Listen to Episode #55 here:
Live with Michael Smith from The Academy
Our guest is Michael Smith. Michael is a musician, veteran, husband and father. He graduated from Heidelberg College with a Bachelor’s in Music with a focus on clarinet. He also received a Master’s in Musicology from the University of Rochester. He spent most of his career with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra as Orchestra Manager, then General Manager and then Vice President and General Manager. He served for twelve years as the Executive Director of the Colorado Music Festival. Now retired, he joins me from his residence at The Academy Senior Living in Boulder, Colorado. Welcome, Michael.
Michael, if you didn’t have a career in music and the arts, what would you have done?
I would have chosen the American Decorative Arts scene. It’s something that I’ve begun to get very interested in my later years. I was able to get involved with a number of projects at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware as well as the Historic New England organization in Boston. I’ve been collecting periodicals on antiques for years. I have a library stack with antique magazines. I had in my background a lot of Americana through the family. If could do it now, I would be an antique dealer.
American Decorative Arts scene is a fancy way to say, antique dealer?
It’s sort of spread. It’s talking about the general atmosphere, the general environment, the general history and the settings of the period. It’s not just furniture, it’s interiors of houses, architectural elements of houses.
I know nothing about this. My house is filled with mid-century modern furniture. Beyond that and beyond some trips to the museum, I don’t know much about it. What qualifies something like an antique?
The age spread has expanded over the years. There was a general feeling that anything after 1830, even into the 1950s after 1830 was not considered antique. That now has moved because time has moved. There’s a more of an appreciation of articles of later date that are included in the concept of antique.Anything worth doing is not going to be easy. Click To Tweet
You said the ‘50s. Is stuff in my house might be fake?
It’s not fake if it’s real mid-century modern it’s important.
I don’t know. I have some Barcelona chairs there.
Even so, it’s a trend. If you look at the broad idea of American Decorative Arts, mid-century modern is all part of that. It’s a broad term that’s now very much in use particularly the Winterthur Arts Program when you go for a Master’s there. You can choose subjects of very recent nature dealing with American Decorative Arts.
I’m fascinated by this idea because one of the things I like about furniture is that notion of form and function. You can sit in a chair like the ones that we’re sitting in, which is more functional in form. The idea that you can decorate a home with furniture and not just put art on the walls, that kind of idea. What are the origins of that notion of turning furniture into artwork? I realize this is your made-up career that you were going to pursue.
That’s hard to determine. Over the years, when you start with the early settlers, they had very few objects in their houses. In the nineteenth century, when the Industrial Revolution occurred, people sought more objects for their homes, their interiors. It’s a hard question to answer about labeling. Historians are still trying to label exactly the contents of rooms. When many of the early American museum concepts such as Deerfield in Massachusetts and Winterthur Museum in Delaware were created by these gentlemen, the Flynts in Deerfield’s case and du Pont the other, the rooms were very crowded. They were overexpressing the American spirit. There was a very interesting book written by a woman called Out of the Attic where she talks about the impetus of Americana, particularly in the ‘40s and ‘50s, which the Flynts and to a certain degree, du Pont and others captured to grasp America as an anti-communist statement. It was a very interesting concept that we were over Americanizing interiors of museum rooms.
It is a response to the political climate.
It’s one of the responses.
Let’s talk about what you have spent your life doing, which is performing music and working with orchestras. Tell me about the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. What makes it different than a typical symphony orchestra?
In the scheme of orchestras, you have top tier orchestras such as Cleveland, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York. Detroit was always considered in the second tier along with Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Los Angeles, San Francisco to name some. The difference may principally in my mind was the fact of the level of prestige of one orchestra versus another. In the orchestra world, lower orchestras are always trying to achieve the next step. In my day, basically, the major five were the major five. Over the years because of labor negotiations, the Los Angeles and the San Francisco now are considered among the major seven at the last I noted. In Detroit’s case, what makes it somewhat unique in my experience is that it has had a very rough history of survival.
