In Times of Transition: A Conversation with Stanley Romanstein

by Mark Gresham | 21 Feb 2012

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra President Stanley E. Romanstein, Ph.D.

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra President Stanley E. Romanstein, Ph.D.

Stanley E. Romanstein, Ph.D. was named President of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra on April 7, 2010. I met him that August at an ASO media event out at the ASO-operated Verizon Amphitheatre in Alpharetta, Georgia, north of Atlanta. His biography describes him first as “an accomplished non-profit executive with 22 years of leadership and management experience in education and the arts” then outlines the history of his arts management career and academic background.

We found at that initial meeting that we each shared a mutual interest and past involvement in choral music as conductors, but also some mutual interests in aspects of the Renaissance era and cultural history in general. While my own involvement was a pragmatic one without the specific formal scholarly training, Romanstein is a bona fide musicologist with a Ph.D. to back it up and special interest in the transition from the late Renaissance to early Baroque, especially the music of Monteverdi.

While a lot of arts administrators have some kind of background as practitioners of the arts, I was fascinated by the rarity of a president of a symphony orchestra is also a musicologist and historian. Especially in times when radical social changes are taking place on a global scale in which the arts play a critical role as agent of change and that which is changed. To have the opportunity to compare today with the paradigm shift from Renaissance to Baroque was an engaging idea!

Then and there, we decided an interview about the impact of his scholarly role as a musicologist upon his role as president of a major symphony orchestra was something we must do. A year and a half later, it came to fruition on January 5, 2012 at the ASO offices in the Woodruff Arts Center. Here is the edited Q&A exchange that resulted from that interview:

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Mark Gresham: A year and a half ago, in the summer just after you arrived in Atlanta, you and I were talking about your background as a musicologist and choral musician, specifically your special interest in the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque era. What intrigued me back than was how your background as musicologist might impact your work as president of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The idea of a musicologist as chief executive of a major symphony orchestra still fascinates me now as it did then as rather atypical. How rare is this, among major symphony orchestras?

Stanley Romanstein: Our national organization is The League of American Orchestras. I meet regularly with my colleagues who are part of the “Group One” orchestras, the 27 largest orchestras in the United States and Canada.

Almost everybody in the group has musical background, but as far as I know there are no other musicologists in that group. Most of them are performers as opposed to scholars or historians.

MG: How do you feel that impacts your work?

SR: A couple of ways. If you look at my area of interest, that change from Renaissance to Baroque, there are two things that characterize both my interest and the work that I’ve done.

First, I have this real interest in societal transitions from one time to another, and how organizations, institutions and societies accommodate those pivotal points of progression. And you know what’s going on in our industry right now. We are at a critical inflexion point for what’s happening to orchestras. I think that there will be a major shift that takes place over the next eighteen months or so. That’s not insider information or anything, just that the way things are moving there will be major change.

Look what’s happened to Detroit, what’s happened in Philadelphia and a string of smaller orchestras. Syracuse, Honolulu and New Mexico all simply folded and went away.

Somebody asked me as I was beginning my second year, “Are you glad you did this?” and I said, “This is a wonderful time to be in this business if you’re interested in being an agent of change. If you’re interested in promoting the status quo, this is a lousy time to be in this industry because the status quo isn’t.

I was talking with one of our players who referenced “the industry standard” about contracts, and I said, “It’s very difficult to benchmark against something that is complete transition. It’s a moving target. Where are you going to aim if you’re trying to hit the moving target?” Trying to talk about the industry standard as far as contracts, compensation, etc., is a really difficult thing.

So one would be that lifelong interest in transitions, and how you manage them, what goes into them and what comes out of them.

The other thing that I’ve always had an interest in is how music connects to community. Not just “Oh, they use music for worship, they use music for entertainment.” But beyond that. What was the real role of the musician, of music, in the life of a community and how did that play out in different ways?

I think it’s one of the challenges that we face here in Atlanta. One of the things I heard quite clearly when I was in the search process – from board members, from members of the orchestra – is the perception on our part that we are not highly valued or very much appreciated by the broader community in which we live. My take on that would be, if I can put it in sports terms and if you’ll pardon the analogy, what we want to be is a parallel to what the New York Yankees are to New York City. You can’t think of New York City without the Yanks.

It doesn’t matter of you go to a game, it doesn’t matter if you even like baseball. You might not be able to name a pitcher, a catcher, a manager, [but] there is an identification with that place and people take pride in the Yankees. Again, even people who don’t care anything about baseball. There are very few orchestras that can make that claim.

