The bottom line: what top US orchestra executives are paid

The bottom line: what top US orchestra executives are paid


norman lebrecht

August 01, 2017

Drew McManus has just published his invaluable annual trawl of executive earnings in US orchestras, based on the IRS Form 990 that all public companies have to declare.

Drew’s latest figures, released first through Slipped Disc, cover the 2014/15 season, when Minnesota was emerging from turmoil and others were plunging right in. We will look at the disturbing Minnesota figures here..

In the meantime, here are the top 10 earners:

1 Los Angeles Philharmonic: $1,714,486 (Deborah Borda)

2 Minnesota Orchestra: $1,048,686 (Michael Henson)

3 Boston Symphony: $777,296 (Mark Volpe)

4 Philadelphia Orchestra: $776,143 (Allison Vulgamore)

5 New York Philharmonic: $675,984 (Matthew Van Besien)

6 Cleveland Orchestra: $629,303 (Gary Hanson)

7 San Francisco Symphony: $542,638 (Brent Assink)

8 Atlanta Symphony: $524,650 (Stanley Romanstein/Terry Neal)

9 Dallas Symphony: $521,699 (Jonathan Martin)

10 Detroit Symphony: $437,007 (Anne Parsons)

Much has changed since 2015. Deborah Borda has returned to NY, replacing Van Besien. Vulgamore is leaving Philly. Hanson went to Toronto. Assink retired. Atlanta hired Jennifer Barlament. And Jonathan Martin left Dallas for Cincinatti. Of the ten top earners of 2015, only Volpe and Parsons are still in their posts.

It’s a pressure job.

See Drew’s site for further details.


  • Olassus says:

    None of these salaries should be permitted at a nonprofit.

    • Ungeheuer says:

      Agreed. And these individuals are not the ones who underwent years of arduous training and not the ones putting themselves out before the public night after night in highly demanding music.

  • Gary says:

    And they keep calling asking me to contribute to the Friends of the LA Phil. Not a chance.

  • DrummerMan says:

    Why not Olassus? Why not Ungeheuer? These are top professionals in their field with at least 10-15 years of experience. These people are being asked to manage, in some cases, $100 million+ organizations with many hundreds of employees.Mr. Volpe, to cite one example, is not only responsible for the Boston Symphony but also Symphony Hall and Tanglewood. It’s because of their work that great musicians/conductors can be hired to “put themselves before the public.” Do you suppose that happens by “kismet?”

    I’m not saying that every orchestra manager is deserving of a huge salary/ But to say that a nonprofit can’t compensate people properly simply because they are nonprofit is absurd. How much does the CEO of the American Cancer Society get, or the United Way?

    BTW, I’ve been managing nonprofit arts organizations for 34 years.No, I’ve never earned a salary like any of those above.

    • Olassus says:

      They are worth every penny their boards wish to pay them, naturally.

      But then no more 501(c) bennies for the organization!

    • Ungeheuer says:

      Funny you should mention the Am Cancer Society and the United Way. As a rule written in stone, I do not give anything to those two (and many more like them). Their enormous (and perhaps unreasonable) administrative expenses, which includes those ultra hefty salaries for the top and which swallow an unreasonably high percentage of donations, simply disqualify them. Besides, they don’t quite ever make it clear where the money goes and for what purpose. Me thinks too many of these orgs are shams and scams that prey on a gullible (if well intentioned) public.

  • Fiddle Faddle says:

    Way too much pay!
    United Way’s budget is about US$ 3 billion; its CEO makes about $1.5 million.
    Compare the size of United Way and to any of the US orchestras listed and do the math!

    Musicians at those orchestras are close to the top of their profession – the average orchestra CEO???

    • trolley80 says:

      United Way is a bit of an apples and oranges comparison, since the CEO really oversees an umbrella of many local chapters who each have their own CEOs and so forth. Many of those chapters have very highly paid CEOs of their own, such as United Way of the Bay Area, which pays its CEO over $500K in total compensation. The annual functional expenses of UWBA are half that of the annual expenses of the SF Symphony, whose CEO is paid only slighly more in total compensation.

    • trolley80 says:

      I must add that I find it humorous you think the CEO of the United Way is at the top of his profession, but the CEO of the New York or Los Angeles Philharmonics are not at the top of theirs.

