A&E Guide 2013: The Symphony Whisperer

David Hyslop seeks to steer the Louisville Orchestra out of troubled waters

Aug 14, 2013 at 5:00 am
A&E Guide 2013: The Symphony Whisperer

The Louisville Orchestra recently hired David Hyslop as interim chief executive officer, charging him with the task of helping the symphony recover from a turbulent period that included severe financial problems, an erosion of patron interest and a disastrous meltdown of relations with the orchestra’s players that blew up into the cancellation of an entire season two years ago. The orchestra returned last year to generally positive reviews, despite the fact that the group was slashed from 70 full-time players to 55, but many of the group’s talented younger players fled for jobs elsewhere.

Hyslop has headed three major American symphonies, with a notably successful 14-year run with the St. Louis Symphony and conductor Leonard Slatkin. After retiring from the Minneapolis Symphony in 2003, he has earned a reputation as a turnaround artist — going around the country healing sick symphonies. In an interview with LEO Weekly, Hyslop (pronounced Hiss-lip) sounded some very positive notes about the future of the Louisville Orchestra, as one would expect. But he’s more about sustained chords than ecstatic cadenza promises.

Here are some highlights from that conversation:

LEO: After a comeback year, the players don’t seem discouraged. But it is almost as if they don’t know what to do next to build the future. And the community didn’t immediately race out to buy tickets when the orchestra came back. What’s your assessment of all that?
David Hyslop: My take, well, you’ve seen my background — I ran a lot of orchestras. The last three or four years, I’ve specialized in turnarounds. In Tulsa, with what was a startup orchestra after the Tulsa Philharmonic went out of business. And then the Dallas Symphony, and now in Louisville. Each is different, but all of them have gone through some real pain. I think the main thing, and I’ve said this to the orchestra, and to the board, and to everyone involved, the main thing right now with Louisville is stability, stability, stability — because it has not had stability.

The other thing they need is continuity. Because of the labor thing they went through, and the reorganization, all of that is very difficult. Here’s what happens with the public — see what you think of this: The public, after it goes on and on, the public doesn’t take sides — management or union. The public says, “A pox on both of your houses. When are you going to make music?”

I think our job right now is to make it stable and bring the audience back. Jorge Mester has continued as music director, and that has given it some continuity. They’re looking for a new music director. The beauty of my interim role is with my experience I can help stabilize it and then bring it out to the next (CEO).

But you’ve got to be realistic in what you can be. That’s the challenge. Where I’ve seen organizations get in trouble is where they either grow more than they have the means, or the credibility breaks down within the different constituencies. That’s where they get in trouble. And Louisville has had plenty of that.

LEO: I think you’re exactly right about the pox on both your houses. But also, there aren’t so many dollars here for premium-priced tickets and donor giving. In some cases, the money has just transferred to skyboxes at new sports venues. It’s a lot to get back.
DH: That’s part of it. But I have empathy for both management, in the past, and the musicians. Musicians get out of school, you have a couple of jobs and come to Louisville and think it’s going to be a 45-week season. Instead, it’s 30 weeks. So that hits you economically very badly. From that standpoint, I have great empathy for the players. But by the same token, for the community. You can’t run those kinds of deficits. But orchestras have. Did I ever think I would live long enough to see the Philadelphia Orchestra go through Chapter 11?

LEO: That was truly hard to imagine.
DH: Here’s where I am. People have been through enough pain in Louisville that all the parts of the orchestra realize they need each other. You need all the musicians, they’ve got great experience, and they know the community, and they make fine music. The board of directors — both the faction that was there before, and then the folks like (new board chairman) James Welch. Everybody needs each other, and this is the moment. This is the moment, in my mind, for the Louisville Orchestra. If everyone can come together.

LEO: How about restoring the orchestra’s image with the public?
DH: I’ve seen some really good signs. No. 1, the crowds got better through last year. And our sales for the upcoming season are strong. We will make the season ticket goal. And to see someone like Manny Ax (internationally acclaimed pianist Emanuel Ax) coming in for “Fanfara” is a good sign. Midori comes in the month after that. Later, composer John Williams. And we have some really fine young conductors who are going to be here during the year. The signs are good.

LEO: I’m wondering about building back the young personnel of the orchestra.
DH: You’re going to get some of that when you have a dispute. Yes, there were some people lost. What you need to do is to start up again, and you re-audition.

But the biggest thing that drives the success of orchestras is the artistic vision. You’ve got to have that sense of direction.

LEO: You’ve been here in town. Who are the people you try to talk to? Maybe not so much by person’s names, but have you talked to the mayor, to the musicians’ union?
DH: I’ve met with all of them. The union’s head is Jerry O’Malley. I have great respect for him. He’s gone through some tough stuff, the union has. I’m very cognizant there are people with their lives in our hands. Not only their musical lives, but their economic lives. And that’s why it’s back again to stability and continuity.

And also what I’ve tried to do — and this is what you can do when you’re interim, and you’ve got the miles on you like I have — is to meet with people who have been on the sidelines. (Those bowing off the boards and no longer attending concerts.) I’ve gone to them and shared what’s going on — the good, the bad and the ugly. And in most cases, they’ve come back. That’s a good feeling.

LEO: Going back for a moment, what do you mean by credibility?
DH: What I mean by credibility is we have a season. We’re going to do that season. We say we’re going to raise the money and fill the seats, and we do those things.

There are naysayers out there who say, “The Louisville Orchestra, well, so what?” But the fact is if there wasn’t a good feeling about the future, people who were there before wouldn’t have stayed on the board. Guys like Joe Pusateri, and new people like Christy Brown, Todd Lowe and Jim Welch would not have gotten involved if they didn’t think it was doable. I wouldn’t have come down here if I didn’t think it was doable.