This is a bit of an extreme, but we’re closer to being the Thrashers. If somebody said, “Our hockey team is being bought and it’s moving somewhere else,” there was a little bit of an “Oh, that’s too bad.” And that’s it.

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra - credit Jeff Roffman

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (credit: Jeff Roffman)

MG: Imagine an orchestra being bought and moved to another city! That would be kind of strange.

SR: It would be kind of strange, you know, but [with] the departure of the Thrashers, the people who really cared about hockey were trying to stimulate some interest in “We can’t let this happen, we need this for our city.”

That idea of being connected to the community and integral to the community [is] that people understand your value. If you look statistically, and this comes from the National Endowment for the Arts, the percentage of American adults who attend a classical concert of any kind, any description on an annual basis is about nine percent nationally.

We have in the greater Atlanta metro area about 5.6 million people, roughly, if my numbers are correct. Our annual audiences – that’s here at Symphony Hall, Chastain and Verizon – are about 400,000. So if you look at that, we have cornered most of the people in our market.

And there are a lot of people who will attend a classical concert but they’ll go hear the Georgia Symphony or they’ll go to hear a wonderful program at the Rialto Center at Georgia State, so it doesn’t mean that everyone who attends a classical concert in Atlanta is going to come to the Atlanta Symphony. My only point is: we have to be able to appeal to people beyond the value of the art itself. We have to give people a reason to cheer for us in the greater community in the way that people in New York would say, “I love the Yanks.” Do you ever go to a game? “No.” Do you know anything about baseball? “No. But I love the Yanks.” It’s that sort of community connection and rootedness that has eluded most major symphony orchestras.

MG: Most major symphony orchestras? Any that it hasn’t eluded?

SR: The LA Phil, for one. They are the most notable example. And I’ve learned it’s not the “Los Angeles Philharmonic” it’s the “LA Phil.” It’s the second largest arts organization in the United States, behind the Metropolitan Opera.

When my colleague Deborah Borda went to the LA Phil [as its President and CEO] almost ten years ago, one of the things that she understood very quickly was that the LA Phil had no connection to the Latino community in Los Angeles. Deborah said, “You can’t succeed in Los Angeles if you’re not connected to the Latino community.” So Deborah set out over the course of a couple of years, first to see “how do you change this?”

She met with some Latino leaders, and her question to them was, “What could do to make the LA Phil your orchestra? The orchestra of the Latino community, prized by the Latino community?” The response that she got back surprised her. The first thing the leaders said was, “You could invite us. [pause] Nobody has ever invited us.” She said, “Well, we could change that.” And so the LA Phil set out on a very deliberate course of engaging the community. And they did it primarily through education programs, El Sistema, the Venezuelan program…

MG: …which we also have here in the Atlanta Music Project.

SR: …and [which] we support actively. Their office here [at Woodruff Arts Center], that’s one of our in-kind contributions to the Atlanta Music Project. We give a lot of material support and board support and other things to them because they’re fabulous, and we want to see them grow and succeed. But the largest of those programs in the United States is in Los Angeles, and under the auspices of the LA Phil.

Gustavo Dudamel of the LA Phil.

Gustavo Dudamel of the LA Phil. (London, 2009)

The hiring of Gustavo Dudamel as their music director was not a fluke, it wasn’t an “Oh, there’s this hot young Venezuelan conductor,” it was a very deliberate move to continue that level of engagement with the Latino community in Los Angeles. They have been very deliberate all the way along, and now, not yet ten years later, they can boast a very, very strong connection with the Latino community.

We have a great marketing team [and] they do a phenomenal job. But I took our Encore program book and said, “Look through the program book and tell me who our audience is.” And there was a lot of “Oh, our audience is…” And I said, “No, no, no. Look through the program book, and tell me who our audience is. Look at the pictures on the front, look at the pictures inside, look at the pictures of the guest artists. Tell me who our audience is.”

“Not being critical of what you’ve done, when my African-American friends look at that program, what they say is, ‘Are we welcome? Sure. Can we come? Absolutely. Are we the people you have in mind when you put this together? No, we’re not.’” And I said, “You know, [the City of] Atlanta is 54 percent African-American.” Who normally subscribes to classical music concerts? People who are college educated, and middle-class. Atlanta is home to the largest college-educated middle class group of African-Americans in the entire country.

