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Longtime Detroit Symphony Orchestra leader Anne Parsons dies at 64

Former DSO President and CEO Anne Parsons.
Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Former DSO President and CEO Anne Parsons.

The former longtime leader of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra has passed away.

Anne Parsons was 64. She stepped down as the DSO’s president and CEO at the end of last year, as she underwent treatment for lung cancer.

Parsons came to Detroit and the DSO in 2004. She led the orchestra through the Great Recession, a contentious musicians’ strike that ended in 2011, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Parsons is credited with making the DSO one of the first symphonies in the world to stream its concerts online. In a 2021interview with Musical America, she said that helped enormously when the pandemic hit.

“We’ve definitely leaned into our digital and virtual space that we have lived in all these years and leveraged it,” Parsons said. “And it has worked really well for us.”

Parsons also said that lessons learned from the strike helped the DSO weather the pandemic and remain strong. “Our culture of participation, shared participation, around deepening relationships has been something that we’ve built since 2012, where when we had probably our hardest time culturally as an organization with the strike,” she said. “We have a commitment to make sure that relationships were a priority, that people came first with an empathy and connection, and that transparency would be at the top of everyone's values list.”

Parsons also stabilized the DSO financially, posting operating surpluses from 2013-2021. And her “vision of transforming the DSO into the “most accessible orchestra on the planet” led to an increased focus on serving audiences through innovative new programs,” the DSO said in a release about Parsons’ death.

Besides being an early adopter of concert streaming, Parsons is also credited with diversifying the DSO’s musical programming beyond the traditional classical sphere, and strengthening community relationships with programs that included neighborhood performances, and providing musical education and an instrument to any interested Detroit student. She also led the DSO back to the international stage with performances abroad.

“Since arriving at the DSO in the summer of 2004, Anne led with grace, courage, and conviction, never wavering from her strong 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,” wrote current DSO President Erik Rönmark and Board Chair Mark Davidoff said in a statement announcing Parsons’ death. “Anne’s accomplishments as President and CEO are immeasurable and will resonate deeply within the organization, across our local communities, and in the orchestra industry for decades to come.”

“I am honored to have been appointed music director during Anne’s tenure as CEO and to have been able to become close with her, Donald, and Cara,” added DSO Music Director Jader Bignamini. “I will never forget Anne’s smile, strength, professionalism, deep humility, and innate sensitivity. Her love for the orchestra and Detroit is our guide as we lead the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.”

Parsons is survived by her husband, Donald Dietz, and their daughter Cara.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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