Unfinished Symphony

Thirteen years ago|as conductor Klauspeter Seibel steps down, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra became the nation's first musician-governed symphony. Now, the LPO tunes up for its biggest challenge



Downtown in the Orpheum Theatre, Klauspeter Seibel leads the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra in an emotional performance of one of his favorites, the Mahler Third Symphony. It's a long and difficult piece, requiring extra instrumentation, a voice soloist, full chorus and boys choir. Tonight, something wonderful is happening: the LPO is hitting "the zone." The musicians are concentrating so hard, playing so passionately, and are so in tune with each other and their conductor that an electric buzz can be felt throughout the audience. It's one of the best concerts of the season, Seibel's farewell performance before stepping down as music director.

But amidst the tears and standing ovations, there are many, many empty seats. It's May 13, and 25 million Americans are at home, watching the series finale of Frasier.

Jump to early August at the LPO's new administrative office on Baronne Street. A handful of unpacked boxes and stray cubicle dividers are stacked up against one wall. There has been a similar overhaul at the top tier of the LPO's administration. Sharon Litwin's executive director position has been split in two: General manager Barbara "Babs" Mollere has been elevated to managing director and will handle the day-to-day aspects of running the administration and internal relations; Litwin is now concentrating her efforts on raising money and on the orchestra's creative projects.

Across town at Rosie Lea's Bubble Tea Cafe, LPO musician president Mike Bucalo waits for his order. Bucalo is clean cut, with blue eyes that reveal his fatigue. He spent the morning in board meetings, then took a quick look at the site of the new LPO music library. After Rosie Lea's, he'll dash to Loyola University to teach a private lesson.

Bucalo remarks to LPO community trustees president Hugh Long that he's seen the site of the new music library, and he's pleased with the space. Bucalo and Long co-chair the orchestra's board; their efforts have been successful enough to warrant their continuing on for another year.

But little else is certain in the ever-changing world of the LPO.

On Thursday, Sept. 16, the Louisiana Philharmonic begins its 14th season. The orchestra stands at a crossroads. As the administration reorganizes and the orchestra struggles to find new revenue and a new audience, all eyes are on a parade of young guest conductors, one of whom might helm the next artistic phase of the LPO. (See sidebar, "Passing the Baton.")

The LPO finished last year in the black -- but did so at the expense of musician salaries, which are less than half of market average. It's a tough fight to run a symphony in New Orleans, a city known more for jazz and Mardi Gras, but it's a fight the LPO knows well.

THE UNIQUE MUSICIAN-OWNED model of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra dates to 1991, when the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra (NOSO) collapsed, leaving musicians unemployed. NOSO had not filed for bankruptcy, the usual method of death for symphonies in America. But its infrastructure was in shambles, its funds dried up, and its musicians were threatening to strike. On Sept. 12, 1991, the NOSO board voted to cancel the upcoming season and cease operations.

LPO cellist Annie Cohen recalls how the symphony's musicians began meeting around her kitchen table. "Basically, the bottom line was we had all lost our jobs and we had nothing to lose," says Cohen. "We didn't want the city to learn how to live without an orchestra."

During those kitchen sessions, the musicians decided to reform as the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, a musician-owned and musician-run model that had never been tried successfully in the United States. Typically, American orchestras are controlled by boards composed of community members who might have little or no background in music. Instead of simply being, as Cohen puts it, "the hired help" in the old management/labor set-up, LPO musicians took charge as the players, owners, marketing and management, with Cohen serving as the first president.

As time went on, the musicians discovered how difficult -- and time-consuming -- managing an orchestra could be. "Over time, we began delegating responsibility and adding community members to the board of trustees, and taking on a paid administrative staff on an affordable basis," says Bucalo, who was a trumpet player in the NOSO and continues to play in the LPO.

Gradually, the LPO evolved into its current state: a collaborative effort between musicians, community board members and administrative staff. Musicians act essentially as shareholders in a corporation, with control over the hiring and firing of musicians and tenure policies. The board of trustees is a mix of community members and musicians. Finance, concert programming and other operations are jointly controlled by committees comprised of a mixture of musicians, board members and administrative staff. Musicians hold the power to vote on -- and vote out -- board positions. The unique setup has attracted the attention of several national foundations, which have studied the LPO in return for grants.

