Anne Parsons: Detroit Symphony Orchestra gets strong revival

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

Anne Parsons moved from New York City to take over the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 2004, in an era when the city's great cultural institutions, hobbled by debt and declining audiences, looked like candidates for the endangered species list.

DSO President and CEO Anne Parsons poses in Orchestra Hall's Oval Lobby, now celebrating its 100th birthday.

Things got even rockier for the newly arrived president and CEO when the economy crashed in 2008, gutting the DSO's small endowment, and sharply reducing longstanding corporate support. Add to that the bitter pill of the 2010-11 musicians' strike followed by Detroit's bankruptcy, and you've got a recipe for managerial ulcers. 

Parsons, an optimist to her core and never one to shrink from a fight, toughed it out. 

"Everything," she said with a smile, "has gotten better and better since 2012."

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Indeed. Last year the DSO celebrated its sixth budget surplus in a row, with another likely this year. Musicians and management have buried lingering hostilities, and staked out a collaborative model that's the envy of other orchestras. 

Both attendance and ticket sales have surged, thanks in part to pricing that now lets you hear one of the world's great orchestras starting at $15. Audiences, which once tilted middle-aged and older, are now dotted with students, taking advantage of a $25 annual Soundcard that provides free access to all Orchestra Hall programming.

The Davidson Neighborhood Concert Series now brings the orchestra to communities across the Metro area, while in 2017 the DSO electrified audiences in Japan and China on their first international tour in 16 years. Closer to home, the three-week, February music festivals devoted to a specific composer or country -- last year was American music -- have been hugely successful. 

Parsons would be the first to credit much of the progress to Leonard Slatkin, the music director she hired in 2008 who's now serving in an emeritus role as the orchestra searches for his replacement. 

But as blame always falls on the top, it's only fair to credit Parsons with the lion's share of the DSO's remarkable recent success. 

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

Her work has won national notice. At the League of American Orchestras in New York, President and CEO Jesse Rosen said simply, "Anne has been instrumental in leading America’s orchestras into the 21st century."

And just down Woodward Avenue, Detroit Institute of Arts Director Salvador Salort-Pons called Parsons "inspirational," adding that "The DSO’s robust community outreach has served as a model for us here at the DIA." 

While Parsons acknowledges some of her friends in New York thought she was nuts to move to the Rust Belt 15 years ago, she's never looked back. 

"I am very proud of this orchestra being one of the great orchestras in the world," Parsons said, "fiercely striving for better all the time, never resting, and always hungry for more."

Name: Anne Parsons

Age: 61

Occupation: President and CEO of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra 

Education: Bachelor's degree, Smith College 

Family: Husband, Donald Dietz, and one grown daughter

Why honored: For steering the DSO through choppy waters to new stability and continued artistic excellence