The Concert Association column you did not read in the Miami Herald

By Lawrence A. Johnson

A bit of background: In June Dan Chang reported in the Miami Herald that the Concert Association of Florida has made an offer to the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts proposing that the center take over the financially troubled presenting organization.

Feeling strongly that an essential part of a newspaper critic’s role is to provide analysis and spark debate on crucial developments on one’s beat, I wrote a column examining the issues raised by the offer. To make a long story short, the Herald declined to publish the column. Because there has been no change in the situation and I feel the issues are still germane and of great significance to the local music scene, I am posting that column today.

Last week the Miami Herald’s Dan Chang reported that the Concert Association of Florida had made an overture to the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts to, in essence, take over the financially troubled organization.

The proposal from Concert Association board chairman Robert Hudson requests that the Arsht Center assume all responsibilities for accounting, marketing, ticketing, and production operations. It also calls for the Arsht Center to co-produce a number of events in which the center would assume all financial risk, while most of the revenues would flow to the Concert Association. Further, Hudson requests that the Arsht Center grant naming rights and other advantages to the Concert Association without the center sharing in the financial benefit.

Finally, three “key employees”—CEO Albert Milano, artistic director Rise Kern and development director Marcia Rabinowitz would keep their jobs while the rest of the staff would lose theirs.

Lawrence Wilker, interim chief executive of the Arsht Center, expressed sympathy for the Concert Association’s plight and said he would be meeting with them soon to see if there is some way the center can help. But a more realistic response to Hudson’s proposal would be, “What in the world are you guys smoking?”

It makes eminent sense for the Arsht Center to assume control of the floundering Concert Association. Before the downtown arts center existed, Miami needed a highly motivated dynamo like [founder and long-time president] Judy Drucker to present classical artists via a stand-alone entity. With the Concert Association’s Miami events presented at the Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall there’s no longer any practical or economic reason to have a middleman.

But it makes absolutely zero sense for Wilker to accept Hudson’s heavily slanted terms—not only for the obvious, woefully unbalanced costs/benefits breakdown —but for institutionalizing a leadership whose record is incomplete at best, and on the artistic front, little short of disastrous.

No one is exaggerating the organization’s problems with a lingering deficit variously estimated at from $2.4 to $3 million, an aging, shrinking subscriber base, and management at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts that seems disdainful of providing available dates to book classical events in Fort Lauderdale. Add the plunging economy and saving the Concert Association is an undeniably daunting task.

Hudson claims that the Concert Association has reduced its perennial long-term debt by $500,000 and that increased ticket sales and more than $3 million in contributions have helped the organization to end the 2007-2008 season in the black by $210,000. Yet even if the financial picture is as rosy as described, Milano’s record on artistic matters is considerably less inspiring.

Next season looks decent on paper, but the majority of the major classical events—the New York Philharmonic, Budapest Festival Orchestra, and Kirov Orchestra—were booked by Drucker before her exit last summer. The initiatives and additional programming served up by Milano and Kern have shown a remarkable lack of knowledge of basic classical presentation as well as their audience’s preferences—most prominently in the disastrous Florida Symphony project announced with great fanfare in January and then quickly dropped three months later. Anyone could anticipate that Broward Center subscribers would resent paying international-orchestra prices to hear a local freelance ensemble.

Miami is not lacking in presenters of pops, jazz and Latin music, not least the Arsht Center itself, and Milano’s moves have shown a blithe indifference to the fact that classical programming has been the Concert Association’s raison d’etre for forty years. By changing its orientation to include mixed programs of classical and pops, world music and jazz, the Concert Association isn’t “broadening” its profile but diluting it. You don’t build a larger audience for classical music by doing less classical music.

For four decades, under Drucker, the Concert Association of Florida never wavered in its mission of presenting world-class orchestras and classical artists (as well as dance). Concert Association subscribers—the foundation of the organization’s audiences —have said loud and clear that they don’t want “crossover,” local freelance orchestras, or watered-down pops concerts, as evidenced by the numbers of people either not renewing in Broward or renewing only for the five classical events.

With its precarious financial situation, shrinking subscriber base and management that seems anxious to let someone else take over all responsibilities—while they keep their salaries—-it’s entirely possible that the 2008-2009 season will be the final one for the Concert Association of Florida as an independent presenter of events. And it will most likely be the last season for the organization’s series in Fort Lauderdale, where the Broward Center has shown indifference to providing dates for classical events for many years.

An Arsht Center takeover of the Concert Association could serve to shore up the organization financially as well as artistically. Potential conflicts with other resident groups and duplicative programming could be dealt with more easily and overall coordination more efficiently handled.

But it is crucial that the Arsht Center demonstrate a serious, lasting commitment to presenting quality classical repertoire unlike its sister venue in Fort Lauderdale. In addition to more innovative marketing that will stem the dwindling subscribe base, it’s essential that a programming director with a wide and deep knowledge of classical repertoire and practical experience be hired, preferably with an arts center background.

A reconstituted Arsht Center/Concert Association partnership could continue the organization’s historical tradition of bringing world-class orchestras and solo artists and even expanding it, possibly by inviting touring opera companies like the Kirov for multi-week residencies.

So, Larry Wilker’s reply to Hudson should be, “Thank you very much for your proposal. We appreciate your difficulties and would very much like to help. But come back with a counteroffer more rooted in reality—one that gives us some financial benefits as well as risks, and the ability to choose our own personnel who will guarantee not just the financial security but the artistic integrity of the Concert Association of Florida. Then we’ll talk.”

