Interview by Scott Dowd
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Although I have interviewed some incredible people for Audience over the years, I can honestly say David Hyslop is the first person I have met who has had a piece of music written for him by a major composer. Composed in the late ’80s by Pulitzer prize-winner Joseph Schwantner, Fanfare for D.H. was commissioned by the St. Louis Symphony to celebrate Hyslop’s tenth anniversary of leadership there. Before St. Louis, Hyslop led the Oregon Symphony for six years. When he left St. Louis in 1991, he become the president and CEO of the Minnesota Orchestra. After serving there for a dozen seasons, he founded Hyslop and Associates and began to use his arts management expertise to spearhead projects across the country. He worked with Canton Symphony, the Sun Valley Summer Symphony and the Sun Valley Center for the Arts to find the right leadership. He led strategic planning processes for the Santa Fe Opera and the Amarillo Symphony Orchestra; provided executive coaching for the Houston Symphony; and completed development feasibility studies for the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra endowment campaign and the Wheaton Grand Theater (Illinois) redevelopment and business-planning project. Since last February, David has been working as interim executive director of the Louisville Orchestra. Along with the board of directors, he is reimagining the future of the organization and working to identify new leadership.
SD: Does your work always take the form of interim leadership?
DH: Since I retired from running symphony orchestras on a day-to-day basis a decade ago, I have done a ton of different things. Lately, it has taken the form of interim leadership. I went to Dallas as interim CEO in 2011 thinking it would be three or for months; it ended up being a year and a half. I’ve been here six months, and my best guess is that I will be here through the end of October.
SD: What are your goals?
DH: We’ve already accomplished part of our goals. Peter Pastreich, who has been arbitrating for the Louisville Orchestra and who brought me into this job, is another grizzled old veteran. I replaced him when he moved from St. Louis to San Francisco in 1978. We’ve known each other since 1966. Peter brought me here to give the organization stability and credibility going forward. The beauty of the interim position when you have as many miles as me is that you can do things and people take you seriously. I have a record of success and I can also share with them what doesn’t work. Plenty of things haven’t worked.
SD: Bring me up to date. What has happened since the beginning of the year?
DH: So far, we have gotten the contract with the musicians signed, the board has been reorganized and the people on the board are working with new members. We haven’t had an audit yet, but we were looking at a potential loss of $800,000 this season. Now I think it’s going to be more like $94,000 to $95,000 or less.
SD: How are ticket sales?
DH: Sales are up, but there are still significant challenges. When you have as much turnover and trauma as you’ve had here going through reorganization, to quote board president Jim Welch: “The brand has been damaged to some degree.” But the signs are good. It’s coming back.
SD: Would you consider ticket sales a leading indicator?
DH: It is. I’ve also spent a lot of time talking with people who have an axe to grind. In every instance after they’ve vented with me, I’ve asked, “Are you going to let this stand in the way of working with Louisville Orchestra and helping the organization?” The answer has been, “No.” The other exciting thing for the upcoming year is that Manny (Emanuel) Ax is coming; John Williams is coming; Midori is coming – she has not been here since she was a kid.
SD: I think she was seventeen.
DH: That will bring back memories. Leonard Slatkin and St. Louis toured with her when she was fourteen. We took her to Hong Kong and Japan in 1986. She’s an amazing talent and a very nice person.
SD: This will be the first time I have actually seen her perform.
DH: You’ll enjoy this. We started that tour in Osaka, Japan. At a press conference, the question came out, “You do the standard repertoire – Tchaikovsky, etc. But you also do the Berg violin concerto, Barber and all of this other repertoire…. Why do you do that?” Midori, at fourteen, answered in English to establish that she was now at Juilliard and building an international career: “I do that because I like the repertoire and it’s easy.” It made me think of Señor Wences’ line: “Easy for you; difficult for me.”
SD: She is playing the Brahms Violin Concerto in October.
DH: Yes. That program also includes the Prokofiev Fifth Symphony. You’ll remember from your St. Louis days that is the piece that won Slatkin the Grammy.
