A 'once in a lifetime' leader: Former DSO President Anne Parsons dies at 64

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Called a "once in a lifetime" leader who steered the Detroit Symphony Orchestra through a series of extraordinary challenges over the last 17 years, Anne Parsons was remembered Tuesday as an ardent leader who changed the orchestra's trajectory. 

Parsons died late Monday night after a years-long battle with lung cancer. The DSO's former president and CEO, who was 64, had returned from a long medical leave to lead the organization again in 2021 before switching to an emeritus role in late December to focus on her health. 

“Anne led our beloved orchestra with grace, courage and conviction, never wavering from her strongly held belief that the DSO is the best in the world, and that Detroit is a vibrant and resilient city that deserves an orchestra to match," DSO President and CEO Erik Rönmark and Board Chair Mark Davidoff said in a statement Tuesday morning.

Orchestra officials and other arts leaders described Parsons as a leader who was empathetic, always willing to listen and genuine with an unflinching commitment to not just the DSO but Detroit.

"This is such a loss for Detroit, Metro Detroit and Michigan," said Rochelle Riley, Detroit's director of arts and culture. "Anne was the symphony. She was the symbol of its greatness. And all that was able to accomplish while she was there, it's just monumental."

Parsons came to the DSO from New York in 2004 at a time when cultural institutions across Detroit were struggling with dwindling audiences. She maneuvered the organization through the Great Recession that started in 2008, a bitter six-month musicians' strike that ended in 2011, Detroit's bankruptcy and the COVID-19 pandemic.

But through it all, Parsons pushed the DSO forward, boosting ticket sales, launching a streaming platform to webcast concerts and recording balanced budgets for nine consecutive years.

"What I really felt was this incredible responsibility to find a way forward regardless of the challenge that was facing us," Parsons told The Detroit News in April 2021. "The alternative for an institution as storied as the DSO was unacceptable to me."

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

Parsons also led the organization to take on a more ambassador-like role for both the city and the orchestra itself. It went on a tour of Japan and China in 2017, its first trip abroad since 2001.

Paul Hogle, CEO of the Cleveland Institute of Music, worked with Parsons from 2010 to 2016. He said she brought her experience in cities such as Boston and New York to Detroit and that standard of excellence.

And she "married it with Detroit's kind of can-do, 'We're all going to be in this together. We're going to serve our community. We're going to do it with class and wisdom and with compassion,'" Hogle said. "That was Anne."

Parsons also pushed the DSO to diversify its programming and embrace technology to widen its audience. Under Parsons' tenure, the DSO launched in 2011 its “Live from Orchestra Hall" webcasts, establishing the orchestra as among the first in the world to offer free, live high-definition webcasts. As other orchestras scrambled to put streaming in place during the pandemic, the DSO was already equipped for an entirely virtual 2020-21 season.

More recently, the orchestra debuted a new Detroit Strategy, which included a Detroit Neighborhood Initiative and Detroit Harmony. The Detroit Neighborhood Initiative aims to create unique musical experiences throughout the city while aligning with the priorities of the city’s neighborhoods. Detroit Harmony, meanwhile, will provide instruments and music education to any child who wants to learn to play.

Riley, a former newspaper columnist, remembers reaching out to Parsons several years ago after she realized that the DSO wasn't offering any neighborhood concerts in Detroit. Parsons committed to do better.

"She was somebody who always rose to the occasion," Riley said.

Parsons' tenure wasn't without pushback. In October 2010, the DSO's musicians went on strike, starting a six-month labor dispute over management's implementation of a contract with more than 30% pay cuts in first-year base pay. The strike was eventually settled in April 2011.

George Troia, president of the Detroit Federation of Musicians, the union that represents the DSO's 86 musicians, said Parsons reached out to him shortly after he was elected president in 2012, inviting him to have lunch. He told her he wanted to create the best DSO possible. Parsons told him she wanted the same thing.

"We tried to find common ground," he said.

The pandemic presented the latest challenges for the orchestra. When musicians and crew members took 20% salary cuts when the pandemic hit in spring 2020, so did Parsons.

At a street renaming ceremony for Parsons in June last year, Haden McKay, a longtime DSO cellist, said he didn't always see eye-to-eye with Parsons. But he noted that he's changed over the years as had Parsons and the orchestra itself.

"At so many points in its history, the DSO could not have done what it managed to achieve during this past difficult year, the pandemic year," he said. "That newfound strength and resilience is due to so many people who are here right now, but especially Anne Parsons."

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

Late last fall, the DSO's board of directors tapped Rönmark, its vice president and general manager, to succeed Parsons as president and CEO. Parsons, who most recently was working to build the orchestra's endowment, planned to officially retire in fall 2022 but asked the board to move up the timeline to focus on her health. She applauded the decision to name Rönmark as her successor, calling him the right person for the job.

Before arriving in Detroit, Parsons, a graduate of Smith College, was previously the general manager for the New York City Ballet. She also held management positions with the Boston Symphony and with its summer home, Tanglewood, as well as the Hollywood Bowl.

Cara Dietz, Parsons' daughter, said the new street named for her mom last summer, Anne Parsons Way, could also be said about her leadership style.

 "I'm sure everyone here could exhibit a tenet of the Anne Parsons' way — resilience, compassion, leadership and standing by your beliefs, but also knowing when to give and when to listen to what other people are telling you," said Dietz at the street renaming ceremony.

Davidoff said the decision to rename that street as "Anne Parsons Way" was very intentional. He called Parsons a genuine leader "with a bit of a spark" who led the DSO with a sense of empathy and passion.

She was "really a once in a lifetime leader," Davidoff said. Even after the musicians' strike "she was able to create a new sense of cohesion, what we call a 'One DSO' culture. There aren't that many people on the planet who could've done that."

Parsons took the DSO's helm as its deficit had climbed to $2.1 million. She was a huge proponent of hiring the right people.

"Getting the right people with a shared vision is three-quarters of the battle," she said in 2004.

Music Director Laureate of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Leonard Slatkin, center, stands with DSO President and CEO Anne Parsons and Vivian Pickard, left, President of General Motors Foundation before the DSO performs in 2013.

She also valued the input of the orchestra's musicians. When the DSO hired its new music director, Jader Bignamini, in 2020, musicians submitted their suggestions first. 

"That's our unique culture," said Parsons in January of 2020. "With other orchestras, it's sometimes a more top-down process."

Bignamini said he owed Parsons a debt for bringing him to Detroit to work "with this incredible orchestra."

“The three things that really excited me about coming to Detroit were the orchestra, the staff, and the city, and Anne has had significant, lasting impact on all three," said Bignamini in April.

Hogle, the Cleveland Institute of Music CEO, talked to Parsons about a month ago and told her not a day goes by in his job that he doesn't channel some piece of advice that Parsons demonstrated — always trying to understand another's point of view, always consider the larger picture and always have time for friends.

"I meant it," said Hogle.

Parsons, meanwhile, came to know and love Detroit, living with her family in a loft near Eastern Market. Even as she prepared to retire, she said Detroit would always be home.

"We really love it here and we realized that Detroit is where we’re most comfortable," Parsons said. "This is our home."

Parsons is survived by her husband, Donald Dietz, and her daughter. A private funeral will be held for immediate family, but the DSO plans to hold a public remembrance for Parsons later this spring.