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9 Responses to “The Concert Association column you did not read in the Miami Herald”

  1. Posted Aug 04, 2008 at 4:56 pm by jorge 176

    Great reporting. This is what the Herald should be reporting. Nice to be able to access here.

    jorge 176

  2. Posted Aug 04, 2008 at 6:17 pm by LawrenceEB

    Larry, this is an outstanding column. Your points are trenchant and well taken. Milano and Hudson are showing contempt for their audience.

  3. Posted Aug 04, 2008 at 6:45 pm by FredG

    Great column! I wonder why the Herald didn’t want to publish it….

    It’s certainly much easier to “broaden” the programming to include easy sells in the season and forget what Judy Drucker’s vision was all along

    Keeping classical music alive in S. Florida is a quest which CAF and the Arsht Center ought to prioritize. No matter how strapped financially, you can always find grants and sponsors for wide-reaching, comprehensive community projects. Until S. Florida doesn’t bring classical music to its schools and communities it’ll be hard to bring them to the concert hall for anything classical.
    CAF and Arsht should partner in such projects and in a few years, I bet their finances would improve.

  4. Posted Aug 04, 2008 at 9:50 pm by Dave R

    I could never understand the Broward Center’s reluctance to give CAF dates. For years, it always seemed as if the best programs were scheduled for Broward, and I can remember many packed or nearly-packed houses there. It’s a shame that Broward insists on being nothing more than Broadway South; you’d think management there would have an interest in (or a responsibility to) provide a broad spectrum of the arts.

  5. Posted Aug 05, 2008 at 2:17 am by Anonymous

    The column told it like it is. The Broward Center’s reluctance to provide suitable dates for classical music programming shows that it isn’t a true performing arts center. This is a reason why the former Florida Philharmonic Orchestra went under, but not the only reason. I wonder what the Broward Center’s anti-classical music stance will do to the Florida Grand Opera and the Symphony of the Americas.
    Judy Drucker really did an outstanding job in bringing first class classical music to South Florida. She has nothing to be ashamed of.
    At least the Arsht Center and the Kravis Center do justice to classical music.
    The CAF should be saved.

  6. Posted Aug 09, 2008 at 9:42 pm by Anonymous

    Thank you so much for your candor and bravery on the CAF and especially the Broward Center. I have felt for years that the leadership of Broward Center has little regard for classical music.

    Shame on the Herald!

  7. Posted Aug 11, 2008 at 8:28 pm by Margot Knight

    Very interesting. Within a few years, the local presenter of international orchestras here in Orlando–the Festival of Orchestras– as well as Florida Theatrical Association’s Broadway series, will face a similar challenge as the new Dr. P. Phillis Performing Arts Center takes on self-presenting in its 3new halls. The role of the middle-man will need to be examined from a cost-benefit and quality perspective.

  8. Posted Aug 13, 2008 at 3:12 pm by Dave R.

    Just thought I’d post this. It’s an email I sent to the Ombudsman at the Herald who, of course, ignored it. No acknowledgment, no response. What follows is exactly as it was sent.

    To the Ombudsman:

    According to the copy that accompanies the Herald’s comments forums, “We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from personal comments and remarks that are off point.” However, this is clearly no longer the case with its classical music forums now that former classical music writer Lawrence Johnson has been fired. It has been my experience, and the experience of several others, that attempts to post comments on Mr. Johnson’s most recent articles–the ones that were written before he was let go–are now being blocked. In other words, we post, and nothing shows up.

    Speaking for myself, my post was neither a criticism of Mr. Johnson’s firing or of Herald management. There was nothing offensive in my posting. The purpose of my posting was to inform others that Mr. Johnson has created a classical music blog elsewhere on the Internet. In all honesty, I don’t see why anyone at the Herald would have a problem with this, considering that Mr. Johnson’s blog is, by no means, in competition with the Herald. After all, the Herald no longer has a classical music writer! The Herald doesn’t have to worry about readers deciding whether to choose Mr. Johnson’s blog or the Herald for classical music news because the Herald, apparently, is no longer in the business of covering classical music.

    But let’s look at this from something other than a business angle. Let’s look at it from a journalistic angle. If the main purpose of a newspaper is to inform, then the Herald has a responsibility to let its readers know where it can find the information/news that it no longer provides. Even the Sun-Sentinel, the Herald’s direct competitor (and the paper Mr. Johnson left in order to join the Herald), ran a small article informing its readership of Mr. Johnson’s new blog. The link is http://weblogs.sun-sentinel.com/features/arts/music/blog/2008/07/blogrolling_in_our_time_south.html. And it certainly is unethical of the Herald to create a place for readers to post comments and opinions, then refuse to post comments that are critical of Herald management. The firing of the classical music critic was news. Readers have the right to comment on that news. How do I know? Because, as I said, according to the Herald itself, “We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day…” Having no classical music critic in a city that recently opened two new auditoriums for classical music and has its own opera company and one of the most respected (if not the most respected) student orchestra in the world (the New World Symphony), in addition to a vibrant music community, sounds like news to me. Or is the Herald like Fox TV stations: only covering news that casts itself in a favorable light?

    There are several questions that need to be answered:

    1. Why was the comments/forum function of Mr. Johnson’s reviews/articles cut off? Was it to quash criticism of Herald management? If so, that seems hypocritical, unethical and cowardly on the part of Herald management.
    2. Does the Herald plan to somehow resume coverage of classical music and, if so, how? This is something the thousands of classical music enthusiasts in South Florida would like to know.

    Kindest regards,
    Dave Rosenbaum
    Plantation, Florida

  9. Posted Nov 04, 2008 at 5:26 pm by South Florida Classical Review » Blog Archive » Russians open in Broward with drama on stage and off

    [...] about Orlich’s musical tastes, background and presenting experience. Still smarting over an August column I wrote questioning the artistic direction of the Concert Association, Milano yelled [...]

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