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Challenging Times Require Challenging Art


Matthew VanBesien in Nickels Arcade, with the 2017-18 UMS No Safety Net brochure. Photo by Jesse Meria.


When I was announced as the new president of the University Musical Society (UMS) at the University of Michigan a year ago after five years as president of the New York Philharmonic, some people thought I was crazy.  Why on earth, they asked, would a former professional musician and successful orchestral executive who led three different major orchestras on two continents want to move to a relatively small university town in the Midwest?

Certainly the chance to come to one of America’s most charming and livable cities, to collaborate with one of the best research universities anywhere, and to work with an intellectual and culturally adventurous populace were all important factors.

But another answer for me was something quite potent and simple, and that I know will continue to define our work at UMS moving forward. Coming to UMS offered artistic diversity as a performing arts presenter (not just music, but also dance and theater — and maybe much more), but also the latitude to think more broadly about the arts as a vehicle for both cultural and social change. We are now at the end of a three-week theater festival titled “No Safety Net,” using theater and creativity as catalysts for exploring viewpoints that we, as individuals and as a community, long to understand better.

No Safety Net Brochure Cover

Program cover for “No Safety Net”

This is no easy time for university campuses across the nation, including ours, where the community is grappling with how to respond to a speaking request from a white supremacist who slyly foments protests with hateful words and singular ideas; where students have encountered racist flyers and ethnic slurs in prominent locations on campus; and where issues of identity, gender equality, and sexual harassment are ever-present.

And, of course, these issues transcend the public university environment and are symptomatic of larger cultural divisions, threatening to engulf our entire society with mistrust, anger, and fear.

But as artistic leaders, we have the privilege—and the imperative—to help change that.

A few weeks before his death, President John F. Kennedy spoke at Amherst College, at an event honoring the late poet Robert Frost. He spoke of art serving as a touchstone of our judgment as humans, noting that “We must never forget art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth…If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes [them] aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential.”

As a performing arts institution, and as a major public university, we endeavor to help people understand the breadth of the human experience and to reach our highest potential. This comes about by creating an environment for courageous conversations across areas of commonality — and difference.

In an increasingly polarized world, it’s tempting to take complicated issues and turn them into reductive problems that lack both substance and nuance. But as the American actress and playwright Lisa Kron has said, “If there’s only one point of view, there’s no drama. Drama only occurs when people come up against situations outside of themselves and are changed by them.”

As someone leading an arts institution, I can no longer ignore the imperatives for social consciousness, for empathy, and for moving beyond superficial representation and into meaningful and substantive dialogue. One of the most powerful pathways for doing so is to engage with culture and creativity, embracing free speech and an unfettered exchange of ideas.

These imperatives are manifesting themselves with increasing frequency — Robin Bell creating protest art against President Trump’s immigration policies, and Oskar Eustis’ production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the Public Theater causing a stir last summer with Caesar styled as a present-day Donald Trump.

The cast of Hamilton addresses Vice President Pence. Photo courtesy of Twitter.

And last year, shortly after the election, Vice Present-elect Mike Pence attended a production of Hamilton and was admonished by the cast to work on behalf of all of “the diverse America who are alarmed that your administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights.”

Shortly afterwards, President Trump demanded an apology, tweeting, “The theater must be a safe and special place.” Special? Absolutely. Safe? Maybe. Maybe not.

At UMS, we took an alternate approach, purposely calling our concentrated theater festival “No Safety Net” to signal that we are intentionally placing major societal issues on the table: slavery and race in America, terrorism and acts of violence, non-binary gender identity, and recovery from addiction and depression.

We programmed this festival for those eager to engage with some of the thorny issues of our time. But it’s also intended for those who are hesitant, or even anxious, about doing so, providing an honest but nurturing environment for civil discourse. What happens off the stage during No Safety Net is as important as what happens on it, with many opportunities to spark and facilitate debate around the relevant, interesting, and sometimes troubling issues contained therein. While sometimes controversial, the four theatrical works on stage provide a concentrated period for both reflection and action, bringing people together to think about how we move forward as institutions, as a country, and as a global society.

No Safety Net asks us to embrace complexity and ambiguity—the artists we are hosting provoke thinking that can unsettle, challenge, entertain, but also hurt. At the same time, tackling these issues through their artistic lens has the real possibility to expand our own thinking as audiences, granting us both the intellectual and emotional space to consider others’ points of view.

