Mark Niehaus, from trumpeter to orchestra CEO
Niehaus and symphony board chairman Douglas Hagerman on this unprecedented move.
Wednesday morning, the Milwaukee Symphony stunned the Milwaukee arts community by appointing Mark Niehaus, the MSO’s principal trumpet player since 1998, to the chief executive’s job. At the same time, the orchestra announced the resignation of president/CEO Maryellen Gleason, who had held the job since January of 2011.
Wednesday afternoon, board chairman Douglas Hagerman and Niehaus explained the surprise move in a cordial interview with TCD.
The first reader question submitted to TCD after the story broke: Will Niehaus continue to play in the orchestra?
“It wouldn’t be fair to the orchestra for me to dabble,” Niehaus said. “It takes full-time people who pull together every day to make a great orchestra.”
“His new job is full-time,” Hagerman said. “We won’t have a player-coach.”
Niehaus will, however, return to play the prominent trumpet role in Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 1 in C minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 35, with conductor-pianist Ignat Solzhenitsyn Feb. 8-9. Otherwise, his focus will be on the business side.
The appointment of a musician from the ranks to such a prominent position on the business side is unprecedented, and a bold move in a troubled industry. Seven American orchestras will not open their seasons on time this fall, due to various combinations of financial crises and union/management conflict.
In the late 1990s, former CEO Steven Ovitsky and the board placed musicians on all the orchestra’s major committees. That move has led to a more cooperative model than that in place at most orchestras. And relations haven’t soured too much in the lean times. The MSO reported a balanced budget Wednesday, but musicians have taken major cuts and the orchestra has scaled back its offerings in recent years.
“I hope we’re at the front edge of a new paradigm,” Niehaus said. “The labor-management model is outdated. In Milwaukee, a player who rep’d for other players can become the CEO.”
Niehaus has played a prominent role in the cooperative management structure over the years, and he chaired the Players’ Council.
“The endowment is the main issue,” Niehaus said. “We’ve had tremendous success in year to year fund-raising. But then the year turns, the button clicks, and we’re starting all over again.”
But through it all, the orchestra has maintained its highest standard of artistic excellence in the last 30 years and likely in its entire history. The MSO’s trip to Carnegie Hall in the spring, for example, was a big success.
“We don’t have to build the orchestra,” Niehaus said. “We already have a great orchestra. The business of playing concerts for people is by nature inefficient, and trying to treat the orchestra like a business is a treacherous proposition. The board understands that. We have to have an orchestra, a music director, a board and an executive who are all aligned for the health of the orchestra.”
In another bold move, the orchestra’s board took $6.5 million from a second, less restricted endowment that has been the orchestra’s rainy-day fund to pay off an $8.5 million bank line of credit. Just $1.5 million remains in that fund, but for the first time in decades, the Milwaukee Symphony is now debt-free. That’s good psychology. Donors can’t put brass plaques on paid-off IOUs. They want to build, not repair leaks.
Before I could ask “What’s the plan?” Niehaus said: “How am I going to build the endowment? I have my ideas, but as the new guy I’m not prepared to talk about them just yet. A little later.”
Hagerman and his board of directors did not pull just anyone out of the orchestra for this role.
“Mark has emerged as the orchestra’s best spokesman,” Hagerman said. “That passion he has for the orchestra and the community come through, and that’s a great ingredient for an executive to have. The board thought Mark could use that to bring the MSO to the next level.”
“As a member of the board’s executive committee,” Niehaus said, “I have buried myself in the finances of this orchestra and in the finances of peer orchestras. I’ve delved into what works and what doesn’t. A lot is working here.”
Niehaus worked on his business savvy outside the MSO, in real-estate investments. He is a charming, witty man, comfortable in front of a crowd, on radio, with the press. Charm plays a huge role in his job. Everyone in the MSO circle knows him, and he’s not a hired-gun arts administrator looking to move up. He knows the market and likes it here. Niehaus seems like the sort of fellow who might be able to raise a lot of money for the MSO.
Hagerman said that he and music director Edo de Waart began to form some vague idea that Niehaus might fit, and the idea made sense to all three men the more they thought about it. (They hatched this plan while Gleason was still on the job. Despite the careful, formal exit praise for Gleason, no one at the MSO seemed upset at her departure. I personally found her to be remote. And short on charm.)
Niehaus started playing the trumpet in the fourth grade. At 43, he’s at the top of his form and playing brilliantly, night after night. How can he quit now?
“The Milwaukee Symphony isn’t the only place to play the trumpet,” he said. He noted that he’s playing a concerto with MYSO this year and might keep that sort of thing going. He’s appeared on Chamber Music Milwaukee programs, and might again in the future.
“But in the next few months, I’m not even going to think about it,” Niehaus said. “This is a great human interest story: Player plucked from orchestra to lead it. My job right now is to parlay that human interest story into an orchestra story. It’s about the orchestra.
“I’ve played the trumpet my whole life. To be the principal, you have to be willing to get out there and take chances. I could have played my 40 years and retired. But I’ve played all the Brahms and Beethovens and Bruckners multiple times. I’ve played all the concertos. Now, I might be able to do something greater. This has never felt like a job to me, and I’ve been so immersed with the board and donors and staff already that it still doesn’t feel like a job. It feels like a natural outgrowth of my involvement with the orchestra.
“I have a huge job here, of shepherding us into the next phase. I won’t miss playing the trumpet.”
The Milwaukee Symphony opens its season with all-Mendelssohn programs at 11:15 a.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 14-16. Gilbert Varga will conduct, and concertmaster Frank Almond will be the soloist in the Violin Concerto in E minor.