Friday, May 22, 2009

Remembrance of Things Pastreich

Lisa Hirsch is on something of a tear today about the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra's decision to hire former San Francisco Symphony executive director Peter Pastreich as its new manager. She seems to feel that it's a pretty ominous development, which of course is her prerogative — though I might have wished for her to bolster her argument with something other than a tendentious and weirdly selective quote from an old article of mine. 

She also feels that my announcer in this morning's paper glosses over the unhappiest episode of Pastreich's SFS tenure — the bitter nine-week strike that disrupted the orchestra's 1996-97 season — and she may well be right. If something that big happens on your watch, maybe it deserves to get mentioned every time you do something new that puts your face back in the paper. I dunno.

But I have to take issue pretty strenuously with the notion that I'm "ducking" the points raised in the 1997 thumb-sucker, mainly because — well, because Lisa doesn't seem to have quite understood what those points were. That post-mortem pinned the blame for the strike on both parties with almost namby-pamby even-handedness, laying out exactly the ways in which I thought each side was at fault. You have to read the article from way over to one side for the takeaway to be that Pastreich is bad news.

For the benefit of out-of-towners and those coming in late, here's the Cliffs Notes version. Pastreich is a brilliant, far-sighted and deeply experienced orchestra manager, whose leadership was one of the key elements of the Symphony's rise to its current stature and prominence. He's also a hard-driving sumbitch, and no one who's worked for him has ever looked back on the experience and said, "Well, that was fun." There were currents of bad blood between him and some members of the orchestra, and those got worse with time, until the animus exploded in a puerile and wildly unfocused strike, which Pastreich made worse by mishandling it.

I guess you could take the moral of that story to be "Never hire Pastreich again," but that kind of leaves a lot out of the equation, doesn't it? If I'm running an orchestra board, I'm going to see whether I can't get the benefits of his wisdom and leadership while dodging the negatives (either because the situation is different or because Pastreich himself has changed, or both). The Philharmonia board thinks they can do that, and more power to them; personally, I'm going to assume they're right until proven otherwise.

Of course, not every organization has what it takes, as Lisa inadvertently reminds us by pointing us toward this little item (third one down). I'm not sure how much mileage we can get out of an item that consists exclusively of unsourced gossip ("That's no rumor — some guy on the internet said it was true!"). But just for fun, let's stipulate that every word in there is gospel, and review the bidding. 

The Honolulu Symphony — which according to our gospel writer has been "crisis-torn," "rudderless" and "without effective administrative or musical leadership" — brings Pastreich in for a consult. He looks the situation over and tells them they're in deep trouble. He's willing to hang around on an interim basis and help them get their shit together. They say, "No thanks, please go away," and he goes. And he's the jackass in this little yarn? No, I don't think so.


At 5/31/2009 3:16 PM, Blogger Formerly Undecided said...

Anyone in the know re Mr. Pastreich and the Honolulu Symphony (HS) knows that the only reason he didn't stay around the HS is because he told a very inept HS Board the truth and they didn't want to hear it. The "truth" being that several Board Members with large checkbooks felt that they knew more about managing a symphony orchestra than he did, despite the fact that Pastreich had been retained to indeed try and straighten out the mess they had themselves created. When Pastreich left, so did the only Board Members who had any common sense and the remaining Board then hired the very capable (and candid) Gideon Toeplitz who began to bring order to chaos. Unfortunately, Toeplitz suffered a serious physical challenge and soon disappeared from the scene, again leaving the HS Board to their own devises and the sad story continues from there. The HS is now even closer to bankruptcy and oblivion than every before. Perhaps Google "Tom Gulick" (Toeplitz' replacement) for further details.


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