Chapter 36: The List

Entrance into a major symphony orchestra is often an exhilarating experience. Exit from one is usually decidedly less so. The end always arrives, sometimes for the wrong reasons.

Very soon after an orchestra appoints a new music director, the usual question begins to circulate among the musicians. “Who’s on ‘the list’?” one whispers to another. The official answer from the music director and top management is always the same. “There is no such thing,” they will say. They are lying. “The list” always exists. “The list” contains the names of the musicians that will be “removed” from the orchestra by the new maestro. Sometimes “the list” is created by the music director during his first year on the job; sometimes it has been prepared as a result of opinions formed during guest conducting appearances. Regrettably, there are times when management contributes to “the list” by telling the new conductor that, unless he makes certain changes during his first contract period, there might not be a second.

John Nelson had made it clear that he thought the useful life of an orchestra’s music director was about ten years. After that, the law of diminishing returns kicked in, because the musicians had grown tired of hearing the same thing from the podium, and the prospects of the orchestra’s continued musical growth would be small and, quite likely, painful. Nelson ended his tenure at the end of the 1986-87 season after 11 years as the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s fourth music director. He wanted to leave the year before, but he agreed to stay an extra year in order for the ISO to become more settled in its new hall, the Hilbert Circle Theatre, and to give the search process an extra year to unfold.

The hunt for Nelson’s successor quickly boiled down to two names, Raymond Leppard and Mark Elder. I was very favorably impressed with Elder, as were many of my brass and percussion colleagues, but the strings and woodwinds were overwhelmingly in favor of Leppard. The strings were downright giddy over the prospect of getting “one of theirs,” since Leppard had been a viola player early in his musical career. He possessed a seemingly genuine sense of humor which he liberally spread throughout his rehearsals. He used his English charm to court the favor of the string section in addition to well-placed members of the board and community who had decision-making power. It became clear that Elder would get the job only if Leppard refused it. He didn’t. The new maestro promised to make the ISO “America’s great classical orchestra” with emphasis on the works of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven as the backbone of our repertoire. This was in direct contrast to Nelson who had excelled in the large works of the Romantic period and had a strong desire to introduce quality 20th century works to audiences, also.

Right on cue, shortly after the beginning of the Leppard tenure, the question came to the fore. “Who’s on ‘the list’?” I decided to try to find the answer. I knew that no music director would give me a truthful answer and that the ISO’s president wouldn’t disclose much either, so I took a page from the playbook of the brilliant authors Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. I was friendly with one of “the president’s men,” and although we never met in a parking garage, I was able to probe effectively enough to get my answer. “Yes, ‘the list’ exists,” I was told. “It’s a long one. You won’t recognize this orchestra in five years. It contains lots of principals as well as section players. And you’re on it.”

Needless to say, I was surprised and disappointed by the information. I wasn’t ready to meet “The Turk.” In professional football, especially in training camp, players who are about to be cut from the team are visited by an assistant coach who knocks on the player’s door and instructs him to immediately see the head coach “and bring your playbook.” That assistant coach has become known as “The Turk,” an emissary of death to that part of the player’s professional career. In the ISO, “The Turk” was often the administrative assistant to the general manager who, in turn, delivered the bad news.

Ever the optimist, I thought I could change the course of events by adapting to the dictates of the new music director. Surely I could be flexible enough to satisfy his performance demands. We had gotten along well during his guest conducting appearances, so I couldn’t really understand why I was on “the list” in the first place. I was about to find out how much of a struggle it would be. Music directors have a variety of ways to “remove” musicians from an orchestra. Death usually does the trick, although conductors can’t always count on getting that kind of help, so they tend to try to move things along in their own ways. Retirement can provide a soft landing for a departing musician. Sometimes the conductor will add a little extra pressure in rehearsals in order to “encourage” a quicker retirement, and on occasion, orchestras have been known to buy out a musician, thus providing a financial incentive to depart. Resignation works, too, but for musicians not ready for retirement there is the obvious quandary of where to go. When you are already in one of the country’s better orchestras, it’s not easy to move up or even sideways to another, and it has become equally difficult to find a university teaching position that fits with your educational qualifications, background and temperament. Major orchestras have complicated dismissal clauses in their master contracts, so outright firing a musician can be a lengthy process and usually is done only for disciplinary reasons or gross musical incompetence. Going through the firing process can be bloody for all concerned, and conductors don’t usually like to get their hands that dirty. . . . .