Again, lots of times dealing with labor issues. Symphony orchestras are very much governed by the negotiations and the master agreements that the management and the orchestra members have to agree upon in order to keep them running and to keep them surviving. In some cases, there are objections from the orchestra members that put things off. In the case of Detroit in my day, we negotiated every three years. It was very tough to be able to get that contract agreed to in time to keep a season going. Sometimes there are rough spots. After I’ve left, I know that there was a two-year hiatus with that orchestra where the whole operation stopped. It’s not unique to Detroit necessarily. It’s one of the foibles and one of the obstacles that in the orchestra world you have to recognize and deal with.
Is that because of the level of talent necessary? It seems like a very pro-labor world in part because it’s just hard to get that good.
That’s part of it. When you think of an individual musician who has worked years and years in a practice room, in a studio and wants to get in on an orchestra situation, to agree that’s very true. They’ve worked hard and they expect a decent wage. It’s all peer related. In our day, we would watch the negotiations of the Pittsburgh Orchestra and the Los Angeles particularly and we wanted to match that. If you couldn’t quite match that then you would be back and forth in negotiations.
Who’s the hardest member of the orchestra? It can’t be the cymbal player? Who’s the most valued hardest to negotiate with a member of an orchestra? You don’t have to name names.
It doesn’t work that way. What you have is a negotiating committee. They choose five to seven members of the orchestra. They become the representatives at the table. Beyond that, beyond the basic wage and the basic conditions of a master agreement, then each individual musician you do have to renegotiate a higher level. For instance, the concertmaster is going to come and say, “The basics are set. Now it’s time for me to negotiate with you.” In that case, all orchestras have what are called personnel managers. They have those conversations. They bring it to management. We tried to settle on some appropriate salary.
It sounds like hard work.
In times of stress and negotiations, it’s tough. You lose all of the friendships that you had with your musicians at that time. It’s like you are just on the other side of a wall. It’s very stressful. I did five negotiations. It was tiring.Take comfort in the fact that there are so many ways and paths to be successful. Click To Tweet
Did you use your sense of humor at all in these negotiations?
You couldn’t. It was serious business. Our team left among ourselves. The other team wasn’t in the room.
I’m a professor. I know what that’s like.
Our negotiating lawyer was a hysterical guy. He was very funny. You didn’t take that into the closed room with the opposites across the table. You would never do that.
I’m a business school professor, that’s why I was asking you about differentiating yourself. It sounds like one thing that you differentiate yourself with is talent. The more talented the symphonies that are usually the higher ranked. Are there other ways that symphonies differentiate themselves like in their choice of music? Can you rise and fall for any other reason besides the quality of the talent you have?
You can have highs and lows depending on your musical leadership sometimes. The choice of a music director is always a big deal in the orchestra world. In Detroit’s case, it was very interesting. I started with Sixten Ehrling in 1969. He was this very stolid, serious Swedish conductor, wonderful with the contemporary. He loved his Stravinsky. He loved twentieth-century music. He was stiff, reserved and very Scandinavian with his public and with his donors. It was a hard mix at that time. We flip-flopped and went to a very luscious Italian conductor, who was oozing all the time with his public and everything. He was not a very good music director. It was back and forth. The choices you make are choices that are helped by the musicians, helped by a board of directors and helped by donors. You are trying to find the right mix at any particular moment.
This is useful to hear because I always thought that conductors were overrated. You were saying they’re not. They serve multiple purposes in terms of guiding musical choices, assessing talent and then also working outside facing fundraising.
My little story is when I got into the business, I came in through what is called the Ford Foundation Administrative Intern Program, which was a ten-year program. The Ford Foundation felt it was important at that stage. It ran from around ’59 to ’69 or ’58 to ’68. The Ford Foundation at that time saw a need to go into youth and younger people who were very interested in arts management, whether it was an orchestra, opera, theater, ballet. Because they felt that the Medicisism, that’s my term, was about to end where you had very wealthy people in the community who kept the orchestra going with large gifts. It didn’t make so much difference who that music director was as long as he was making music.