SD: I’ve heard recordings of her performance, of course; but I’m really looking forward to being there when she plays it.
DH: There is something special about being there when it is being created. Her standards are so high.
SD: That touches on a question I think is at the core of any conversation about live music today, especially classical music. With the technologies available, what is it that keeps a symphony orchestra relevant?
DH: I’ll give you a Manny Ax story: In September 2011, he was the opening soloist for Dallas. He gave four performances of the Brahms Piano Concerto. I heard all four and each time it was different. Every time it was a tremendous experience. You don’t get all of that in a recording. I’ve seen the Rolling Stones in concert. The recordings are something, but the live concert is an experience! It’s the same thing here.
SD: So we still need people to attend concerts and appreciate this repertoire. It’s not like it was when I was in high school. They don’t offer the kind of music programs in the schools that tune people’s ears to appreciate this music.
DH: Some things have gotten better; some have gotten worse. I went to a blue collar school in Schenectady, New York, which was at that time the world headquarters of GE. By the time I got to Ithaca College as a music major, I aced the first-year theory stuff because I had already had it. That being said, there will always be orchestras because the repertoire is tremendous. The impact of the Louisville Orchestra on the community is much bigger than going to hear ten concerts on Saturday nights or Thursday mornings at the concert hall. Part of the problem is that many orchestras ended up with longer seasons that were not driven by market demand and, in a bad economy, were slow to react. What I’ve seen change – and I had success with this in Tulsa and Dallas as interim there – is that you end up protecting the market you have at the current venues: the Whitney and the Brown, in this case. In Dallas, we took five weeks of the subscription season out to various areas of the community. I think that would work here.
SD: Is Louisville big enough to provide critical mass for that idea?
DH: Dallas is a lot bigger town, but Tulsa is not. It is successful in Tulsa because there are some people who are not necessarily willing to fight traffic and other perceived obstacles to come downtown for a performance. Louisville Orchestra did the Benjamin Britten War Requiem last year in a church in the suburbs. We were hired to do it, and it was a different experience.
SD: Did you see a lot of familiar faces?
DH: For the most part it was a new audience. That’s where Louisville needs to grow. Detroit came back from a terrible strike and now they’re all over the place. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, before their labor dispute and now even more so, protects their market at the Ordway Theatre in St. Paul and travels all over to expand their impact.
SD: Historically the Louisville Orchestra has made run outs to Bardstown and surrounding communities. But you’re talking about reaching more people right here.
DH: Yes. The key word right now is “stability.” We are reestablishing the organization and looking for long-term leadership. We are working on that right now in terms of an executive director. On the artistic side, Jorge Mester has been wonderful working as music director during this period. But when the new music director is named, we need to look at the future strategically. Where I’ve seen orchestras do well is when they take that process seriously. The Louisville Orchestra needs to establish benchmarks to measure their progress. Conversely, where I’ve seen orchestras fail is when the process is too open-ended: “We’re going to be the greatest orchestra in the world!” What does that mean?
SD: You sound very positive about the Orchestra’s ability to reestablish itself.
DH: Is it over? No. You went through a terrible time here, and there is a lot of work that still needs to be done. Chuck Maisch did a lot of things as board chair during a very difficult time and demonstrated a lot of courage. It’s going to be up to Jim Welch now to treat the wounds and allow them to heal.
SD: The Welch family has a long history of arts and community support in Louisville. Having him in that position at this time is really key. Do you think it matters what order a new executive director and a new music director are put in place?
DH: I don’t know that it makes that much difference. I’ve gone through it both ways. The big thing is that the executive director and the music director work as a team.
SD: When I looked at your career, I noticed that you divided 31 years of your career as an executive among three cities.
