While many students attend performances at Hill Auditorium, most do not know the man behind the scenes. During his nearly 20 years as its president, Ken “The Fisch” Fischer has transformed the University Musical Society into an organization dedicated not only to presentation, but also to arts education and research. On a daily basis, Fischer has his hand in every part of operating one of the top musical venues in the country – including marketing, production and fundraising.
TMD: How did you become involved with the University Musical Society?
KF: In 1983, I wanted to hear a particular group perform at the Kennedy Center and I was so convinced that my idea was good that I rented the Center myself. On the day of the concert, there was a huge snowstorm, but four minutes before I was going to cancel, the group showed up. I sold 400 tickets at the door and figured, “It can’t get any tougher than this.” Between ’83 and ’87, I coordinated 17 performances at the Kennedy Center and had more successes than failures. Then, in ’87, there was an opening for the presidency of UMS. They conducted a national search and in a moment of weakness, they chose me.
TMD: How are you able to bring such renowned musical groups, such as the Vienna Philharmonic to Ann Arbor?
KF: We’re the smallest town (on a big city tour), but the largest audience. Let me tell you a story about the Berlin Philharmonic’s performance here in ’99. We had a post-concert dinner at (former University President) Lee Bollinger’s house. The conductor Claudio Abbado agreed to come but before he arrived, he wanted the speeches delivered and his food ready. Before he went back to his hotel, he asked whether it would be all right if he smoked a cigar and Lee Bollinger said, “He can smoke whatever he wants in this house.” He ended up staying the entire evening. Later, the chairman of the orchestra, Peter Riegelbauer, sent me an e-mail saying, “There’s nothing like Ann Arbor. It was the largest crowd and the best audience and you let us play what we wanted to play. And you treated us so well. We’ve never been invited to someone’s home before.” Musicians feel a real sense of connection to this place.
TMD: What has been your goal as president of UMS?
KF: I had a wonderful mentor named Patrick Hayes. He de-segregated the theater of Washington D.C. and his policy was E.I.N.O (“Everybody In, Nobody Out”). When I came to UMS, I tried to bring Patrick’s philosophy. I looked to the University community, and the community beyond Ann Arbor. This is a marvelously diverse region, with Mexicans, Arabs, African Americans and Russians. I’ve tried to reach out to these communities using four principles of partnership: cooperation, communication, vulnerability and reciprocity. What I learned was that so many people viewed the University as an arrogant, overly intellectual institution. I tried to counter that by being vulnerable, by admitting that we don’t know it all, taking the opportunity to listen and to ask questions. We believe we’re serving this broad group of artists, students and faculty, as well as our region. UMS is a vehicle for fostering a better understanding and appreciation for the diverse cultures of the world. As we expose the community to these cultures, we try to do so with honesty and authenticity.
At the same time, we also have a tradition of offering the best of the Western canon. I’m just the current steward, but I’ve tried to make classical music better here by doubling the number of concerts.
TMD: How have you accomplished these goals?
KF: I hire well. I am lucky to have a brilliant group of people working with me. Michael Kondziolka started as an intern in development, but he’s now our programming director. We also have Ben Johnson who is great educator, Sara Billmann who received her MBA from Stanford and is in charge of marketing, Susan McClanahan in development and John Kennard who manages UMS financially.
TMD: How does this extend to the student body?
KF: A quarter of our permanent staff is made up of interns or intern alumni, so we provide opportunities for students who are interested in this field. We offer relevant educational programs free of charge. We also have a student advisory committee, so we can listen to what students have to say and receive fresh, new ideas.
TMD: How does UMS make music more accessible to students who have not been extensively exposed to it?
KF: We rely on help from faculty, counselors and contemporaries. We need students to say to their friends, “Do you know what a crime it would be to leave the University without gracing a concert at Hill Auditorium?” We encourage professors to incorporate the concerts into their classes. We’re also conducting a study on students and others who attend UMS events in order to learn what we can do to remove barriers.