MG: And that community has a long history of support of classical music, all the way back to the beginning of the twentieth century, at least.

SR: Absolutely! I talked with some of my friends from the National Black Arts Festival about this very issue. All of them said, “It’s not the repertoire, it’s not that we don’t like Beethoven, it’s not that we don’t like Brahms. It’s not that we can’t come to Midtown. It’s not the price, it’s not that we need free tickets. It’s that when we look at the program book, the programs, the audience and the artists on stage, we don’t see people who look like us. So it makes us think we’re not really the people they have in mind.”

We’re setting out to change that. If you look at the artists that we’re engaging, we’re trying to engage a greater array of artists. You know, there are some incredible artists that represent a lot of communities.

Very rarely do I deliver remarks from the stage. It’s one of the things that Robert does not like. Robert thinks you come to a concert in a concert hall to listen to the music, not to listen to somebody asking you for money, or thanking you for the flowers, or recognizing somebody else. But on the rare occasions when I do speak from the stage, at least the greeting is also in Spanish. Sometimes the remarks are in Spanish as well as in English. Yes, I’m pushing Español. It is a very subtle but very deliberate way to say we prize the Latino community and the Latino artists. The people who have noticed first and foremost are the Latino members of the orchestra, who are like “Oh, wow!”

It’s not about me, it’s about the institution, and about saying we need to be, we want to be connected to the community. Part of it, too, that I’ve asked a lot, is where else can we perform in Atlanta?

Florence, Italy in late 16th century - Ignazio Danti

Florence, Italy in the late 16th century – by Ignazio Danti

MG: It’s a spread-out city. There are no geographical restrictions like San Francisco, or partial ones like Chicago or Boston. There are outside-in cities and inside-out cities, and Atlanta has been a doughnut for a long time, in a lot of ways. You’ve spoken about how some of this affects the Atlanta Symphony. But also with the idea of radical transition we can go historically back to late 16th century Florence and the Florentine Camerata and the subsequent work of Claudio Monteverdi — especially the publication of his Fifth Book of Madrigals in 1605 — because that’s such a radically transitional time, culturally speaking, far, far beyond the era’s music.

Was the music a product of the cultural transition or the cultural transition a product of the music? And how does that speak to this orchestra, in this city today? I ask because that radical change took place in one locale and then went viral all over Europe. Just posing an idea here: can radical changes here in Atlanta go viral all across the southeast?

SR: I would hope so. Some of the radical changes that we need to make as an institution, on the face of them, don’t sound that radical.

A quick example: I was talking with some of our musicians here the other night about our concerts and the concert experience. I feel very strongly that the thing that we have to sell is the live concert experience. It’s not just the music, it’s the live concert experience. Sitting by you in Symphony Hall is a different experience from my sitting separately from you, you in your home and me in my home, with the music on a stereo system. Very different experience.

We talk about what the audience gets from the performers, we talk very little about what the performers get from the audience. Any performer will tell you: they get that energy from the room and the people who are in the room as much as they give to the room. I said to our players — and again, this on the face of it isn’t a very radical thing — we need to be doing some of our concerts at 11 o’clock at night, and we need to be doing some of our concerts at 11 o’clock in the morning.

My oldest child, our daughter, is 21 years old. she’s going to graduated from college this spring. She and her friends would go to an 11 o’clock concert, and particularly a concert that you might say there are only a hundred seats available, and they’re all on the stage. It’s an orchestra playing, and I’m going to choose Vivaldi only because I’m looking for a small orchestra, could be Mozart, but it’s not going to be the Elgar First Symphony, because you can’t fit anyone else on the stage. But they would probably go to an 11 o’clock concert that says, you know what, we’re going to have a Mozart Symphony, the we’re going to have a DJ come and play for 20 minutes, and they’re going to be bars around the stage to get something to drink of you are legal age. Then the orchestra is coming back and they’re going to play Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” We need 11 p.m. concerts!

We also have a number of people in their 70s in their 80s, who love the Atlanta Symphony, they don’t want to be out at night, driving at night in the dark. But boy, they would love to come to a concert that started at 11 a.m. then went to 12:30 p.m.! They could stay and have lunch with their friends afterward, then get home at 2 p.m. in the afternoon before the real traffic kicks in. You would probably get a fair number of people who would like to do that.

