Entrepreneur of the Month

Matthew VanBesien

Entrepreneur of the Month


President and Executive Director of
the New York Philharmonic

(and Jacobs School alumnus!)

Matthew VanBesienA native of St. Louis, Missouri, Matthew VanBesien earned a bachelor of music degree in French horn performance from the Jacobs School of Music. He performed with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra in New Orleans from 1992 to 2000 and then completed the League of American Orchestras' Orchestra Management Fellowship Program. The highly selective year-long program designed to develop orchestral leadership talent provided an opportunity for him to work at the Aspen Music Festival, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Phoenix Symphony, and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

Since then, his career path to being hired as Executive Director of the New York Philharmonic -- and just last week, President of the New York Philharmonic, in recognition of his exemplary leadership -- included managing director of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and major administrative positions at the Houston Symphony. He is a member of the Board of Overseers for The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and a former Board Director for Symphony Services International (formerly Symphony Australia).

Project Jumpstart recently had the opportunity to speak with VanBesien about his illustrious career, the people who inspired him, the changing world of the 21st century orchestra, and planning for a career in music.

Project Jumpstart:  Thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to speak with us! You started off as a French horn musician, worked with numerous orchestras in Australia and the US, and you are now Executive Director of the New York Philharmonic. Were there any points along the way that gave you insight into how your illustrious career might develop?

VanBesien: I think hindsight is 20/20. If I were to look back even to my time at Indiana, where I was very focused on being a French horn player, there were other things that interested me along the way. I guess I could say that in some ways I was easily distracted! As I was playing professionally in New Orleans, I definitely found myself gravitating toward what was behind the scenes, in terms of what it takes to make an orchestra run. And as time progressed, it wasn’t that I was more interested in that, it’s just that I was really engaged and found that when I was thinking about the things that are required to run an orchestra, I got really energized and excited in a way that made me think that this was a direction that I might go.

The orchestra in New Orleans ran on a cooperative model, and as a result I was 23 or 24 years old and was on the executive committee, (the governing body of the orchestra), and it gave me a chance to see how the inner stuff worked, and think about how we might think differently, not only about that orchestra, but also other orchestras. I kind of had this realization, if you will, that at least in New Orleans, we weren’t as courageous in thinking about what we were doing as an orchestra as we could be.

In some ways, as you prepare as a musician, you have notions and ideas about what it’s going to be like as a professional musician. I would say that you even have notions of what it’s going to be like running an orchestra at some point. There are things that are true about that and things that turn out quite differently! When I was in New Orleans, I probably had some pretty radical notions of how we could run an orchestra. Then of course when you’re actually running an orchestra, you’re confronted with the daily pressures and you understand that the changes are sometimes more incremental than they are radical. But I do believe that you have to be willing to have a fundamental conversation, which is “do we believe that it’s right to stay completely static and do things the same way over and over again, or do we feel fundamentally that it’s worth experimenting and making changes and helping the orchestra find a way to evolve rather than staying the same?”     

Matthew VanBesien 

VanBesien with New York Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert,
conductor Andrey Boreyko, Concertmaster Glenn Dicterow,
and Alec Baldwin after Glenn Dicterow’s farewell recital
at Alice Tully Hall on January 19, 2014.

Project Jumpstart: Can you share a little about the people that inspired you?

VanBesien: I’ve been really fortunate, and I can’t say this enough. I try and make sure I have time for people in their 20s and 30s who are exploring this path right now, because I can’t tell you enough about the people who helped me along the way.I still use so much of what I learned when I was studying the horn at IU. I studied with Myron Bloom, whom I’ve not spoken with, but really need to give a call to! He taught me that: (A) you really have to concentrate on the fundamentals of what you do. You always have to be thinking about basics, and never lose sight of that; that’s true when you’re a musician, but it’s also true when you’re running an orchestra. If you stray too far away from the most fundamental, basic things that you need to be doing, you won’t do well. And (B), we’re really here in service of the art form and in service of the music. Unfortunately there are people who think that the music is in service of them. There’s a certain humility about any of this work, whether you’re on stage or behind the scenes, that I think is really important. So, Myron was a tough teacher, but I used so much of what he taught me about music and other things everyday.

