Maybe the business world could learn a thing or two from ‘boss-less’ SPCO conducting arrangement

At times during its concert season, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra performs without a conductor.

Invariably, the orchestra plays flawlessly. More than 30 creative, egotistical virtuosos perform as one, without a baton-waving boss.

To my working-class mind, there is a cosmic message, beyond the wonderful music, in those performances. The message: We’re over-managed.

In my working life in large daily newspapers, the more bosses’ hands on a story, the less compelling the published piece would be. Whenever there was an “economic crisis,” it seemed as if the grunts were laid off and a couple of managers, as well as a consultant or two, were hired.

Watch a professional football game. Athletes who are paid millions of dollars a year can’t take a step without guidance from an assistant coach, who usually has an assistant.

Corporations are filled with people with titles: chairmen, presidents, executive vice presidents, vice presidents, associate vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, deputies, assistant deputies and on and on.

Everywhere you look, there are a whole lot of people at the top telling a declining number of people at the bottom how to get their work done.

The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra is the antithesis of all of that boss-ery.

How does the orchestra pull it off?

Julia Bogorad-Kogan is principal flutist with the orchestra. (She’s also on the artistic committee, which is made up of three musicians and two Chamber executives whoselect the programming and soloists for the season, decisions that once were made by a full-time music director.) 

Julia Bogorad-Kogan
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Julia Bogorad-Kogan

Bogorad-Kogan says there are a number of keys for an orchestra to perform successfully without a conductor.

•    Deciding in advance who ultimately will make decisions about how a piece of music will be performed. Each member has input on even the smallest detail. There often are passionate arguments on how a certain passage of music should be played but ultimately, somebody has to put an end to discussion. In the St. Paul Chamber’s case, that’s typically the concertmaster.

•     Having members take even more responsibility than usual to know and understand not only their own parts but those of others in the orchestra. That typically means more practice at home, closer listening and more notations on the music.

•    Making sure players know where to look for guidance. Without a conductor, the concertmaster may be leading at one point in a piece, while the the principal cellist may lead at another.

“It’s not always easy,” said Bogorad-Kogan of playing without a conductor. “Each person may have an emotional connection with the music. There are many ways to play a piece.”

The St. Paul Chamber is not as democratic in its approach to performing without a conductor as the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in New York. Members of that orchestra, who never have a conductor, can rehearse and debate for hours over how a measure of music should be played.

If not totally boss-free, the St. Paul Chamber’s move to frequently performing without a conductor is a long, long way from the days when orchestra conductors were dictatorial.

“Conductors could be beasts,” said Bogorad-Kogan. “They could say, ‘I don’t like your face. Leave.’ Gradually, over time, a protection system for musicians did evolve.”  

Evolution may have moved more rapidly in St. Paul than in other places.

When the St. Paul Chamber does perform with a guest conductor, the conductors frequently are surprised at the rehearsal atmosphere. Musicians don’t hesitate to make suggestions as to how pieces should be played.

“We’re not a bashful group,” said Bogorad-Kogan.

Are there cosmic workplace lessons in the Chamber’s ability to perform without a conductor?

Bogorad-Kogan suspects that larger operations — such as the Minnesota Orchestra — would have a difficult time performing without a boss.

“We’re different than a symphony orchestra,” she said. “In a large orchestra, there’s a tendency not to speak up. Performers look at it as more of a job. You do your job and go home at the end of the day.”

If the cellos and the violins are approaching a piece differently, too bad. Let the conductor figure it out.

Chamber members understand there may be a need for more rehearsals to iron out issues without a conductor. But there is a sense of gratification in the end result.

There probably are applications beyond the concert hall.  

“You can tap the knowledge of the people who have done the job for years,” said Bogorad-Kogan.

This week’s SPCO concerts will feature guest pianist Jonathan Biss. Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 10:30 a.m. and Saturday at 8 p.m., all at the Ordway Center.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Douglas Shambo II on 10/04/2011 - 08:41 am.

    Mr. Grow:

    As someone who has been a conductor – and a business person – for more than thirty years, I’m not sure how apt your metaphor between “conductorless” ensembles and “leaderless” businesses is.

    The model of the imperious “you vill do it my way!” conductor has given way to a more collaborative approach. Still, the conductor is there to provide objective feedback, make interpretive decisions, facilitate performance, and, when necessary, mediate disputes. The “leaderless” model seems to work only in ensembles in which 1) the group is relatively small, 2) there is generally a high degree of professionalism, respect, and maturity, and, 3) as you cite in the SPCO’s case, a designated ultimate decision maker.

    Groups, whether musical ensembles or businesses, have their own climate and culture. Some benefit from stronger leadership; some benefit from a more hands-off approach. In my experience, one size doesn’t fit all – though, as you point out, it might fit some.

    Musical ensembles either explicitly or implicitly grant their leader the authority to make decisions for two important reasons – it saves time and it preserves relationships. I think some businesses benefit in a similar way from their leaders.

    As I said, I’m not entirely in favor of removing the conductor – or the business leader – altogether from the equation. I still hear the words of the late, great Leonard Bernstein ringing in my ears: “Conductors are paid to fight battles – and win them.”

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