The inaugural event for the University of Massachusetts "Uncommon Leadership Series" was held on June 14, 2006. The featured guest was Keith Lockhart, conductor of the Boston Pops. Keith was interviewed by Glenn Mangurian, University of Massachusetts "Executive in Residence." The topic was "Leading a World-class Organization." Jack Wilson, President of the University of Massachusetts, hosted the program. An edited version of that interesting, provocative and relevant conversation follows. |
On Being a Conductor
Q. When did you decide you wanted to be a conductor?
A. Well, it was end of undergrad years. One of my instructors, whom I think was afraid of having another unemployed pianist on his hands asked, "Have you ever thought about conducting? You seem to have the analytical capability, and the leadership skills; the kind of coaching mentality that being a conductor requires."
Q. Who most influenced you as a conductor?
A. As for most young American conductors, Leonard Bernstein was a model, even though he has been gone for 15 years. He was a Renaissance man of music. He was a great pianist, composer, conductor, but most important he was a great advocate and communicator of music. He could communicate to everybody, from truck drivers to university PhDs, and be absolutely compelling and inspirational. He could speak a language that people on both ends of the spectrum understood, and he would still sound, in the end, like a "fire and brimstone preacher," bringing people to the cause. That's an amazing communicative gift.
On Culture and Heritage
Q. What's it like conducting an organization that is 121 years old and how do you see your role today?
A. It's not just becoming the conductor of the Boston Pops. It's following the legacy of a person whose name is familiar to people in Boston and elsewhere, even if they weren't born when he died. Arthur Fiedler. He defined the institution on the national level. His accomplishments have inextricably linked his name to the institution.
On the Business of the Arts
Q. Do you see parallels between leading an orchestra and a business?
A. There are certainly parallels and, there are differences. Just imagine that you are the CEO of a corporation where you sit perched on a little box so you can see what all of your employees are doing. Nobody has a cubicle, nobody has any privacy. It is basically a flat hierarchy. There is middle management in an orchestra -- the leaders of the individual sections. Your number two is your concert master --your first violinist -- the historical spokesperson of the orchestra, which is why you shake that person's hand when you come out to start a concert. Historically, the concertmaster is usually the only person who is empowered to knock on your door, to walk into your room and tell you what they really think of you without their job being imperiled as a result. They're the person the members of the orchestra go to express their feelings. But, middle management has nothing to say in the ongoing course of the rehearsal experience.
A. The Pops is a unique business model. It's a hierarchy that has two heads-the Managing Director and the Conductor, which report to the Board. Together the Boston Symphony and the Boston Pops represent an $80 million a year budgeted organization. If I had to run the business side, we wouldn't be alive today. On the other hand, there's the public head who sets the artistic course for the organization. The two roles-the managing director and the artistic head-are separate but have to work together.
On Changing Markets
Q. Nationally, attendance in the performing arts is down. Do you see that?
A. This is a dangerous time for the arts. We are becoming in many ways a society that's walled off in individual surround-sound stereo and computer-console enclaves. We've lost the idea of coming together for the shared experience of hearing a work of art or viewing a movie. Consequently we really need to sell the process of live engagement-the visceral thrill of being involved in a live performance.
A. Staying relevant is the single biggest challenge to anybody leading this institution. In a way, it's a bigger challenge than James Levine or Seiji Ozawa faced in the more traditional Boston Symphony context, and more than I face in my other role as the "James Levine" of the Utah Symphony.
On Talent & Leadership
Q. How do you lead musicians that are world class in their fields?
A. One of the things that influences orchestral leadership is the kind of person who plays in an orchestra. If you look at the Boston Symphony on stage, realize that every one of those people had 'the dream'. Every one of the people in the violin section had the dream of playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto in front of the orchestra as the person whose artistic impulses were being followed by the people around them. They don't dream about being a person who takes orders.
Q. How do you evaluate a new conductor?
A. Key to evaluating a conductor is observing the musicians. When we evaluate a person for a staff conductor in Boston or Salt Lake City, we have some unique tests. Many candidates will apply for the position by sending DVDs or videos of themselves conducting. We'll listen to what they send us, but we'll turn the volume down and just watch the musicians. Then we'll ask, "Do you have any idea what piece this person is conducting?" If we don't, then the person is immediately taken out of consideration, because the conductor's job is to visually embody a sound, not reactively but proactively.
Q. What's the best compliment the audience can give its conductor after a superb performance?
A. From the musicians, the best compliment is, '"You made it so easy to play." That's the highest praise a conductor can receive, especially from great musicians like those in this orchestra. My job is to remove the obstacles that make the musicians' job difficult.
Uncommon Leadership and Pioneers of Innovation Series
Read Lockhart interview in the Harvard Business Review