Woodruff Arts Center

Woodruff Arts Center, south entrance to the Galleria on the Symphony Hall side.
(credit: Steven Sherrill, via Wikimedia Commons)

The idea that we only do concerts Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8 p.m. in Symphony Hall is not going to sustain you very far into the future. What the players have said was, “What you’re asking of us is a lot greater flexibility in when we rehearse, when we perform, where we rehearse, and where we perform.” And I said, “Yeah, because that 11 o’clock concert might not be here, it might not be the best place for it. It might be another place for it.” And the players to whom I was speaking said, “Could we also talk about what we wear?” And I said “Of course we can talk about what you wear. Why would you not talk about what you wear?”

We will always do some concerts that are Thursday night at 8 o’clock, and everybody’s going to wear, you know, 19th century dress, because there is a certain segment of our audience that really likes it that way. They want to consume the art in that format, in that environment, with those parameters wrapped around it. And that’s fine, but we also have some members of our audience who would say, “Really? The orchestra’s going to play at 11 o’clock at night over at the High Museum, and I can listen and I can dance, and look at great art? Wow, really?”

MG: A mixture of genres. What a concept.

SR: To say we’re having a concert at 11 p.m. might be radical for us, but in the abstract it’s not a radical idea. We as an industry have to move away from the idea that “orchestra” means 95 players who play 24 subscription concerts every year in the same place, in the same way.

The organizations that I think will thrive – and I mean that deliberately, not survive – over the next five years or so are organizations that are very mission-focused. They know what they are about, but at the same time they are also outward-looking. They have their focus out into the community, in commercial terms into the consumer, as opposed to “we’re going to look inward and if you’d like to come and join us while we look inward we’d like to have you.”

We set usually three to four overarching goals for ourselves as an institution, as a staff. Some of them are hard – we need to achieve [a certain amount] financially. Some of them are organizational – we want to change the way we operate. One of the things that we talked about as a staff this year was that if you look at the typical American orchestra, the orchestra itself sits right in the center and around it you have the staff, and you have the board, and you have the audience, and the community. I said, “What if we change the paradigm, and we took the orchestra and put it here, and took the audience and put it center?”

We really don’t exist for the care, feeding and happiness of the orchestra – or of Robert, whom I just adore – but we really exist for the consumer, for the audience, for people who are passionate about music and who are going to come down here on a Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday for that live music performance. What if all our decisions were really oriented around what they need and what they want as opposed to what we want out of them? And it was one of those, “Oh but we do that.” “No you don’t. You want to think you do, but you don’t.”

MG: Over the past decade we’ve experienced radical changes in publishing, communications, how people go about coalescing as a community, and in marketing: the whole idea today of how you have to invite them to opt-in to a community instead.

SR: In 1993, Arthur Sulzberger from the New York Times built a new printing plant to print physical newspapers. Sulzberger said at the time, “This is the last printing plant we will ever build. Everything’s changing, and we will never again build a printing plant because the world is going to move in a completely different direction.” That was the point at which they began to think about the digital Times. They changed even the way they talked about their business, from saying “we publish newspapers” to “we gather and disseminate information for the benefit and creation of community.” They don’t even say “we print newspapers,” because they don’t.

MG: How much is the 20th-century symphony orchestra akin to any operation which requires a large coordinated labor force? Or have operation methods begun to change now, in both business and the arts, to where there is a demand for ability to be more flexible, to create a larger variety of customer-specific products for a more diverse and in many ways more demanding market? How do these ideas impact the management of American orchestras?

SR: [Let’s say that] we’re looking for a new player, a new violinist or whatever. In the old days you simply looked for who could play the best, the fastest, the best tone, the best phrasing and so forth. Now what we are beginning to think is “What is this person’s views on an orchestra member’s role in education? How does this person view their connection to the community?”

My colleague Ayden Adler, [Executive Director] at the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, said that one of the things that they have understood, over the last year or so, is that in order to meet the demands of their audience they need to incorporate more “world music” into their repertoire, which means that they need players who have improvisational skills in a way that they didn’t four or five years ago. So they have changed that sort of profile: not just “can you play a mean fiddle?” but “can you do all of these other things as well?”

MG: Is this lesson of change from where orchestras are to now where you are talking about them going, similar in some ways to those radical changes from Renaissance to Baroque?

SR: It’s very much reflective of the changes that occurred then. What we’re asking people to do, what the repertoire demands, and what society demands of them have changed very rapidly.

And I would go one further: I would talk about that change from Classical to Romantic, when all of a sudden the patronage system started to break down horribly, and that secure life of “I’ll go and live with the Esterhazys, I’ll be well fed and well taken care of, I’ll play what they tell me to play” [went away] and suddenly composers and performers were out on their own.

