Orchestra is at crossroads Administrators and a new maestro will have to balance artistic goals, need to sell tickets By ANDREW ADLER â€¢ January 25, 2004 [email protected] The Courier-Journal There is little denying that the Louisville Orchestra is confronting the most significant artistic issues it has faced in more than a decade. When the orchestra's board of directors voted late last year to remove Uriel Segal as music director at the end of the current season, it set aside a conductor who has provided consistently laudable results since taking the job three seasons ago. Indeed, the board has acknowledged Segal's achievements on the podium. It's his off-the-podium performance that's been found wanting. Looking year after year at declining attendance for its core classical series, the board finally decided that enough was enough. And who takes the fall for not putting more people in Whitney Hall's 2,400 seats? The guy with the baton, that's who. The knocks against Segal are familiar enough: not enough charisma; doesn't live "full time" in Louisville; not much of a schmoozer at parties, where moneyed contributors tend to congregate. In short, an Old School conductor unsuited to the New World of conductors cast as community glad-handers â€” personalities whom even people who never set foot in a concert hall can warm up to. Of course this begs the question: Is the orchestra's failure to attract more classical patrons Segal's fault, the board's fault, management's fault or simply the inevitable consequence of a citizenry to whom classical concerts remain distant, expensive and increasingly irrelevant? The answer is a combination of all these factors, plus too many more to lay out here. It's convenient to blame the conductor, in part because he's the most visible symbol of the orchestra's frustrating experience at the box office. But a large measure of responsibility must be put in the back-of-house operations, particularly in an administrative staff decimated by fiscal turmoil, where key positions in marketing, development (i.e., fund raising) and public relations turn over far too often. For as long as I've been in Louisville (going on 21 years now), the orchestra's response to financial distress has been to cut back on support staff. That's understandable to a degree when the alternative â€” made more difficult by union contracts â€” is to reduce the number of musicians. There's no such job protection for office personnel, so out they go. The result, however, is that performances receive insufficient promotion, underwriting or whatever. The board must commit to hiring an adequate number of professional administrators and paying them enough to avoid a succession of well-meaning but hopelessly overmatched entry-level staffers who come in one year and disappear the next. Skilled support people are an investment, just as musicians and conductors are. Skimp at your peril. Little will be done along this front until the orchestra hires a new executive director to replace Tim King, who this past September exchanged the tortured life of an orchestra CEO for the verdant calm of garden planning. Whoever gets the job will presumably want to bring in his or her own senior colleagues. Will this end the outsourcing of various tasks that used to be done in-house? Not likely. But the imperative to hire and retain accomplished professionals over the intermediate and longer term remains. Nothing is as vital, though, as the artistic course the board intends to set. We already know from declarations made by board President Manning G. Warren that programming will be aimed at a more general audience, though associate conductor Robert Franz â€” who's coordinating much of next season â€” insists that won't mean Beethoven and Tchaikovsky to the exclusion of all else. Still, does anyone believe that the Louisville Orchestra, which built an international reputation on the commissioning, performance and recording of contemporary music, will continue to embrace that heritage? The orchestra is so afraid of anything that smacks of elitism that it's hurtling headlong in the opposite aesthetic direction: celebrating small-d cultural democratization to the exclusion of more challenging repertoire. The fallacy in this argument is equivocating elitism with what's elite. Nobody wants to be elitist in an exclusionary sense. But it's perfectly fine, and indeed desirable, to be elite â€” as in striving for the best that culture can give us. In a quest to be easily entertaining, the orchestra seems to be moving away from the idea that its repertoire should in any way challenge the listener. Management and the board are desperate to attract more patrons, which given past failures is perfectly understandable. I can't help feeling, though, that we are on the verge of losing layers of desirable complexity that will be difficult â€” if not impossible â€” to regain. Next season will almost certainly look a bit strange. Though Segal will conduct September's opening Fanfara concert and probably one additional program, most of the classical performances will be led by guest artists, including Segal's predecessor as music director, Max Bragado-Darman. Franz will also have an expanded podium role, which is something to look forward to; since the demise of the New Directions series (and his absence from this season's MasterWorks and Coffee Concert series), he has seemed like a conductor without much of an engaging portfolio. A broader question is whether Franz will be a candidate for the next music director's position. He deserves an opportunity to be considered, but some observers may wonder if he boasts enough gravitas (to use a favorite catchphrase of our time) for the board, and the greater community at large, to latch on to. Who else will roll through town? It's a little early to do any serious handicapping, and this orchestra's rocky fiscal history won't make it any easier for the board to attract compelling hopefuls. Still, for all its troubles, the Louisville Orchestra remains an important mid-tier post in the American symphonic hierarchy, if only on the strength of its reputation for adventurous programming. I'd bet plenty of people will be interested in the post. Who has the stuff to forge a vital musical future out of the unabashedly conservative bent shown by the board? The answer, and its implications, are something everyone who cares about Louisville's cultural future must ponder.