I was lucky to be part of that program. As a result, in my 23 years in Detroit, the staff went from eight people to 50 in those 23 years. What happened? The orchestras became corporations. They had to do that because the idea of major money coming from few donors was ending. They needed to become a fundraising machine. They needed to become a marketing machine, all of those kinds of things. It was a much bigger mix of need and information at beyond being plain old, good music director, lousy music director.
You played the clarinet. I assume you were on this track. You decided to get off the track. Why was that?
Graduate school was a learning curve. The clarinetists at that time were very strong. I can name about five that I was competing with who went on to Boston and Philadelphia.
This is in your Master’s program?
It was just a big field. Suddenly here it was. I thought, “This is really going to be rough.”
I know exactly what that’s like because I played drums in junior high school. I had a terrible rhythm. I knew I wasn’t going to cut it in high school. I got into sports. It wasn’t much better.
I didn’t go that far.
I know the feeling.
I had the wonderful opportunity of landing a job at the University of Rochester. I went to Eastman School. It was one of the colleges of the University of Rochester. I was able to get a position in the student activities area. It was a terrific learning experience for me. To see how I could work out with people and relate to people and bring them together for resolution even though they were undergraduates on issues such as how to budget various clubs. I thought maybe this is something that I wanted to get into. I went from there down to Oberlin. I was on the staff of the Conservatory of Music there and worked a lot with the professors. I was growing in this area of arts management.The music business is full of people who are giant egos. Click To Tweet
We share that in our background. I worked in student affairs prior to getting into academia. I was the Hall Director, so I made it in the residence hall.
I was a proctor once too.
That’s hard work. I felt like after I had done that, I was ready for grad school. I was like, “I can handle this advisor versus 400 freshmen, an eight-story building and fire alarms at night.” That said, though, it was really useful for me. It helped my administrative skills. It helped my negotiating skills obviously. It was a good experience. I don’t miss it terribly. In the same way that you probably don’t miss negotiating. Do you still play?
Do you remember the last time you played the clarinet?
I do. We used to go to Maine. I had a sister who had a camp up there. One summer when the kids were small, I took the clarinets along thinking, “I’ll get them out and see what happens.” On her property, there was what we call a ledge. It’s this rocky clearing thing. It was away from the main house in our sleeping cabin. I went over there. I put up my music stand and I got out of the clarinet. I’m noodling on the clarinet. I had forgotten that down the hill was a family, who kept quite a few malamutes, the Huskies. My sound went through the trees and down the hill. Suddenly, there was this howling like crazy. I was embarrassed. I put it away. I never brought them out again.
This is bringing back memories of playing the drum at age fourteen. I can feel your pain. How old were you at that time?
Claire was alive. She’s 41. I am 81. She was a little tot, so it was 45, 46, 47, 48, something like that.
I find that I’m old enough now that I have several episodes in life where I have made a conscious choice to close a chapter. I’ve been joking about the drums, that clearly wasn’t one of those. In different times in life where I’ve just decided I am no longer X. For me, one was I played Lacrosse for 25 years. I played it for too many years. I was getting into my 40s. It’s a young man’s game. The injuries, the constant pain and having the amount of work, I had to do to try to continue to play at a high level, I decided I’m going to retire. I’m going to close this chapter. I’ve done this a number of times in life. It feels good to be able to say, “I did this at a high level. I did it in a way that I gave everything I could. I can’t give everything I can. I’d rather not do it rather than do it in a middling way.” It sounds like the clarinet might have been similar.
That was a closure. I moved from job to job because of certain situations, opportunities. I see my life as a continuum of something that I never expected to be in. I never expected to be in music management for as long as I was in various forms. I appreciate what I learned in that stream. I’m also glad that I am finished with that. I can slow down and reflect if I want to on it. There were a lot of hard knocks along the way. It wasn’t easy.
I have a saying that anything worth doing is not going to be easy. I’ve been asking this question to my guests. It’s not going over well, so don’t feel pressured to get me to keep asking this question. During your career, did you have a rival or an enemy or a frenemy? Someone else in the community or at another symphony or someone who served as a benchmark?
