Can the Band Play On?

The Houston Symphony opens its new season without a music director, an executive director or a clear vision for the future. Only one thing appears certain: The post-Eschenbach era is going to look a lot different.

Following his resignation announcement in March, Wax agreed to stay on until September 1 to aid in the transition, even though he admits "that's a long time to be a lame duck." But the board, through either arrogance or ignorance, hasn't made use of the time. After deciding it couldn't find Wax's replacement on its own, the board finally hired a search firm in July. Korn/Ferry International is a respected executive search firm with a specialty practice in education and nonprofit associations, last year handling more than 260 such assignments. The organization found the director for the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts and the director for the National Symphony in 1981. That administrator, Henry Fogel, left to take the top job at the Chicago Symphony four years later.

Today Fogel says he is helping in the search for Houston's new executive director. In a Dick Cheney sort of way? "Oh, no, no, no, no," Fogel says with a laugh. "I am not interested." So who would be? "Well, I'm not saying they can find 50 candidates, but they only need one." The symphony likely will choose its new executive director after it announces its new music director, an event that is expected this month.

Former executive director Wax: "I think [Houston has] done well, but we are not on the cutting edge of the arts."
Former executive director Wax: "I think [Houston has] done well, but we are not on the cutting edge of the arts."

Alex Bonus with the Symphony Orchestra Institute, another industry organization, says this is a good time to hunt for an administrator. "It's currently a very volatile field," he says. "There are a lot of administrative changeovers both here and in Canada. The turnover rate for executive directors is very high; it's a demanding position and a very competitive field." He adds that Houston should be able to choose from senior management at larger orchestras or executive directors at smaller symphonies. Both he and Fogel think the Houston spot is a plum position, even if there are still problems with the board, audiences and public perception.

The new administrator, however, may have a bigger challenge than trying to erase a multimillion-dollar debt: He or she will have to try to maintain the artistic levels established by Eschenbach while trying to stay in the black. What's more, the slow-footed process of hiring an administrative head may also make the job unattractive to those candidates who would have preferred a say in the next music director. "With no input over such a major component," Wax asks rhetorically, "would you take the job?"

To Fogel's mind, the symphony's makeover has improved its standing, if not exactly raised it to the standards the organization would like. "They've gone from negative to neutral," he says. And he's not simply referring to the organization's finances. The orchestra continues to have an image problem. Say the phrase "Houston Symphony" to the average Houstonian, and thoughts of strikes, departed executives and deficits immediately leap to mind. The new executive director will have to compensate for all those negatives.

To do that, the new director will have to follow one of Fogel's 1998 recommendations and spend more time in the community. "People give to people," stresses Fogel. "If you're not out there in the community, then they don't know you."

Wax sees an even bigger obstacle: "Atlanta, Dallas and Houston -- it's a Sunbelt problem. Cincinnati, St. Louis, they all have much larger budgets than we do. I think [Houston has] done well, but we are not on the cutting edge of the arts." It's an interesting theory given the city's multiple museums, avant-garde opera, internationally recognized ballet and Tony Award-winning theater. Even the Contemporary Arts Museum doesn't run a deficit here.

"Having all those other organizations certainly says [a symphony] should work here," says Fogel. "But it also makes it more competitive for donations and board members. And the board is the strength of any nonprofit organization."

The Houston Symphony, it would seem, is caught in a conundrum: It needs a strong board but not one that micromanages; it needs a music director with compelling ideas, but one who doesn't overspend; and it needs an executive director who can lead them all down the right path. For that still-unknown pied piper, it could be the challenge of a lifetime, or a very sour note.

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