Nikolaus Esterházy

Nikolaus Esterházy, principal employer of Franz Joseph Haydn.

MG: So then your historical perspective, as one of the things that informs today, is: Yeah, it’s ok to make this change because it is time. Because it has happened so many times before, it’s not something to be afraid of.

SR: It’s not something that we need to fear, or that we need to have a lot of anxiety about, because as an industry, as an institution, we’ve made these kinds of changes before.

MG: Then, because we’ve talked about how society changes what the behaviors of the arts institutions should be, how, in reverse, do the changes in the art institution impact changes in society at large? There’s a realistic level of that happening, I believe, but there are also certain artists who tout that at a level I think is completely unrealistic: We’re going to go do this performance in this plaza or park and all of a sudden people are going to think, “Oh it’s cool to go downtown again!” Society and art, I think, are a lot more complex than that in nudging, pushing each other.

SR: I do too. Changes are much more incremental, and more of a sort of push and pull, as opposed to all of a sudden everyone wakes up and thinks, “Oh my God, I’ve got to go the High Museum today! I haven’t seen Warhol in two or three months! I simply must get down there.” I don’t think it happens that way.

We talk a lot about the correlation between early formative experiences with music and music education that set patterns for late in life. I think that’s absolutely true, but I also know a number of people who, in their early 30s or early 40s, suddenly have this “Eureka!” experience and think, “Oh, my goodness, I went with a business colleague and I can’t believe this has been here all this time and I had no idea.” So the question is how do you make those “Eureka!” moments available to people and at the same time make sure that you are doing something to ensure that our kids have those early formative experiences?

MG: Because of this whole connection between arts and radical changes in larger society, I believe we’re in a significant transitional time now, because we have the modern era, which in manufacturing I call the “Ford Era,” and the post-modern era which I call the “McDonald’s Era” in business. But I feel like we’re moving somewhere else, because we’re now somewhat able to define post-modernism, and as soon as you define something like that you’re already on the road to moving away from it.

SR: I think you’re right about that. Look at the dissemination of knowledge. Go back to the printing press. If you look at early forms of education, Socratic dialogue [for example], you sat with a teacher who expounded and you listened. You might question back and you process. Gutenberg changed all of that in 1451 with movable type. All of a sudden, you could write it down in a book, print it relatively inexpensively, and you could disseminate it widely. Huge change: Renaissance. The advent of the Internet has done that in an exponential way for us. One of the things that arts organizations overall have done is to ask, “How can we use the Internet to advance what we do?”

But, in truth, we are in some ways the antidote to the internet, in that as the world becomes increasingly virtual, and therefore “not real,” there is a growing hunger for real human experiences and interactions. What we offer in the live music experience provides just that. I’ve heard more people in the last year say to me, “I come here to get away.” Not “I come here to get away from the pressures of the office, or to get away from my family,” but “I come here to get away from the technology, the bombardment. I come here because it’s real.”

Claudio Monteverdi, age 30, 1597

Claudio Monteverdi, age 30, 1597

The people on that stage are not virtual. I’m not watching them on a screen. It’s a live human experience that I share with the people who are in front of me, behind me and around me. We can use the internet in all kinds of creative ways to advertise what we do, to market what we do, get messages out about what we do, and to let people know about what we do. But the essence of what we do – and I’ll go back to your Ford reference – we still make our product the same way that Monteverdi was making it in Mantua in 1604. It’s still an individual with an instrument in his or her hand, and they have learned that instrument over time. There’s no “app” for it, there’s no shortcut to it, you have to learn to play the violin one hour at a time.

We still make our Art the same way we made it 400 years ago, but its importance to society and its availability to society have changed radically. As I look at this as an historian, as a musicologist, I understand the significant stress around the point of change. The music will endure, and will become even more valuable. We don’t need to get ourselves too worked up about the organizational things that are in a huge period of flux, because there are going to be some things in our world and in our lives that stay exactly the same. Beethoven is not going to change, and the way we play Beethoven isn’t going to change rapidly. Where we play it, when we play it, what we look like when we play it, how many people play it, how people hear it? That’s going to change, and that’s going to change a lot. The financial model is changing more than anything else is changing.

I think it’s a very exciting time for us. I hear a lot of people crying and wringing their hands. Oh, come on, folks! This is pretty exciting stuff, being at a time of transition. It’s a good thing, yes, a very good thing. □