She's a Rebel

Anne Parsons is a creative risk-taker. When she set out to cause an upheaval within the Detroit Symphony Orchestra early this summer, with the intention of changing the very identity of the organization, it was risky business indeed.

“We wanted to engage in stimulating, artistic expression,” says Parsons, the DSO's president and executive director. Mission accomplished. The event “Eight Days in June: “Creation and Conflict,” made for healthy commotion at The Max M. Fisher Music Center (The Max) and Orchestra Hall, the likes of which were seldom seen before within those hallowed halls.

The event featured a reflection on musical creativity within times of crisis, from Beethoven, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky, to the origins of jazz in New Orleans’ Congo Square, to contemporary hip hop. It was the DSO’s first festival and a roll of the dice in summer, normally a down time for indoor classical music. It was also risky because of its musical diversity, launched at a time of waning corporate sponsorship funding.

“Eight Days” revealed a new direction for the DSO as an arts organization, driven in large part by the leadership of Parsons, now in her third year. Part marketing initiative, part artistic statement, the week-long festival gave an edge to the DSO while extending its identity to other musical and art forms.
“I fear, and many of us in the business fear that more and more people are just sitting behind their computers," Parsons says. "They’re experiencing life in a whole different way because of technology. I’m not against technology, but I am passionate about the live experience.”

Questioning traditional roles

“Eight Days” grew out of the DSO’s strategic plan, which also calls for developing partnerships between the symphony and other arts organizations. The festival content was designed through the creative partnership of Peter Oundjian, the DSO’s principal guest conductor and artistic advisor, and Tom Allen, host of CBC Radio’s Music and Company program, who also provided on stage commentary.

While most of the performances featured the symphony, other performers included Wynton Marsalis, who collaborated with Yacub Addy and Odadaa! in “Congo Square," and pianist Christopher O'Riley, who performed the music of Britpop band Radiohead. Public Enemy's Chuck D, scheduled to deliver a lecture titled “Race, Rap, Reality and Technology,” canceled.

The presentation of rap “leads one to the question the role of a symphony orchestra today,” Parsons says. “Is it simply to present symphonic work? Or can the role of the symphony orchestra be broader than that? We can and choose to be more than the presenters of symphonic repertoire.”

She says that the festival was about “the positive things that come out of conflict. The idea of opening people’s minds can happen at any age and any time.”

Although its point of reference was global conflict, the festival also came at a troubling time in Detroit’s history, something that didn’t escape Parsons. “We created something out of need, which comes from a time of conflict in our city.” Like the abundance of music and art festivals in the area during the summer, Parsons asserts that “Eight Days” defied the seemingly overwhelming negative news about the region.

“We’re onto something in terms of brightening the future of the community…by doing something that can be talked about,” she says, expounding on the strength of the arts community, from the historical prominence of the DSO and Orchestra Hall to the newest addition, Museum of Comtemporary Art Detroit. For example, she cites the Michigan Opera Theatre's premier of “Margaret Garner” last year and the upcoming performance of David DiChiera’s opera, “Cyrano,” this fall. Not many opera companies are commissioning and creating new operas, Parsons says.

She's a realist

Parsons believes her role is to establish a fertile environment to allow artists to create, and “to make the numbers work.” She is a business woman by profession, destined for Wall Street before someone reminded her of her classical music roots as a flutist and family influences. She melded the two and pursued a career in arts management.

Coming to Detroit during a transition in the DSO’s musical leadership and decline of the region’s economy was risky — she came here after leaving a prominent post with the New York City Ballet. “I’m not your typical anything (and) I’m not your typical arts leader,” she says, looking more like a creative than a business manager. “I’ve always done what I’ve wanted to do based on my own vision of life. I’ve never done what anyone expected me to do or wanted me to do. There’s rebelliousness in me that I recognize.”

Parsons has held arts management positions with the Lincoln Center in NYC, Hollywood Bowl, and the Boston Symphony. For her, it’s not the financial package, or the status of the position, but the opportunity. She says the growth potential of the DSO as an arts organization lies in its educational programs and “its broad-mindedness about other art forms.” A founder of the Creative Alliance of Southeastern Michigan, Parsons believes that DSO’s future is intertwined with the arts community.

“Eight Days” succeeded as a collaborative, challenging festival, sending shock waves through the DSO’s ranks and alerting new audiences to the fact that there is art worth experiencing in The Max, Parsons says. The festival returns next June and remains, technically, eight days, with an added DSO fundraiser. Parsons hesitates to reveal next year’s theme, but says it won’t be about “conflict” – an image that didn’t go over well with some patrons.

“We created conflict with the work that we did,” Parsons says. “The impact of this festival was huge.” While the performances weren’t sell-outs, the festival “exceeded our expectations in terms of the impression it did make.”
Parsons believes that this is a creative moment in Detroit.

“Just like great things come out of love and joy," she says, "our feeling is that some of the great art and music pieces in our time have come out of times of tension and stress."

Dennis Archambault is a frequent contributor to Model D.

Anne Parsons, Orchestra Hall and MOCAD Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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Read more articles by Dennis Archambault.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.