My role was one of serving a lot, particularly in the orchestra business. I made a lot of acquaintances. A lot of people that I was very proud to know guest conductors and guest soloists. Many of those people that were wonderful to me because I was a fledgling at first. I received a lot of support because I felt lucky to have been chosen by the Ford Foundation, for example, to be an intern. It was classic. There were two interns that were sent to Detroit Symphony at the same time. Charlie Winco was this Virginian who had taken his MBA at Charlottesville. Charlie comes in. He can’t conceive music management. It’s not anything that he’s been taught at Charlottesville. The poor guy struggled and couldn’t make it.
We’d talk and talk and talk. He’d say, “Why are they doing these things this way? This isn’t the way corporations run. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.” He didn’t last very long. I saw that as an example of “You have to be open and try to understand what’s going on and be very flexible in a field that is changing course constantly because orchestras at my time were beginning to change in how they survive. It was a very interesting thing. I never had rivals. I don’t like rivalries. I don’t mind competing. I never was put in that position. I felt I got where I was on my own merits and didn’t have to really compete for that.
The reason I asked it is because when it comes to work managing your career, aspiring to something, it’s hard as I was saying anything worth doing is difficult. There are many ways to be successful. There are multiple paths to be successful. There were times in life where I used that as a way to motivate myself.
Back to the orchestra business in ’78, ’79, Antal Dorati was our music director. He was a very powerful musical figure. He came to the Detroit Symphony insisting that we would restart recordings. He chose London Decca. We had a large London Decca recording contract then. He insisted that he wanted a European tour. It would be the first time the orchestra went to Europe. It’s the first time they went abroad. They traveled a lot domestically, but they did not travel abroad. My rival and my nemesis at that point was the fact that he had brought on a gentleman to be his artistic advisor, who was a nice chap. He and I clashed. At the same time, there was a new executive above me, who came aboard just after the whole tour had been planned. We go off on this tour. It’s a five-week tour of Europe, which was extraordinarily large. Generally, tours were about three weeks. Ours was five because Dorati wanted it to be all over the place.
Lots of things went wrong. I came forward to make sure that things went right as possible to succeed. The thing that was so wonderful for me as we close the five weeks, we had dinner in Basel or something like that. I gained faith with Dorati because we had more screaming fits all the way through when he wanted over time and I wouldn’t give it to him. I would go into the dressing room and he’d have these wire coat hangers that he was twisting. He was looking at me like, “How could you do that to me?” It was just a very exciting thing. I did have to work over rivals in a sense. I had to keep things moving because the rest of them were fussing around with details. We didn’t have time to do that thing. I don’t know whether that’s apt or not.
It sounds to me your world has personalities. You have personalities at every level from the donors to the performers, to your conductor and so on. What’s the secret to dealing with a big personality?In life, the more senior you get, the further away you get from that thing that drew you into your work. Click To Tweet
Listening principally and backing away if it’s too forceful, letting them calm down. The music business is full of people who are giant egos.
I saw the movie Whiplash. I know all about this.
You have to back away, pay them homage, get it done and move on.
It sounds quite improvisational. We had Front deRanged, a Boulder-based improv group perform. One of the things I like about improv is the focus on listening. When you’re watching good improv, you see the performance, you see the actions. The thing that makes great improv is the ability for the teammates to listen to one another. That’s incredibly difficult to do while at the same time you’re trying to think about what it is you’re going to say and what it is you’re going to do. That ends up being a skill that is quite useful. With regard to your original intern teammate, is not taught in business school, it’s not taught anywhere except probably in an improv class. I want to talk to you a little bit about retirement. I need you to prep me for retirement because, at this point, I’m having a hard time envisioning it myself. I was joking to Cindy, who put this on that I’m like, “Can I put down a deposit for this place? This seems like a vibrant, wonderful place to be.” I’m not just saying that because they invited me to do this. Did you have a plan for retirement? Did you stick to it?