I was also incredibly inspired by Robert Harth, who was for many years the head of the Aspen music festival and then came to Carnegie Hall. And Robert died at a very young age – he died when he was 47, here in New York. I was always inspired by him because he had the greatest balance and combination I’ve ever seen of laser focus on what he wanted to accomplish, and enormous gifts in terms of interacting with people and building consensus. I used to joke that Robert was just one of these guys that could put his hand on your shoulder and say: “I’d really like you to jump off that cliff”, and you’d actually really do that. It wasn’t called a personality; it was just genuine interaction. I was not around him nearly as much as some other people, but the times that I was around him have burned an image in my head about what it means to be a leader. 

Matthew VanBesien

VanBesien with Music Director Alan Gilbert (center) and Music Academy of the West president Scott Reed. The Philharmonic announced their multi-year partnership with
Music Academy of the West in March.

Project Jumpstart: What are the most important traits a musician can cultivate for a career in music?

VanBesien: As a musician, of course it’s about being a great player, it’s about having something you want to say musically. But from a more practical standpoint, I’d say it’s about being a quick study, being fearless (or at least appearing to be fearless!), and being really flexible, adaptive, and thinking laterally. Being really flexible and being able to adapt to your surroundings nowadays is particularly important, as is the ability to successfully interact with people. Of course you want to be a brilliant musician, but the brilliant musicians have a certain career, while the brilliant musicians who love people and have a great gift with people have a different career, a more special career. Whether you’re talking about Yo-Yo Ma, or even Lang Lang, these musicians have an incredible gift to draw people into what they’re dong artistically. Those combinations of being quick, fearless, flexible, and really having that gift with people are important.

Matthew VanBesien

VanBesien on tour in Seoul, South Korea; the first stop on the
New York Philharmonic’s Asia / Winter 2014 tour.

Project Jumpstart: The world of classical music and the orchestra is changing rapidly. Where do you see classical music in the 21st century, and what would be the role that orchestras play in our lives?

VanBesien: I think we could have a long conversation just about this topic. It’s very easy to say that people are less interested in classical music today, but I actually don’t believe that’s true. And we have to hope that it’s not true, of course. But I do believe that the way in which people are drawn into classical music, experience classical music, or the way in which they “consume” classical music, if you will, are very different, and they’re going to continue to change for all of us. We as an orchestra, and we as classical musicians, need to figure out not just a way to make ourselves more indispensible to society, but we need to figure out a way to prove actively that we are a resource in society, that we really can have great impact on peoples’ lives, not just in terms of the music that they hear, but in terms of the quality of their lives. My translation for the orchestra here (NY Philharmonic) is: Yes, it’s about playing great concerts, and yes, it’s about making a recording or doing a broadcast once in a while, and yes, it’s about going on a tour domestically or internationally, and yes, it’s about doing greater educational programs. But if we don’t figure out a way to broaden the scope of the way in which we help people, and make peoples’ lives better through music, then I don’t believe we’re going to be successful. In the good old days (and I don’t know how good they were, but they were certainly old days), we largely did what we wanted to do as orchestras.  It’s not that we don’t have a responsibility to guide people and to help them understand and appreciate music in the way that we do, but we also have to look back and look at our cities and our communities here and all over the world and ask: what is it that people want? What do people need? How can we help them, besides just coming in and playing a concert and going home? So, that’s a very nebulous way to answer the question, but I think it comes down to being willing to imagine a greater way to help people and to be this idea of being a resource rather than just being a great orchestra.

Matthew VanBesien

VanBesien applauds the 2014–15 Mary and James G. Wallach Artist-in-Residence, Lisa Batiashvili, after her performance of Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto
No. 1 on January 9, 2014.

Project Jumpstart: What do you consider to be challenges facing young musicians today? How can we overcome these challenges?

