October 18, 2012
“I will be surprised if there is a symphony in this town five years from now. They get rid of the Maestro and it’s over.”
There, I said it. Those are my own words. Sharp, certain and leaving no room for error.
And 17 years old.
I spoke those words almost two decades ago as news began to spread through the community that the Lima Symphony Orchestra’s board was preparing to end its contract with its beloved, longtime conductor. They seem ridiculous now, the hyperbole of a kid with too much enthusiasm for one man and not enough faith in his community. I bring them up, not because I enjoy publicly acknowledging how wrong I can be, but because I’ve heard similar lines spoken in recent weeks, and sometimes, addressing the past can put today’s news in perspective. I suspect this is one of those times.
A few weeks ago, it became public knowledge that the current symphony board of directors has decided not to offer its conductor and musical director another contract, meaning this will be his last season in front of Lima’s orchestra. Crafton Beck has been on that podium for the past 16 years and has earned a reputation as a great leader, a thrilling conductor, and a bright and genuine man. And so now we see a repeat of the same debate that took place before Beck came to town, a pitched and public bout between the board and a body of fans and musicians who fear, as I once did, that the man makes the band.
I am here to assure you, he does not.
Before I go any further, I will offer up the mandatory full disclosure. In addition to my work at this paper, I have been, for the past 12 years, the director of the Council for the Arts of Greater Lima. It is a volunteer position, but one that requires I serve as a cheerleader of sorts for local arts. The council, like all community arts providers, has a responsibility to support all groups who work to enrich and animate this community through the arts. There is no question that the Lima Symphony belongs near the top of that list, so I have some skin in the game.
That said, as a fan and ticket buyer, I also have a vested interest in having the very best local orchestra we can stage. And there is not a doubt in my mind that Crafton Beck has given us that. When Joe Firszt stepped down after almost three decades as conductor, many of us were convinced no one could fill his tails. But Beck brought new energy and a fresh sense of musicality to the stage. In time, he began to pull in new musicians who, in turn, brought new life to the orchestra. The result is an orchestra today that is markedly better than it was in 1996. My apocalyptic commentary from 17 years ago has been proved decidedly wrong.
So the people who are out there today, passing petitions and writing letters in an effort to keep Beck are right. And as a man who has often felt alone in my enthusiasm for local arts, I have to tell you, it’s pretty damn great to see people talking publicly, even getting riled up, over an orchestra. I am sure the symphony board members are sick of the clamor, but they should take heart in knowing that there are people out there who care passionately about their product.
The symphony board no doubt has reasons for making its decision to end Beck’s contract. I would argue they’ve done a poor job of communicating those reasons to the public, but that is not really their responsibility. As trustees of a nonprofit, board members have two main responsibilities, to direct the long- and short-range planning for the organization and to assist in raising funds to assure the group can continue to fulfill its mission.
Beck’s responsibility is to make sure he has a great orchestra and to program what he considers to be the best musical offerings his players can perform. The two jobs should never cross over. Beck may offer his suggestions, but he has no vote in the decisions made to make the symphony a sustainable organization. And the volunteer board members, no matter how much they may think they know, should never interfere with Beck’s artistic decisions.
That is the arrangement all arts organizations should adhere to and, if they ever hope to get money from major granting institutions, they will. But it can also lead to conflict when trustees decide the conductor’s artistic decisions are hurting their efforts to raise money. They cannot and should not tell the director what to do, so the alternative is to find a new director who shares their views.
I do not know for a fact that is the case with the Lima Symphony, but I suspect it plays some role. It is unfortunate, but it is also unavoidable.
In the end, we all need to understand a few things.
First, there are no bad guys in this scenario. Both the board and Beck have a job to do, and both are doing it in the way they believe is best for our community. We should be grateful for that.
Second, no one decision should alter our support for an organization as vital to our community as the Lima Symphony. Threatening to withhold support because they make a decision with which you disagree is the act of a petulant child and serves no useful purpose. If they make this move and the orchestra sucks, then you have my permission to put your season tickets on Craigslist. Until then, feel free to state your case, but understand that when you are dealing with nonprofits, the most-heard voices are those that offer answers and support.
Finally, we need to look to the past and realize we are in a steady loop of events. When Maestro Firzst left town, many of us were certain it was the end of the orchestra as we knew it. We were right, because we ended up with something that was different and measurably better. I would hate to see Maestro Beck go, but if he does, the orchestra will continue to play. It may be worse for awhile, it may be better, but the important thing is, it will play on. And, with any luck, two decades from now, we’ll be having his debate all over again.
Hopefully next time, I’ll be able to look back on these words and say I was right.