When we step back and remember that one person’s provocation may be another person’s reality, we are also reminded that it behooves all of us to move out of the echo chamber and expose ourselves to environments where people may disagree with us.

Our communities will once again thrive upon returning to the basic tenets of our democracy — respect, decency, and a commitment to both seeking, and acknowledging, truth. The University of Michigan and the University Musical Society believe the arts are uniquely positioned, now more than ever, to help us with this journey.


Matthew VanBesien has been president of the University Musical Society at the University of Michigan, a 2014 National Medal of Arts recipient now in its 139th season, since July 2017. He has previously served as president of the Houston and Melbourne Symphony Orchestras and the New York Philharmonic.

Interview: Matthew VanBesien and Ken Fischer

UMS welcomes Matthew VanBesien, seventh president of UMS. Learn more about Matthew in this joint interview with outgoing UMS president Ken Fischer. Jennifer Conlin moderates.

Part 1

Jennifer Conlin: I thought that we would start with how you met. I hear it is a meeting that did not occur in the hallowed halls of Hill Auditorium or at the Lincoln Center, but rather here at the University of Michigan Ross Business School.

Matthew VanBesien: That’s right.

Ken Fischer: You should talk about that.

Matthew: [laughs] Well, I think it was a great opportunity. I think I won the award for coming the farthest for that session here at Ross. I’d never been to the University of Michigan before, and coming to the Ross school with all these great colleagues, meeting Ken, meeting the wonderful people from the National Art Strategies, it made a real impression.

Ken and I met and we said to each other, “How is it that we’ve never met?” Because I knew all about UMS here. I know Ken’s brother, Norman Fisher, who teaches cello at Rice [University], at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice in Houston, where I used to live. I think we just made a connection immediately, I don’t know that I knew Ken was a horn player, but we sussed that out pretty quickly. Ken took me on a road late night to literally every performance venue on the University of Michigan campus but it was so clear what a special place this was and, of course, Ken is so effusive and wonderful about what happens here and why it’s so special.

Ken: So that’s where we first met.

Jennifer: Then, let’s talk about the [New York] Philharmonic Residency, because you also work together now and there you are with the oldest orchestra in the country and one of the oldest — Is UMS the oldest?

Ken: Well, the oldest of the university related presenters, at 138 years like you said. From Melbourne, Mathew came to the New York Philharmonic and of course, this is an orchestra that we love and that we’ve had coming here for a number of years. In 2013 they were here, where we had a chance, actually, to work together in building that program. Then, of course, the big residency of 2015 which had some really distinctive features. But in working together, of course, we are deepening that relationship; he’s getting to know a bit more about Ann Arbor and we are able to do some great things together.

Matthew: I remember, I was here for 2013, not too long after I started at the New York Philharmonic. The Philharmonic has been coming here, I think, 1916 was the first —

Ken: That’s right.

Matthew: That was before the New York Philharmonic had gone to Europe for really toured anywhere internationally, they were here in Ann Arbor, at Hill [Auditorium]. [In 2013,] I remember Ken took me to breakfast at Zingerman’s Roadhouse. So, it was important for me to understand this iconic landmarks here in Ann Arbor. The wheels started turning right there, and I started telling Ken about some of the orchestral training initiatives that we started, really trying to work intensively with young musicians to help them. Not just to understand how to play their instruments, they get a great education about that at a great conservatory, but the fine craft of orchestral playing.

So we thought, let’s think about a way to have a regular presence for the New York Philharmonic here in Ann Arbor, then to build a lot of rich activity around the main stage concert. I think, when we were here in 2015, we played three main stage concerts but we did 35 — I don’t want to call it ancillary in a smaller way, but really important events around that at the music school, across the university.

Jennifer: And at the halftime show. [laughs]

Matthew: [laughs] There was a halftime show.

Ken: Don’t you love that we have now a person who grew up in the Midwest but also went to a Big Ten school. Now it’s Indiana, they are generally better in swimming and basketball than in football. [laughs] But there was a sense of what can happen on game day.

Jennifer: We weren’t going to mention Indiana specifically.

Matthew: The brass players were thrilled about doing it. Alan Gilbert, our music director, conducted part of the show but it was amazing to see. I think it was about thousand musicians, the UMS Choral Union, the Michigan Marching Band, Alumni. To see a thousand musicians out there….It was just a very special moment.

