The model's not broken

The symphonoblogosphere has been abuzz with stories about the labor troubles in Seattle and Cleveland, and these are indeed big stories. But there are other negotiations hanging fire as well. Unless I missed something, the Met management’s proposal to cut salaries by 10% has still not been resolved, while Detroit’s been having an extremely difficult negotiation for months now. And then there was the recent news that the New York Philharmonic has posted a record deficit of $4.6 million for last season and is projecting one almost as big for the current year.

The current meme in the orchestra world (at least on the management side) seems to be “the model’s broken.” It’s never stated explicitly what exactly is meant by “the model,” although my read is that “the model” is shorthand for “paying what we’ve been paying,” or even, on occasion, “paying musicians for 52 weeks.” Of course, in the most severe economic downturn in the past 70 years, lots of things are going to look “broken.” Look, for example, at the state of pension funds, or the auto industry, or the housing industry, or the airline industry, or a lot of other industries. It appears to be a great time to be a really, really large bank. For the rest of us, not so much.

But what’s happening in the above orchestras (and, to be fair, in lots of others), is neither surprising nor completely representative of the field as a whole. Two of the institutions mentioned above, the Met and the New York Phil, have benefitted greatly over the past decade or so from the success of the financial industry. The recent success of a few large banks notwithstanding, this is not a good year to be dependent on the health of Wall Street.

Cleveland and Detroit are towns with deep, deep economic woes. It’s hardly surprising that the house orchestra at Ground Zero of the implosion of the American auto industry is going to be in a world of hurt. And the last time I visited Cleveland it looked like something out of a really grim SF dystopia. What’s broken in Detroit and Cleveland is a lot bigger than “the model.”

Seattle is hurting in a different way, as I wrote here. It is not the norm for an orchestra the size of Seattle to have the kinds of fundamental governance issues they appear to face, but apparently it can happen. That proves nothing about the state of “the model” either, unless it is to demonstrate what the best orchestra managers have always said, which is that the board runs the orchestra, for good or ill.

But look at Los Angeles, which just reached an extremely rich settlement – one comparable to the one reached by the San Francisco Symphony a year before. Clearly it’s possible to pay musicians well without running crippling deficits. All it takes is a good board, excellent management, and a community that’s not struggling economically. The last, of course, is to some extent a matter of simple good fortune – orchestras don’t choose to be in particular communities; they’re just there. But the first two are not beyond the reach of most orchestras in this country. And, unless one believes that the American economic model is broken, then most American cities will not be struggling forever. Their orchestras should not base fundamental structural decisions on the notion that bad times are here to stay.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

Leave a Reply