But throughout its history, the LPO has always lagged behind in musician salaries. Dismal wages at the LPO have forced New Orleans' premier classical musicians to seek supplemental income. Most do this by working as teachers. Others freelance, playing at weddings and other functions. Annie Cohen tells of a fellow cellist, Bill Schultz, who fixes Saabs in his front yard.

Mollie Pate is the young principal French horn player for the LPO. She earned her master's in performance from the prestigious New England Conservatory -- and after every Saturday night performance, she puts her horn away and goes to one of her other jobs: bartending at Cosimo's. "After a performance I would just go home, change clothes, and then I'd work until 6 o'clock in the morning," says Pate. "It's almost like I make half my salary in one night." On top of that, she teaches at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and University of New Orleans, plays extra gigs, and subs occasionally for the Boston Symphony.

It's not unusual for professional orchestra musicians to make an extra buck by giving private lessons. But that practice is a necessity at the Louisiana Philharmonic. According to community trustees president Hugh Long, LPO musician salaries reached a peak of $19,000 in the year 2000, but have now been cut back to $18,000 per year -- less than half of the average salary of a musician in similar-sized markets. At the Kansas City Symphony, for example, musicians are paid between $39,000 and $40,000.

"New Orleans should be ashamed about the levels ... their first-class orchestra musicians have to live on," says Seibel. "These wages are kind of ridiculous in compared to peer orchestras; it's less than half of what other orchestras of this level are making. So this is the first issue, all the time, always has been like this."

Or, as Long puts it, "Even adjusting for inflation, we've never gotten back to the levels that the old (New Orleans) Symphony had."

The reason, says Long, is the LPO's small budget. The organization managed to hit last year's budget goal of $4,019,000, ending the 2003-2004 year with a very small surplus. But compare that to the Kansas City Symphony's budget of more than $9 million, and it's easy to see why LPO players are paid so little. "When I look at the statistics that are available to the American Symphony Orchestra League for orchestras of this size market, of this number of players, playing between 35 and 40 weeks, I see budgets that are in the $7 (million) to $8 million range, and almost all of that is reflected in musician salaries," Long says.

At the LPO, salaries for everyone -- from management to musicians -- are interconnected and tied to revenue. As the LPO has set up its economic model, Seibel can make no more than four to five times what musicians make -- putting his salary at most in the $72,000 to $90,000 range, according to Bucalo and Long. His salary ranks at about 70 percent of national market average.

The LPO isn't revealing specific numbers about what it might offer a new conductor. But everyone connected to the symphony agrees that increasing salaries is a top priority. To do so, the LPO must find ways to increase revenue. Yet with a still-sluggish economy and much competition for New Orleans' entertainment dollars, it's a challenge just to keep going. It's up to the LPO's hired administration team -- which covers the box office, marketing, development and special projects -- to pull in the money. Until recently, those operations have been overseen by another key LPO figure who's also in transition: executive director Litwin.

SHARON LITWNI IS AN INTRIGUING FIGURE, with her short crop of white hair and her London accent, which, during her years in New Orleans, has mingled with a creeping Southern drawl. As executive director, she's overseen day-to-day administration tasks, but it's her grant writing that has been indispensable.

"Sharon has been able to bring us in some of the big bucks that we've lacked," says LPO community advisory board member Adelaide Benjamin. "She's gotten us some huge foundation grants from out of the city, because you've really got to go outside of the city, and the money just isn't here to do what you need to do."

Hugh Long agrees. He says grants from the likes of the Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, among others, have kept the LPO alive. "Sharon had been very successful in getting national grants of significant size," he says. "The timing couldn't have been better in terms of those arriving and coinciding with other things shrinking."

Nationwide, many orchestras benefit from local and state arts taxes, but the LPO is not so lucky. For the 2003-2004 season, the combined figure for local and state funding reached $182,000, only 4.5 percent of the total LPO budget. "Most cities do give their orchestras a reasonable level of funding," Litwin says. "But I guess it's just one of those many things that the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana has difficulty doing. It's a very small amount."

Scott Aiges, the director of music business development for the city of New Orleans, puts it rather bluntly. "I think the LPO is an extremely important cultural institution in New Orleans and I try very hard to support it in any way I can," Aiges says. "But as everyone knows, the city is very short on money."