DH: Yes, and what you really do need here is continuity. There has been a lack of continuity in Louisville and you’ve got to have it. It doesn’t mean you have to sit around the room singing “Kumbaya,” but you do really have to respect each other. If you have differences, air them with each other in a private space, not publicly. I am very concerned about what has been going on with the labor dispute in Minnesota over the past year. They have just named Senator George Mitchell as the mediator and that probably will help. But airing it in the press is, in my opinion, of no value. All it does is make people harden their position. It’s not good.
SD: I’m glad to hear you had success talking with people who hardened themselves against the Louisville Orchestra. The sense I had was that people who had the capacity were disinclined to put their resources into an institution they weren’t sure was still a going concern.
DH: That’s absolutely right. When I did this in Tulsa, I was working with a situation in which the Tulsa Philharmonic had gone out of business and there was a four-year lull before the Tulsa Symphony opened. There was real concern from the community about being stiffed again. In the case of Dallas, there wasn’t the labor dispute – labor relations are quite good – but they thought they were going to lose $6.5 million on a $30 million budget with a huge turnover. So I did the same thing in both places. The board chair and I divided up the list and we listened to them. When they had valid concerns, we addressed them. I’m sure my record won’t last. But to date, I’ve never had a person tell me, “A pox on your house; I’m never going to talk to you again.” These people care about the music, and there is a long music history in Louisville. I talked with Slatkin the other day and he talked about the recording he made here in 1980 of Norman Dello Joio’s Homage to Haydn. Almost everybody has been through here at one time or another.
SD: Yes, especially during the days of First Edition Records. You talked about market-driven seasons earlier and I noticed Jorge Mester has programmed all-Mozart and all-Beethoven concerts for this year. Louisvillians love Mozart and Beethoven, and I think this is a brilliant decision.
DH: We also plan to do audience surveys, as I’ve had success with them in the past. After all the Orchestra has been through, we can’t just sit and talk to ourselves. We’ll survey both the audience we have and potential audience members who meet the demographic. What I found in Tulsa and Dallas is you can’t predict what’s going to happen, and it’s different in different parts of town.
SD: You are going back to the need to expand the market.
DH: There is a reason Neiman Marcus has more than one store.
SD: In looking for long-term executive leadership for Louisville, what characteristics are most important in that person?
DH: These are my opinions, but they are based on experience: You have to have a person who understands both worlds. You’ve seen what happens when you bring in a business person and they say, “Just run it like a business!” That’s great until you have to sit down and talk with a Slatkin or a Leinsdorf. When you don’t know how many symphonies Beethoven wrote, you’re in a heap of trouble. Correspondingly, when you go out to deal with Jim Welch or Tom Partridge, you need to know the business language because it is a business. Right now, I think you’re looking for a track record of success with a variety of constituencies. To emulate places that have successful orchestras, and I’ve said this to everyone concerned, you need continuity. You need that in the executive; you need that in the music director. I also think you don’t want a rookie. The challenges are immense and there is a history here. You don’t want someone doing a union contract for the first time in this environment. You don’t want someone going into negotiations with the opera and the ballet who hasn’t been there. Unless they were absolutely brilliant, I think that would be difficult.
SD: What about the music director?
DH: I think it’s a variation on the same theme. We need someone here who has the musical talent. This orchestra has played the Brahms second symphony five hundred times. The music director has to be able to show them something new and coach them. At the same time, a music director has to be relevant. They have to be out there in the community. I’ve seen it work and fail with conductors who lived in the community and vice versa. There is a generation of conductors coming out who get how it works with an American orchestra. You can touch lives in many ways outside the concert hall.
SD: Looking at the Louisville Orchestra today, with our history and the resources at hand, and based on your experience, how does it look?
DH: It looks a lot better than it did. The orchestra is working very hard and doing everything they can to play well in every performance. Attendance is going up. The collaboration with the opera and ballet is there. Add a music director and a CEO they all respect while keeping continuity on the board and I think the future is very bright. At my age, I wouldn’t be here doing this if I didn’t think so.
Season tickets for Louisville Orchestra’s 2013-2014 season are still available. For more information, call 502.584.8681, or go to www.louisvilleorchestra.org.