Anne Parsons, who revived the Detroit Symphony Orchestra as president and chief executive after a bitter strike, using education and technology to attract new audiences, died in Detroit on March 28. She was 64 years old.
Her husband, Donald Dietz, said the reason was complications from lung cancer.
Ms Parsons, who led the Detroit Symphony from 2004 to December 2021, led the orchestra through a six-month strike that began in 2010, one of its most challenging periods. She worked to ensure that the orchestra emerged from a near-death moment, reassuring donors and civic leaders when tensions between musicians and management grew.
Determined to avoid another labor dispute and eager to make the orchestra a pillar of Detroit’s civic revival, she spent the next decade rebuilding the ensemble, Investment In live-streaming technology, expanding community events and enticing unconventional stars like Kid Rock to perform. At a time when many American orchestras were struggling amid declining ticket sales, the Detroit Symphony, digitally connected and agile, became a modal modern ensemble.
“They hit a financial wall and went through a very brutal strike,” said Mark Volpe, president and chief executive officer of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 23 years. “In that context, instead of being treated and abandoned like others, he had the gut, perseverance, tenacity, and, frankly, the vision to do something special.”
Anne Hyatt Parsons was born on November 4, 1957, in Schenectady, NY, to Jane (Walter) Parsons, a schoolteacher, and Gerald Parsons, who worked in finance.
She initially pursued a career in finance to please her father, working as a bank teller during her summers at Smith College.
But Ms. Parsons, who began studying flute as a child, found herself drawn to the art. She became manager of the student orchestra at Smith, helping to hold it together during a time of discord about its role on campus.
She graduated from Smith in 1980 with a degree in English, promising her father that she would return to banking if her career in the arts didn’t work out within a year. Not long ago she started climbing into the art industry.
Ms. Parsons was one of the first class of fellows selected by the American Symphony Orchestra League (now known as the American Orchestra League). As a young staffer in the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, she was an aide to the cellist and conductor. Mstislav Rostropovichwho was the music director at that time.
She held several prestigious positions, including orchestra manager of the Boston Symphony from 1983 to 1991; General Manager of the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles from 1991 to 1998; and general manager of the New York City Ballet from 1998 to 2004.
When she arrived in Detroit in the summer of 2004, she faced immediate challenges, including a sharp drop in ticket sales and dwindling support from corporations. She worked to overhaul the orchestra’s offerings, and in 2008, in a coup, she lured Leonard Slatkin, then music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, to take the podium in Detroit.
As Detroit’s economy deteriorated amid the Great Recession and the orchestra’s financial picture tarnished, tensions deepened in the orchestra. A strike began in October 2010 after the orchestra, citing the difficult economic climate, proposed drastic cuts in wages and benefits. The musicians stated that the cuts would destroy the ensemble’s high potential, and they led a spirited campaign to oppose them.
Ms Parsons maintained a strict stance throughout the trial. “The board was telling him, ‘You’re going to be the bad guy,'” Mr. Slatkin said in an interview. “But that’s the role, that’s the work. And there were days when I didn’t know how he managed it. It got very, very vicious. But he avoided it and kept a positive attitude the whole time.”
After six months of heated conversation, a deal had reached. In the end, the players accepted large pay cuts but preserved their health insurance and pension.
After the strike, Ms. Parsons set out to find ways to elevate the orchestra’s profile and bring in more revenue. It launched a streaming service, was one of the first orchestras to do so, and conducted tours abroad, including China and Japan. He vowed to make the Detroit Symphony “the most accessible orchestra on the planet,” too inspection efforts To expand music education in the city, bringing orchestra players into public schools that served a large number of poor families. And it increased the orchestra’s presence in the suburbs where many of its patrons live, holding concerts in churches, high schools and community centers.
Donations increased, and ticket sales began to boom. After running in losses for years, the orchestra reported an operating surplus from 2013 to 2021.
“I really felt that we had this incredible responsibility to find a way forward, regardless of the challenge we faced,” said Ms Parsons. said Detroit News last year. “The choice of an institution with a story like the DSO was unacceptable to me.”
Some of the musicians who clashed with Ms Parsons during the strike also said she was instrumental in the orchestra’s change.
“After the strike, she said: ‘We’re never going to do this again. We have to maintain the artistic quality of the organization,'” said Haden Mackay, a former cellist in the orchestra who served on the negotiating committee during the strike. It was a stake in the land. This has put the institution in a good position both financially and psychologically.”
Ms Parsons called her move to Detroit with her family “the best decision ever”. In 2021, the city named a street south of the orchestra hall in his honor.
In addition to her husband, a photographer, Ms Parsons is survived by a brother, Lance Parsons, and a daughter, Cara Dietz.
Ms Parsons learned in 2018 that she had lung cancer, but kept a busy schedule despite her illness. He stepped down two months after returning from extended medical leave.
“She wanted to say that she gave everything she could,” said Mr. Dietz. “And that’s what she told me because she couldn’t do it anymore. She said, ‘I don’t have anything else to offer.'”
Ms Parsons said last year that her illness has focused on “the fragility of our world”.
“We just focus on the fact that we’re going to be healthy and one day we won’t be,” she said. an interview last year With Crain’s Detroit business. “We believe that someone is going to be a strong leader. When it doesn’t, it causes you to wake up every day and be grateful for the positive things.”
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