DSO President Anne Parsons to retire in fall of 2022

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Seventeen years after arriving in the city to take over a "distressed" Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Anne Parsons, its longtime president and chief executive officer, will leave the orchestra in the fall of 2022 with more robust and diverse programming and a stronger financial outlook. 

The DSO on Wednesday announced Parsons plans to retire next year. Parsons, who is on medical leave as she battles lung cancer, said a transition plan has been in the works since 2017 but said she plans to keep working to build the orchestra's endowment until her departure.

She called her time with the DSO the most "rewarding" professional experience of her career. 

"We have all these incredible assets," said Parsons, 63. "The pandemic has proven that there’s nothing you can’t do when you start thinking outside the box."

Parsons pushed the Detroit Symphony Orchestra onto the national stage while steering it through one challenge after another -- Detroit's bankruptcy, the Great Recession, a bitter musicians' strike and eventually the pandemic. She helped stabilize the orchestra's finances and the DSO has had surpluses from 2013 to 2020.

DSO President and CEO Anne Parsons poses in front of the original entrance to Orchestra Hall, built in 1919.

Parsons said she felt an "incredible responsibility" to find a way forward for the organization no matter what it faced.

"The alternative for an institution as storied as the DSO was unacceptable to me," said Parsons.

Mark Davidoff, chairman of the DSO's Board of Directors, called Parsons a "one of a kind" leader who could've gone anywhere, but chose Detroit and made the most of it.

“During her tenure, Anne has successfully leveraged opportunities and navigated challenges, positioning our DSO for an extraordinarily bright future as one of the world’s finest orchestras," said Davidoff.

DSO Principal Trombone Kenneth Thompkins said Parsons is "a tireless advocate."

“Over the past 10 years — first working with Chairman Emeritus Phillip Fisher and today through the Mission and Values Taskforce — Anne has created a collaborative environment that positions us to successfully move forward into the future," said Thompkins.

During her nearly 18-year tenure, Parsons pushed the DSO to diversify its offerings and connect with broader Detroit audiences through chamber music programs, senior engagement concerts, music therapy partnerships, in-school appearances and full orchestra performances. Last year, she was at the helm when Italian conductor Jader Bignamini was named as the DSO’s new music director, succeeding Leonard Slatkin.

DSO executive director Anne Parsons hugs Italian conductor Jader Bignamini after introducing him as The Detroit Symphony Orchestra's new music director.

And even before COVID-19 hit last spring, the DSO has been presenting free webcast concerts as part of its “Live from Orchestra Hall" series, the launch of which Parsons helped oversee in 2011. Since COVID, the orchestra has also started webcasting its pop concerts along with classical ones. Virtual concerts are here to stay, said Parsons.

Parsons said what she's most proud of her during her tenure with the DSO is its institutional culture between people within the organization. When she arrived, it was "very distressed" and that distress was more than financial, she said.

"Distress comes in all shapes and sizes," said Parsons, who said they worked intensely for the next eight to nine years to change the culture.

Navigating through the DSO's challenges and then the Great Recession, "we had to make serious, significant changes and that’s hard," said Parsons. But it's about "coming out the other side so much stronger and vital."

Parsons arrived in Detroit from the New York City Ballet, where she was the general manager. She also held management positions with the Boston Symphony and with its summer home, Tanglewood, as well as the Hollywood Bowl.

Davidoff will co-chair the search committee for the DSO’s next president with Director Emerita Chacona Baugh and they've already started the process. The executive search firm Isaacson Miller also has been retained to help with the search. 

And even though Parsons is leaving the DSO, she and her husband plan to stay in Detroit. They have have a loft near Eastern Market along with another house in the Adirondack Mountains.

"Detroit is where we’re most comfortable," said Parsons. "This is our home."

The DSO, meanwhile, "is in great hands and will be in great hands and I’m very excited about helping with this transition," she said.