VanBesien: The obvious thing is that there are a limited number of jobs, certainly in the orchestral space, and even those jobs have a volatility that is greater than it’s ever been before. So just winning a job may not ensure that you are going to stay employed over the long haul. I think that the reality is that musicians at IU or wherever have to recognize that that volatility exists in everything now. It doesn’t matter if you sell insurance for a living – that industry has changed enormously and you do not have the job security that you did selling insurance 20 years ago. On a certain level there’s always so much warning we can really indulge ourselves in. But on a certain level, what I see as a challenge for young musicians is: how do they figure out how to not just have successful careers, but to have a level of satisfaction throughout their careers, over the long term? What I can say about myself was that I was fully expecting that someone else would provide that for me, professionally. I may have been naïve, but I think that a lot of my friends felt the same way at school, in that we were going to get a job playing in an orchestra, and that was going to make us satisfied, artistically and personally. And the reality is, I spent eight years playing, albeit in a smaller regional orchestra, but there was very little satisfaction that I was gaining from the actual playing in the orchestra, day in day out. I believe that even for the most passionate, committed orchestral player, you have to be willing to take a certain amount of personal responsibility for your artistic improvement and professional satisfaction over the long haul. And that means that we as employers, if you will, need to think about that a little bit more for our musicians, and that musicians who are trained at IU and Juilliard and Curtis and places like that have to be thinking a little bit more about what are the things that are going to make them satisfied, stimulated, energized over the long haul. And that answer is different for everybody, but it’s at least being willing to have a conversation that will make for a healthier environment for them.

Matthew VanBesien

VanBesien speaks to the assembled guests at the
Sweeney Todd Spring Gala March 2014

Project Jumpstart: What three pieces of advice would you give to Jacobs School of Music students with regards to planning for a career in music?

VanBesien: I feel particularly qualified to answer this, because I’m going to fess up and say that after the fact, I really recognize my error in terms of what I was doing at IU! It may be a little melodramatic, but it’s true. The first is: really get an education. When I was a music student at IU, we all complained about having to do a broader-based curriculum, because it was going to take us away from the practice room. And what I recognize now was that it was not just about taking courses. It was about being a more well-rounded individual, and that will help you in life. You don’t sense it when you’re there, but it doesn’t matter whether you become the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, you’re going to have to sit at a dining room table filled with some extraordinary people from time to time. And if you’ve not taken the time to get an education, that experience will be harder. It will be harder, and frankly it will be less fulfilling. So really take advantage of the education that’s being offered to you.

Second: do not miss any opportunity to perform or speak in public. I, like a lot of people, was incredibly careful about my public performance sort of things, and I recognize now that that was exactly the opposite of what I should have been doing. I should have been up in front of people all the time. Regularity breeds familiarity. People always say “I don’t speak well in public, or I get nervous when I perform”. If you do it enough, I guarantee you, you will get better at it. Musicians need to understand that speaking in front of a group about the music that they’re playing, about who they are, or about their journey as a musician is an absolute requirement now. And so you just have to start doing it. Yesterday was the right time to start doing that.
The last thing could be redundant because IU is such a great school. Be fanatical about your preparation and your focus in whatever you’re doing. It’s too easy to say that there’s always tomorrow, but the reality is with the competitive landscape that’s there in music (and really in everything), you can’t afford to wait one day to be serious about your preparation. I would definitely say that I was always thinking I’ll have time, and I can always focus on this later. You won’t always have that opportunity to focus on it later. So you really have to take extraordinary advantage of that time. There were people that I knew who were fanatical, and they’ve done well. They had that steady, truly focused, methodical approach, both musically and academically. You see that the people who are successfully were not successful by accident. What I had to learn when I changed careers was that if I wasn’t really focused on doing this, I wasn’t going to be successful. So in some ways I used whatever I learned from my developmental path as a musician and I tried to turn around and really understand how hard I was going to have to work to what I’m doing now.

Project Jumpstart: Thank you so much for taking the time to share with us. We look forward to hearing more about you and your work in the future!

To find out more about Matthew VanBesien and his work, click on the following links below:

Photo credits: Chris Lee

Project Jumpstart partners with the Johnson Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation at the IU Kelley School of Business.