My wife is a few years younger. I retired roughly at 65. She did a few years later. We decided to stay in Boulder. We had a lovely home on West Pearl. We enjoyed it very much. It was 2012. We had looked at The Academy. There was nowhere else for us here in the community because I was with the festival. We were neighbors with The Academy. We saw it grow. We saw it come alive. I knew Carrie and Karen. They were on my board at the festival. I knew Joe Romano. He was on my board at the festival.
I don’t know who these people are.
They are the backers and owners. We were in the stream of knowing about The Academy.
You were tired of living in your home where you have been for twelve years. Before you were talking about moving here, how did life change besides that you don’t have to listen to musicians as much?
I got very involved in the youth exchange program with Rotary. We had a lot of high school kids in and out of the house from foreign countries. When I left the color on a music festival, I was asked to come on a number of art sports in Boulder and some city boards. I spun out that. It was away from the desk but still involved with the arts and still making decisions in the arts field. Slowly, it was fun to diminish that. This nice recession away from all of that eventually because it was time. It’s political. I get tired of that political thing.
For me as a professor, that’s probably the thing that would push me to retirement earlier than later. This is the case often times in life is the more senior you get, the further away you get from that thing that drew you into your work. I make time to write every day. I have to work incredibly hard to find that time to keep that time sacred. It’s easier to become an administrator and to deal with. Maybe academics aren’t as bad as people in the arts. Those faculty meetings are pretty brutal. To be able to focus on the parts of it that you like doing with and removing the things that you don’t like seems like a great gift of retirement. Did you pick up anything new?
I wouldn’t say I have. We are living a relatively quiet life now. That’s what we want. We do go to Maine in the summer. We make the driving journey and go on a nice little island, which is a very nice change from here. It’s pleasant and wonderful. We have kids and grandkids that will come and visit us. That part comes into play to a certain degree.
It’s where families come to the forefront. I enjoyed doing this. I’ve always asked my guests what they’re reading, watching or listening to that stands out to them that they think is worth sharing?
The pianist Yuja Wang, I’m going crazy about. A Chinese lady and she’s an amazing artist. You can go on YouTube and watch her perform the Prokofiev third piano concerto. You can’t believe it. It’s amazing.
For the reader and for me who doesn’t know who she is.
She’s Chinese. She’s probably 28 now. I might not quite have her name right. It’s Yuja Wang. If you go on into YouTube, you put in Steinway Factory Prokofiev Toccata, you’ll get her. They invite her on a very cold day into the factory in Brooklyn, wherever the Steinway Factory is over there. She dresses wildly. She has these Stiletto Gucci things on and a fur around her neck. She does the Prokofiev. It’s a Toccata for piano. It’s incredible. From there, you can go start streaming down and see this amazing performance with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam of the Prokofiev of third. She does an amazing Rachmaninoff. She’s my favorite listening source right now. I was introduced to a book that one of our community members has suggested. It’s Virgil Wander by Leif Enger. It’s his third book. It’s a charming book. He has a wonderful way with words. That’s what I’ve been reading. I’m reading American decorative arts. I have piles and piles of antique magazines. For years, the editor of that magazine was Wendell Garrett. I never read his essays. He started his essays in 1973. I am now in the ’90s. I’m getting close to the end. It’s amazing writing. Somebody should take all of those essays, compile them and publish them. I’m doing that on the side. I’m a big women’s volleyball fan, CU.
Michael, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much for doing this. I thank our audience.
- Out of the Attic
- Detroit Symphony Orchestra
- Ford Foundation Administrative Intern Program
- Virgil Wander
About Michael Smith
Michael Smith is a musician, veteran, husband, and father. He graduated from Heidelberg College with a Bachelors in Music with a focus on clarinet. He also received a Masters in Musicology from the University of Rochester. He spent the majority of his career with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra as Orchestra Manager, then General Manager, and then Vice-President and General Manager. Now retired, he joins the podcast from his residence at The Academy Senior Living in Boulder, Colorado.