  • DrummerMan says:

    You can look up a nonprofit’s IRS Form 990 at – then you can get an idea of how much money goes for programs, how much for “overhead.” FYI…nonprofits are required, by law, to make their 990s available to the public during normal business hours. Theoretically, you could walk into the Cancer Society’s headquarters, ask to see their most recent 990 and they would have to produce it.

    Fiddle Faddle (named for Leroy Anderson, I hope!), many of the above-mention CEOs are, indeed, at the top of their profession. Of course some are not. But I don’t know that it’s fair to compare orchestra salaries with management salaries for a number of reasons. First, foremost, is that the musicians are covered (protected) by a union contract. Not so for CEOs who can be hired/fired at will. CEOs don’t get a pension as the musicians do. A first year orchestra musician — in many cases fresh out of school with no professional experience — is guaranteed to get the same base pay as someone who has been in the orchestra for 30 years. They don’t have to work themselves “up the ladder” as the CEOs did. CEOs are typically working 50+ hours per week, almost 52 weeks of the year, excluding vacation time. Not so for the orchestra – yes, I know you have to practice at home.

    As Yul Brynner would say: Etcetera, etcetera……

    I don’t expect to get rich in the classical music business but I didn’t take a vow of poverty, either. I’d like to be able to pay my bills and have a few pennies left over at the end of the month to put away for my “golden years” which, unfortunately are getting closer and closer!!

  • trolley80 says:

    Just a general comment on this topic, which people love to talk about in direct proportion to how little they understand about the nonprofit industry in general and orchestras specifically.

    The CEOs of the largest American orchestras are paid roughly as well as the CEOs of all the other large nonprofit organizations in their markets with comparable budget sizes. Singling out the CEO of an orchestra and saying she doesn’t deserve $400K annually but the CEOs of all the other big nonprofits in town (United Way, your hospitals, your other arts orgs, etc) do is not a great strategy. As I mentioned in another post, the CEO of United Way of the Bay Area makes roughly the same in compensation as the CEO of the SF Symphony, but the SF Symphony has double the budget and, I suspect, a larger workforce.

    I recognize that nobody is specifically arguing that only Symphony CEOs do not deserve high pay; perhaps nonprofits in general are the problem!

    Pay among nonprofit executives is a perennial topic of pearl-clutching conversation. A highly qualified person is not going to take a (very difficult!) job as a nonprofit CEO, particularly in a large orchestra with a $40m+ budget, at $150K a year (or whatever number you, personally, believe is appropriate based on whatever opinions you, personally, have) when they could draw on much the same skill set to run a different nonprofit organization and make $250K, or decamp for another (again, relatively comparable) job in the private sector and make $2.5m or much more.

    Believe me when I tell you that the wealthy people who sit on boards understand this very well, because a large proportion of them have worked for their wealth, understand the needs of large complex organizations, and know that you can’t expect to hire a decently qualified person to be CEO of the New York Philharmonic and pay him less than he might make as a 30 year old associate at ANY law firm.

    • DrummerMan says:

      I do not disagree with you. I simply mentioned United Way since it happened to come to mind first. I was objecting to the original posts (above) that people who work in nonprofits should not be properly compensated. It seems that you feel the same way.

      Of course I would dispute you final sentences about board members but that’s another story for another day!!

      • trolley80 says:

        I am genuinely curious what else you have to say. I hope it’s not “most board members inherited their wealth and haven’t worked a day in their lives,” because that has not been my experience in any of the large prominent arts nonprofits that I’ve worked for yet it’s a conversation I have had many, many times.

        • DrummerMan says:

          What I meant was that, in my professional experience, 99% of board members don’t have a clue in the world what the administrative staff does. I once invited my board president to “shadow” me for a day in my office. That was in 2007 — I’m still waiting for his answer!

  • Jacob Scheidlin says:

    We live in a very unfair disgusting world. I was a scholarship student at Juilliard for six years but have been literally blocked out of everything over the past two decades. Honestly just waiting for the “lights to go out.” This is what years of practicing five hours a day and being recognized gets someone.

    It’s a J game. Always has been, always will be.