Why?

A commenter on the previous post asked an obvious question which I hadn’t thought of trying to answer:

Why do you suppose the board of the CSO would want to do this? It’s not really plausible that they just don’t want an orchestra, is it?

The question of why the other side in a negotiation is acting the way they are is a very dangerous one, because getting the answer wrong can easily put your side in a worse position than not speculating (and acting on that speculation) in the first place. But “why” is the most human question of all, so we can’t not ask it.

There are actually two “whys” to ask in this case. The first is: why did the board let the orchestra get to this point at all? Why did they not hire a music director or an executive director for three years? The second is: why are they now acting in a way that’s virtually guaranteed to lead to the death of the Columbus Symphony, or at the very least a multi-year coma?

The great English historian A. J. P. Taylor once wrote that ““human blunders usually do more to shape history than human wickedness.” I suspect that’s true about how the CSO got to where they are. But there also appeared to be a lot of bad feeling over the departure of Music Director Alessandro Siciliani, whom the board decided in May 2001 would not be renewed. A local critic, Barbara Zuck of the Columbus Dispatch, blamed that directly on the musicians, saying in a November 2002 article that “the symphony is being driven too much by the musicians” and “the inmates are running the asylum.” It is unlikely that she was speaking only for herself. It sounds to me as if there was a dissident faction on the board that supported Siciliani and was furious with the musicians when he was forced out (by the board). That kind of fury could well manifest itself in destructive behavior, including a dilatory approach to hiring a replacement (“they didn’t like the god-like creature we provided them? We’ll see how much they like not having a music director at all, the #$*! SOBs”).

It takes strong leadership to bring together a board riven by a dispute as emotional as Siciliani’s departure became and get them moving in a positive direction. It sounds like that board didn’t have such leadership.

But that doesn’t explain the kind of take-no-prisoners posture of the current board in the current situation. It may be that, regardless of what the board leadership’s original goals were when this negotiation began, their current goal is simply to get their own way. That’s what often happens to so-called “war aims.” There is still an active dispute amongst historians over what were the aims of the war that Germany launched in 1914. But, once it got going, the real war aim of all the combatants was simply to win – in the phrase of the time, “to impose their will upon the enemy.” A difficult labor negotiation can easily degenerate to the same point, which of course makes any compromise solution very difficult to reach.

But, looking back on the sequence of events since January, if the board leadership’s plan was to kill the current orchestra and get at least some in the community to blame it on the musicians, the actions of the board to date have been a near-perfect execution of that plan. Putting out a “strategic plan” that looked plausible but was impossible to execute, putting a proposal on the table that the musicians could never accept and describing it as essentially non-negotiable, refusing to sell tickets until the musicians accepted it, refusing any competent third-party mediation that might actually find a solution short of death, and working hard to get the local paper to blame it all on the musicians and “the union” – it all appears to have worked very well.

The principle of Occam’s Razor would lead one to believe that it very well might have been the board’s intention to kill the orchestra. My only reason for skepticism is that such skillful execution of a plan would be as hard as actually running the orchestra – which apparently the board couldn’t do.

But the answer to the question “It’s not really plausible that they just don’t want an orchestra, is it?” may simply be that they don’t want the orchestra they have now, and recognized correctly that the only way to get from that orchestra to the one they do want was to murder the one they have.

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