Ticket sales have been "pretty flat," acknowledges Long. Getting the public to donate is often difficult, in part due to competition from sports teams and Mardi Gras krewes. Corporate sponsorship from Hibernia Bank, Whitney Bank, Bank One, BellSouth and Entergy helps. "We'd never make it without them," says Litwin, before adding, "The difficulty for them is that the pie remains the same size. The number of people taking a slice out of it, however, grows every year. So they are always faced with the difficulty of how to spread their dollars around." In all, Litwin says, corporate sponsorship and private donations make up 60 percent of the LPO's budget.

With a mischievous grin, Litwin describes herself, managing director Mollere, musician president Bucalo and board of trustees president Long as "the four horsemen of the apocalypse," and says they're a great team. Her new position as senior vice president of external affairs will allow Litwin to hand over the day-to-day operations of the LPO to Mollere, who previously served for two years as the LPO's general manager. The reorganization will allow Litwin to concentrate on grant writing.

Litwin is also in charge of developing upcoming special projects, including a St. Patrick's Day festival featuring the legendary flutist Sir James Galway, a holiday pops concert directed by Tulane Summer Lyric Theatre's Michael Howard, and an international composers competition slated to start in January 2006. For the composers competition, Litwin is enlisting the participation of restaurants, galleries, hotels and auction houses. She hopes the event will help to bring in new audiences and support, even from outside of the city. "It will be a major event that can be marketed worldwide," she says.

Litwin's greatest hope is that she can assist in keeping the budget steady, then expand it to allow for musician salary increases. "That is truly my goal," she says, "to be able to put us on a financial footing that is stable and yet allows us to expand our income stream in some way that will give our musicians a raise."

"I DON'T LIKE THAT PEOPLE ALWAYS TALK TO ME-- just this past week so many say, 'Are you retiring?'" Klauspeter Seibel says with a scowl. "I'm not really retiring, I'm definitely not retiring, I'm keeping conducting, I'm keeping my profession alive. I'm just downsizing the amount anywhere."

After nine years as LPO music director, Seibel decided it was time to pass the baton in order to have more time to spend with his wife and family in his native Germany. "I want to have a little more free time, and I thought after nine years it was time enough to be responsible for all this," he says. Seibel will stay on as principal guest conductor for the next three years, steering the LPO while the orchestra conducts a search for a new director.

Seibel first came into contact with the fledgling LPO in 1992, conducting them in a New Orleans Opera production of Beethoven's Fidelio. Previously, he had held several posts throughout Germany, notably at the Kiel Opera, the Nuremberg Symphony and the Hamburg Opera. When he returned to New Orleans in 1994 to conduct Strauss' challenging opera Elektra, the musicians asked him to stay. "We liked him so well that we invited him to conduct the orchestra in our own series," says Annie Cohen. Seibel's meticulousness, his vast experience and his impeccable ear were a good match for an orchestra still in its infancy. In March 1995, Seibel was named as the LPO's first music director.

Over the course of nine years, Seibel built and molded the LPO, teaching the musicians to play together as a unit and raising the level of musicianship. Long notes that the conductor has stayed past the "average half-life" of music directors, which he measures at about five years. Now, as Seibel prepares to leave, the musicians are left with mixed emotions.

"There's a lot of ambivalence, as with any long-term relationship," says Bucalo. "There's nostalgia, there's desire to move forward, and certainly he's done an outstanding job with us. You know, there are a lot of strong bonds with Klauspeter and individual musicians."

Seibel's talents are recognized elsewhere in the United States, including in Kansas City, where he guest-conducted the Kansas City Symphony five times. He was considered for its vacant music director post before missing the finalist cut. "He's a terrific musician and a terrific conductor, and those two things don't always go together," says Roger Oyster, trombonist in the Kansas City Symphony. "If I wanted to learn how to conduct, I would go to Mr. Seibel because he is extraordinary in terms of being both clear and expressive, and musically he has something to say."

Benjamin says there is more to Seibel's success than his musical ability: "He has not only been a plus musically, but he is the first director we've had since I've been going to the symphony that has really, really helped the image of the symphony in the city: helping to raise money, being glad to meet new people, lending himself to all kinds of occasions." He's gone so far, Benjamin notes, as to throw parties at his own house to advance the LPO.

