, but the lack of suitable candidates does raise a very fundamental question. How far is any candidate prepared these days to be a mere administrator, following the wishes of the players (who effectively own an orchestra) and spending as much time on public relations in the broadest sense as on the direction of artistic policy. The whole point of having a CEO (as in the business world) is that you need to place your trust in an individual to lead, rather than doing the bidding of a management committee. The days are long past when an impresario like Walter Legge could practically dictate the fortunes of an entire group of players. But, as Karajan made clear on a number of occasions, you cannot have the highest artistic standards if you leave it to a committee. This is a dilemma that needs to be solved quite quickly.

  • Grace says:

    Letting James Williams go was a catastrophic mistake. How on earth did that happen??? The guy is young and very talented. All I can say is that the R.P.O now have the best manager and a very very bright future!

  • Will Duffay says:

    Didn’t Clive Gillinson end up being LSO Managing Director in a similar way, being pulled from the ranks when nobody else would do the job? That turned out okay.

  • Leo says:

    It takes talent to see talent. Headhunters aren’t alway’s up to the job and can’t see what’s staring them in the face!

  • mr oakmountain says:

    Principal trumpet Alistair Mackie will manage the company.
    Horn player Kira Doherty will chair the board.
    Top brass.

    Cheap joke apart, I wish them the best of luck. Then LSO cello player has shown that people picked from the orchestra – as a stop gap solution – may be full of surprises …

  • Hanna Nahan says:

    They can’t pay a CEO enough to attract someone of talent from outside the UK and no-one from inside UK wants the job.

  • Richard says:

    Many of us are in utter despair at this whole farce and it is about time someone took responsibility. To steal John Reid’s famous quote about the Home Office the entire management structure of the orchestra is not fit for purpose.

    David failed to plan his succession. There are huge question marks over the future of other senior members. The Council of Management and Philharmonia Trust should hang their heads in shame and resign in recognition of their collective laziness and incompetance and utter failure to ensure that one of the world’s great orchestras actually has a leader!

    How can it be that there is not a single qualified person in the entire world who either wants the job or is upto it?

    James was the obvious candidate but appears to have suffered from people whose duty is to know how their orchestra works not having the faintest idea what he actually did for it.

    But it is hard to believe that no-one else wants it or can do it.

    Even the American that Meyer alledgedly tried to entice and pay for some 200K plus turned it down !

    Part of the reason may well be the outdated overall structure where a new CEO knows that they don’t actually have full control because they are answerable to the musicians.

    Brilliant they may be but this is clearly a huge issue as they have no idea what actually goes into the running of an orchestra, the sponsorship, politics, planning, marketing and so on – and, indeed, why should they? That is not their expertise.

    This would not matter as much is it was a small private gang. But it is not. The orchestra needs massive public subsidy. It has responsibility to it’s sponsors and donors. We have an outstanding eductation and outreach programme. The musicians need to know that there is a direction and planning of future programmes to ensure their futures.

    And there are the audiences – the most important people of all.

    At a time of austerity and when there are serious questions being raised about the need and affordability of so many orchestras in London the leadership has failed. Massively.

    David has done a wonderful job over many years and deserves the applause that will surely come his way next month, but this leaves a large and sad and unnecessary shadow over his retirement.

    I wish Alistair and Kira well, but Meyer needs to be removed, along with Lipworth and Thompson who should all be utterly ashamed at their failure.

    They enjoy their titles and privileges so they should be honorable and accept their responsibility for the mess that is now making a wonderful orchestra an utter laughing stock.

    And whoever replaces them should be given an open brief to look at the entire set up of the organisation before we reach a stage where there is nothing left to actively manage.

    The ultimate frustration and irony is that the same headhunter who was so unenthusiastic about James at the Philharmonia had apparently also previously failed to find the new MD for the RPO !

  • Caravaggio says:

    Richard, you paint a picture of crisis and agony, and I feel for you. The Philharmonia is indeed one of the world’s great orchestras and, as one of its members, you obviously feel passionately about its future. Clearly, there are questions of management structure and responsibility to be addressed. And while it’s vital to appoint the right person to the CEO position, an interim period mustn’t last too long. There are potential candidates for this position out there: people who feel as passionately about the orchestra and its future as you do. It’s now up to the Council of Management to commit themselves to an appointment very soon.

  • William Byrd says:

    Tar and feathers for Heather Newill, the headhunter who time and again delivers opaque shortlists reeking of personal bias. Boards should stop buying her nonsense.

  • Caravaggio says:

    Three months later, and what progress? It’s nearly December and no announcements have been made. Several potential American candidates have recently quit their jobs in the US but it’s all gone quiet over here. It’s worrying when major arts organisations go for too long without firm leadership, although Alistair and Kira are clearly doing a great job interim. Is it impossible to lure James Williams back? Or is it time to restructure?