Our players in New York still talk about this, this was really one of the most memorable things that they’ve done, and being a member of the New York Philharmonic you get to do some memorable things along the way. But that was incredibly special and I have a big photo in my office in New York that Ken and UMS sent to me. A special thing.

Ken: It was one of those things that really deepens your relationship between an ensemble presenting organization but especially the community. Imagine what we can do for the next residency in November 2017. It just happens to be approaching the centenary of Leonard Bernstein. A man who not only loved that orchestra, but boy did he love Ann Arbor and coming here. We’re going to remember Bernstein in a very special way.

Jennifer: It’s the Young People’s Concert.

Matthew: I think it’s great because it’s not just an entire homage to Lenny. It’s really a testimonial for all the things that he did. The opening concert will be with the incoming music director of the New York Philharmonic, Jaap van Zweden, who would never have even begun a conducting career had it not been for Leonard Bernstein who was then conducting the Concertgebouw, asked Jaap who was the concertmaster to conduct a little bit so he could go out into a concert hall and listened on a tour. Jaap had never even conducted before, and he’ll tell this story when he comes to Michigan this fall.

The Young People’s Concerts actually started in the 1920s in New York, but they were catapulted to this unbelievably iconic status in the 1950s with Leonard Bernstein because they were televised on CBS. Back when major networks televised something like the Young People’s Concert, and of course, Bernstein was on television a lot. Then, of course, we’re doing his music. We’re doing the third symphony, the Kaddish Symphony, which is an incredibly powerful work. It’s a great mix. Some of the things that we’ve talked about around the residency are also very, very exciting in terms of how they really engage students, how they engage the greater University of Michigan community, Ann Arbor community, and Southeast Michigan. It will be a lot of fun.

Jennifer: I hear as well that it was during the halftime show that you started even considering UMS.

Matthew: Rosie, my wife, had reminded me of a conversation that we’d had before we went to New York. That conversation was, “It’s such an amazing opportunity, we’re going to New York. I’m so happy for you to have this chance to work with the Philharmonic.” The discussion was, “What happens at some point when you’re not at the New York Philharmonic, what would that look like?” She never said a word during the entire process here for UMS. The day that I was announced as being Ken’s successor, she reminded me that we had this discussion. Apparently, I said, “You know what I think would be really great is to go to UMS and the University of Michigan after I finished with the New York Philharmonic.”

Jennifer: [laughs]

Matthew: I really gave her a hard time, because I was like, “I can’t believe you never mentioned this during all the last several months of going back and forth.” I do remember when we were here in 2015, Ken and I were walking to the stadium, the day of this great activity. I think Ken started saying, “I’m thinking about my future and possibly stepping down in a few years.” There’s no question in my mind that that planted the seed.

Ken: If that was a bug that was put into your ear at that time, I’m thrilled that it was because I hope you know how great I feel about having a friend, a colleague whom I highly respect in an ensemble that he has been leading that has more than 100-year affiliation with us. We both have Interlochen in our experience, which was for both of us a transformative experience. Then, my dear, we both play the French horn. I was just thrilled, yes.

Matthew: Well, for someone who’s looking at a position like this, I mean one of the things that really makes an impression is, who will be your predecessor and all that they’ve accomplished and the spirit. Ken has this unbelievable spirit of generosity. I mean, it’s unrivaled, I would say, in the performing arts. It means a lot to me to be able to come here and succeed him. Understanding that the incredible 30-year tenure that he’s had here and how much UMS has evolved into much, much more than an organization who presents concerts.

The evening before I was announced, I called a good colleague, Wynton Marsalis, and he went on and on about how much he loves UMS. He talks so much about how it’s not just about what’s on stage but what happens around the performances; going out into the community, engaging students at the university, engaging Ann Arbor, engaging Southeast Michigan. That’s the testament to the work that Ken has done here.

For me, it’s a real honor to be able to come here and succeed this guy because he is a great colleague, he is a great friend. I know what an amazing job he has done here. I consider it a great responsibility, a fun responsibility, to learn as much as I can from Ken during this transition period, but also, to really uphold the legacy that he has created.

Part 2

UMS Announces Matthew VanBesien as New President

New York Philharmonic President Becomes 7th President Since 1879

Matthew VanBesien, president of the New York Philharmonic, will become president of the University Musical Society of the University of Michigan in July 2017.