Says Seibel: "I think in this country it's really necessary that the music director that works for a longer period of time is involved in the community and takes part in the money-finding process. ... I think it's a very nice way to connect, and for me it's more rewarding to make music for people that I do know as opposed to people that I don't know."

There is a battle being waged backstage in orchestras across the country about the role of a music director, and the poster children for the opposing sides are San Francisco Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas and the Chicago Symphony's Daniel Barenboim. Strapped for cash and starving for attention in a post-9/11 economy, symphony administrations nationwide have been urging their music directors to take an active role in promoting the organizations. Thomas has played the part to resounding success in San Francisco, igniting for the symphony a golden age of ticket sales and popularity. In contrast, Barenboim has rejected pleas by the Chicago Symphony to engage the public, insisting that his job is to make music and nothing more. Frustrated, Barenboim is resigning his post after 17 years.

As the debate plays out, the LPO knows where it stands on the matter. "I think the day of the music director just entering the hall to thunderous applause, standing up there and conducting the orchestra and leaving, is over," says Litwin. "The fact of the matter is that we're a celebrity-driven country. Would it were not so, but it is so." Litwin also says that, as schools' music programs shrink, the need for a conductor to connect to local students increases.

That's just one of many issues the LPO has to keep in mind as it performs the search for its second music director. On top of championing the orchestra publicly, as Seibel has done, the new conductor must also be a good fit for the unique governance model. And, of course, the music director is absolutely vital artistically, shaping the style and interpretation for every LPO performance: how long or short to play a note, how fast or slow the tempo, how loud or soft a section, how music builds through a phrase, what emotion the piece conveys.

As part of the search process, all potential candidates for the music directorship will be guest conductors within a time period spanning two-and-a-half years, including the upcoming 14th season. An artistic partnership committee featuring musicians and community trustees will gather the opinions of the orchestra, audience, board and staff members, and make a decision on a suitable replacement that will then have to be ratified by the board. Then the LPO will make an offer and begin negotiations.

"I would hope it would be in the 14th season as far as the decision is concerned," says Long.

Bucalo, seated next to Long, nods in agreement. "From the orchestra's perspective, sooner is always better than later," he says. "But you want to be careful, too, because you can have unforeseen things happen."

As his time with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra winds down, Seibel has very specific hopes for his successor: "I ... would wish that my successor would be somebody who is really also sociable, as we have been, because I think particularly here in the South, it's really important and it makes so much of the success of the orchestra. ... [The LPO will] need a very strong leader. They'll need a conductor whose abilities are bold in the musical field and the field of government, program making, personnel, educating, always just keeping educating."

The new music director will play a large role in an organization that thrives on a democratic and communal effort. The musicians who founded the LPO in 1991 are working to ensure that younger musicians will continue to carry the torch after the founders have gone. "Continuing [this] successful collaboration ... is going to depend on how well veterans like myself pass on the legacy, if you will, and how effective we are at communicating to new members our internal culture, how we do things here," Bucalo says. "Because it is distinctly different from other symphony orchestras."

In the end, perhaps the most immediate challenge facing Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra musicians goes back to the roots and reason for the organization itself: the music. This week, principal guest conductor Klauspeter Seibel returns to his old spot on the podium in the Orpheum Theatre. He will open the 14th season with a classic Tchaikovsky program: Romeo and Juliet, Serenade for Strings and Symphony No. 4. Currently, across the city, in homes and in practice rooms, 66 musicians are learning their parts.

In addition to finding a new conductor, the LPO is also changing its management structure: Sharon Litwin (left) is concentrating on raising money and on the orchestra's creative projects, and Barbara "Babs" Mollere (right) will handle the day-to-day aspects of running the administration.
  • In addition to finding a new conductor, the LPO is also changing its management structure: Sharon Litwin (left) is concentrating on raising money and on the orchestra's creative projects, and Barbara "Babs" Mollere (right) will handle the day-to-day aspects of running the administration.
Over the past nine years, Klauspeter Seibel built and - molded the LPO, teaching the musicians to play together - as a unit and raising the level of musicianmanship.
  • Over the past nine years, Klauspeter Seibel built and molded the LPO, teaching the musicians to play together as a unit and raising the level of musicianmanship.
The LPO finished last year in the black -- but did so at - the expense of musician salaries, which are less than - half of market average.
  • The LPO finished last year in the black -- but did so at the expense of musician salaries, which are less than half of market average.

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