Hyslop on the Louisville Orchestra: The Biggest Challenge Is Trust

A veteran orchestra leader, David Hyslop’s long career includes a combined 32 years at the helm of three prominent orchestras. Now retired from the Minnesota Orchestra, Hyslop is a consultant and sought-after interim CEO. Since he retired from full-time orchestra management in 2003, Hyslop has filled in during leadership searches for the West Virginia Symphony, the Tulsa Symphony and most recently the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

Now, he hopes to help the Louisville Orchestra turn around after a troubled period characterized by bankruptcy, a prolonged labor dispute and a canceled 2011-12 season. The Louisville Orchestra board appointed Hyslop interim CEO yesterday. Robert Birman announced earlier this month that he would leave the post he has held since 2009 this week. 

“There have been difficulties, obviously, economically and with labor relations,” says Hyslop. “But there is a rich, rich history in Louisville for the arts. Look at it – for that size community, there’s a tremendous amount going on.”

He’s seen a lot in his career, shepherding orchestras through successful centennials and helping shuttered symphonies rebuild from the ground up. He says the biggest challenge facing the Louisville Orchestra today is trust.

“If everybody goes in the same direction you can make huge progress, but if you’re constantly at odds with each other – in any organization, not just in a symphony orchestra – you don’t go anywhere,” he says. “So the first challenge is going to be to establish the trust. And the trust works both ways, it’s not just with management and the musicians and board, it works the other way too, with having the trust of the public.”

The other half of the equation, he says, is meeting the needs of the community at large.

“You do well when you are relevant to your different constituencies. And there is more than one constituency,” he says. “What I’ve seen change in my lifetime is the importance of being as relevant as you can be to a significant portion of the community.”

He points to his experience working with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra during a time when the organization ran a $6.5 million deficit on its $30 million budget. Hyslop says they cut a few weeks from the regular season for cost-saving reasons, but then added a program called DSO On the Go, playing in different locations across the community.

He says the changes helped the symphony meet the changing needs of audiences who aren’t already orchestra regulars, and that there’s room in the Louisville Orchestra’s 30 weeks of contracted play for a wider focus on meeting the community outside of the traditional venues of Whitney Hall and the Brown Theatre.

“It’s making sure you’re impacting young people,” he says, pointing to an increased need for outreach, education concerts, and playing more often in the public eye.

It’s part of his mantra, he says, of an orchestra being the best it can be within its means.

“We’re going to protect what we do already and do well, and then try to get out there and see what kind of response we get,” he adds. “It’s not like you don’t have a history of some of that, you do, but it’s being consistent with that and being consistent about the message.”

Hyslop says he plans to stay with the orchestra for six months, but that could change depending on how long it takes to find a permanent CEO. He says it’s premature to speculate on what kind of leader the orchestra might seek out in its search, but he notes that being the CEO of a city orchestra can be a difficult job for reasons beyond budgets and fundraising.

“These are very difficult jobs, and you can’t be everything to everybody,” he says. “Usually, there’s only one symphony orchestra in town, and you’re the CEO and that’s it. It’s very rewarding, but it can also be very lonely.”

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