Thomas Stevens

Management Funnies

  • General Quotes

"When in the sandbox, playground rules apply." -the late Robert Cowart, woodwind virtuoso.

DURING THE PAST few decades the leadership of the classical (and classical- oriented) music world has undergone significant changes, including the emergence of a new managerial class with an attendant bureaucracy, many members of which purport themselves to be musicians who are also business professionals qualified to manage and execute both musical and business matters. The transitive verb, “purport,” may be the operative term here in what is a particularly sensitive issue for many musicians, but since this writer no longer has a dog in this fight, the only reason for mentioning such a serious and boring subject in these pages is to set-up the inclusion of three funny anecdotal tales relating to the issue, plus an old classic. The three are my personal favorites in a section, tentatively titled “Management Funnies,” of an on-again/off-again publishing project featuring documented humorous music business stories currently in preparation by a consortium of American musicians. The three selections have a time-line of 1982-98 and are presented in summary outline form so as not to preempt or compromise the project or the individual authors in any way.

A SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA management team attempted to justify the dismissal of a musician by citing, among other things, the player’s consistently poor performances in a well-known symphonic work the musician, in actuality, did not play because there was no part for his instrument!
(There are five similar stories in consideration. Apparently, phantoms exist not only at the opera.)

THE CEO of a motion picture production company instructed a film composer to emulate the sound of the Brahms “f” minor string Quintet, a performance of which he had heard at a charity social event, for the music soundtrack of a movie for which he was the executive producer. He later angrily rejected the composer’s completed score because it was written for only five musicians! Reminiscent of the title of a short story written by the great 20th century jazz alto player, Paul Desmond, recalling a time when he was on the road with Dave Brubeck and an airline stewardess asked Mr. Brubeck how many members there were in his quartet.

The following is one of my personal submissions to the project.

DURING discussions regarding the clarification of the wording in its collective bargaining agreement with representatives of the local musician’s union, the management team of a major symphony orchestra insisted on adding certain contractual language to the agreement’s nomenclature appendix intended to provide increased management flexibility in the assignment of instrumental parts to musicians. The proposed language provided so much flexibility that a player representative on the union’s negotiating team asked if this would mean that she, a violinist, could be contractually required to play second clarinet? The management officials and their attorney replied, almost in lockstep unison and without hesitation, “Yes!”
But, that was only the half of it; the musicians’ union president and the attorney representing the union concurred!

(which is why we pay union dues)

Finally, a story from a much earlier time period, courtesy of Sir André

Previn, included here simply for good measure since it is one of the oldest stories concerning the subject at hand:
Irving Thalberg, the so-called “boy wonder” 1930s Hollywood studio magnate who was the role model for the protagonist in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, once asked members of his staff why the music in a film he was previewing in the studio’s projection room sounded so awful. One of his minions told him it was because there was “a minor chord.” Thalberg then issued the now infamous directive to his music department (offered here as a Quotable): “From the above date onward, no music in an MGM film is to contain ‘a minor chord’.“
According to Previn, the memo was encased in glass and bolted onto a wall in the MGM music offices, where it remained for decades, despite his (and presumably others’) efforts to remove it and take it home as a souvenir.
(Previn titled his 1991 book about his Hollywood days No Minor Chords-Doubleday, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, editor. Highly recommended.)