VanBesien, who has served as president of the New York Philharmonic since 2012, will take the reins from Kenneth C. Fischer, who retires at the end of June 2017 after 30 years in the job. He will become only the seventh president in UMS’s 138-year history.

We caught up with Matthew in New York in January.

We can’t wait to introduce Matthew to you in the coming months! Please join us in welcoming him to UMS and to Ann Arbor.

Full Press Release

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ANN ARBOR, MI (January 24, 2017) — Matthew VanBesien, president of the New York Philharmonic, will become president of the University Musical Society of the University of Michigan in July 2017.

VanBesien, who has served as president of the New York Philharmonic since 2012, will take the reins from Kenneth C. Fischer, who retires at the end of June 2017 after 30 years in the job. He will become only the seventh president in UMS’s 138-year history after Henry Simmons Frieze (1879-81, 1883-89), Alexander Winchell (1881-83, 1889-91), Francis Kelsey (1891-1927), Charles Sink (1927-68), Gail Rector (1968-86), and Ken Fischer (1987-2017).

Matthew VanBesien said, “I am truly honored to become the next president of UMS. UMS, its extraordinary programming, staff, and board are, simply put, among the most admired in the performing arts field. It’s my great privilege to be able to succeed Ken Fischer, who I know and deeply respect, and with whom I’ve collaborated during my tenure at the New York Philharmonic. While my career has been centered in the orchestral world for the last 25 years, I’m extremely excited about the diversity of programming that UMS offers, both on the stage and working throughout their community. I’ve visited Ann Arbor several times over the past few years and love the energy and sense of commitment that pervades both the University of Michigan and the Ann Arbor community. My wife Rosie and I are looking forward to moving to Michigan and immersing ourselves in all that the region offers.”

Stephen Forrest, chair of the UMS Board chair and of the Search Committee, commented, “We began the search process over a year ago and were extremely pleased with the quality, diversity and strength of the candidate pool. Matthew’s experiences in Ann Arbor and with the New York Philharmonic, his appreciation for the unique university environment in which we operate, and his vision for the organization catapulted him to the top of our choices for the next president of UMS. We are thrilled and honored that he has elected to join UMS, and are excited to embark on this next chapter of UMS’s extraordinary history under Matthew’s leadership.”

Sarah Nicoli, vice chair of the UMS Board, added, “Matthew brings everything that the search committee had hoped to find in its ideal candidate: long experience in the arts, a gift for making connections with people, and an extraordinary ability to turn long-term vision into short-term action. Ken Fischer has left an incredible legacy at UMS, and I have every confidence that Matthew will continue to expand that fine work.”

A former French horn player, Matthew VanBesien spent eight years performing with the Louisiana Philharmonic before joining the League of American Orchestras’ management fellowship program. Upon completion of that program, he worked with the Houston Symphony for seven years, rising to executive director and CEO for the final four years of his tenure. He spent two years as managing director of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in Australia before returning to the United States to become executive director of the New York Philharmonic in 2012. He was named president of the New York Philharmonic in 2014.

During his tenure at the New York Philharmonic, Matthew VanBesien has helped develop and execute innovative programs along with music director Alan Gilbert, such as the NY PHIL BIENNIAL in 2014 and 2016, the Art of the Score film and music series, and exciting productions like Jeanne d’Arc au bucher with Marion Cotillard and Sweeney Todd with Emma Thompson. He led the creation of the New York Philharmonic’s Global Academy initiative, which offers educational partnerships with cultural institutions in Shanghai, Santa Barbara, Houston, and Interlochen to train talented pre-professional musicians, often alongside performance residencies. He led a successful music director search, with Jaap van Zweden appointed to the role beginning in 2018; the formation of the Philharmonic’s International Advisory Board and President’s Council; and the unique and successful multi-year residency and educational partnership in Shanghai, China.

He serves on the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras, a membership organization comprised of hundreds of orchestras from across North America, and the Executive Committee for the Avery Fisher Career Grants, which provides professional assistance and recognition to talented instrumentalists.

A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Matthew VanBesien earned a bachelor of music degree in French horn performance from Indiana University. In May 2014 Mr. VanBesien received an Honorary Doctor of Musical Arts degree from Manhattan School of Music. He is married to Rosanne Jowitt, an accomplished geoscientist in the oil and gas business.

“A university can be neither excellent nor comprehensive without fostering cultural appreciation and the humanistic connections made possible by the arts. U-M’s 200 years as a premier public institution would be much less meaningful without the University Musical Society,” said University of Michigan President Mark S. Schlissel. “I have had the pleasure of seeing the benefits of Matthew’s work on our campus and in Southeast Michigan, and I am certain that he will continue to advance the amazing impact of UMS and extend its influence ever more broadly throughout our academic community.”

Aaron Dworkin, dean of the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance and a member of the Search Committee, said, “I am greatly looking forward to working with Matthew VanBesien in his new role at UMS. Our students at the School still talk about the wonderful New York Philharmonic residency last year and how it expanded both their performance and entrepreneurial skill sets. UMS and SMTD have a history of partnering on projects large and small, and I couldn’t be happier that we’ll be able to continue that important work with Matthew.”

“I was elated when UMS Board leadership told me that Matthew VanBesien would be UMS’s next president. I’ve known Matthew for many years, and I know that UMS is in great hands under his leadership,” said Ken Fischer, current president of UMS. “This is a wise choice, and that we could attract a candidate of Matthew’s caliber says a lot about the vibrancy and support of this organization, this University, and this community. I couldn’t be more delighted.”

UMS Programming Director Michael Kondziolka added, “Having had the opportunity to work with Matthew in various contexts over the past few years, I am confident that his appointment provides an opportunity for seamless transition for our UMS team. Together, with Matthew at the helm, we are energized to continue our mission of serving diverse audiences, artists, and communities. Indeed, we are excited to watch our work evolve and flourish over the coming years.”

The search was led by Spencer Stuart. The search committee included Stephen Forrest, chair of the UMS Board; Rachel Bendit, secretary of the UMS Board; Lisa Cook, UMS Board member; Aaron Dworkin, dean of the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance; Linda Gregerson, U-M Professor of English and Literature; Michael Kondziolka, UMS director of programming; Tim Lynch, U-M vice president and general counsel; Tim Marshall, president & CEO of Bank of Ann Arbor; Sarah Nicoli, vice chair of the UMS Board; Mike Ross, director of the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois; Rhemé Sloan, U-M ’14, working at Rice University; and Dr. James Stanley, UMS Campaign co-chair.

About UMS

A National Medal of Arts recipient (2014), UMS contributes to a vibrant cultural community by connecting audiences with performing artists from around the world in uncommon and engaging experiences. By juxtaposing innovative/creative work with traditional/interpretive work, UMS frames an exploration of performance forms within a diverse, international cultural lens.

Also known as the University Musical Society, UMS is an independent non-profit organization affiliated with the University of Michigan, presenting over 70 music, theater, and dance performances by professional touring artists each season, along with over 100 free educational activities for K-12 students, teachers, university students, and the community, with sustained efforts to engage and celebrate regional communities of shared heritage. Since its founding in 1879, strong leadership, coupled with outstanding venues, authentic artistic and community collaborations, dynamic education programs, and enduring commitment to excellence, has placed UMS in a league of internationally-recognized performing arts presenters.

Legendary artists presented by UMS over the years include Marian Anderson, Vladimir Horowitz, Leonard Bernstein, Robert Wilson, Ornette Coleman, Jessye Norman, Robert Lepage, Enrico Caruso, Celia Cruz, Sonny Rollins, Peter Brook, Youssou N’Dour, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Gilberto Gil, along with extended campus residencies with leading ensembles such as Royal Shakespeare Company (England), Complicite (England), Setagaya Public Theatre (Tokyo), Théâtre de la Ville (Paris); Martha Graham Dance Company (New York), and Handspring Puppet Theater (Johannesburg); the New York, Vienna, and Berlin Philharmonics, and others. UMS also hosts the Grammy-Award-winning UMS Choral Union, a 175-voice chorus that performs with local and visiting orchestras.  UMS presents performances in multiple venues throughout the region and on the University campus, most notably including Hill Auditorium, acknowledged by many artists since its opening in 1913 as one of the great concert halls of the world.

UMS is part of the University of Michigan’s “Victors for Michigan” campaign, reinforcing its commitment to bold artistic leadership, engaged learning through the arts, and access and inclusiveness. Since 1990, the organization has co-commissioned and supported the production of nearly 80 new or reimagined works over the past 25 years, such as the recent remounting of Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’s iconic opera Einstein on the Beach.


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