Reading the tea leaves in Detroit

Breaking news on the Detroit Symphony today:

Talks to renegotiate the Detroit Symphony Orchestra musicians contract have ended without a deal, a surprise since a spokesperson for the musicians earlier said that they were “expecting and hoping” to be part of the solution to the DSO’s budget crisis.

“The DSO management team and orchestra are not currently engaged in discussions on the current contract which runs through August 2010,” the parties said in a statement. “Although discussions that began last year were amicable, both parties were not able to mutually agree on methods to modify the current contract.”

DSO management, some funders and creditors see players’ concessions as a key to stabilizing the orchestra’s finances. Battered by the recession, the DSO ran a $3.8-million deficit in 2009 and projects about a $5-million shortfall on a $30-million budget in 2010. The orchestra is also struggling to make the $2.4-million annual interest payments it owes on the Max M. Fisher Music Center. DSO leaders say the budget needs to shrink to $20-$25 million in today’s economy.

…Both sides declined further comment, but the talks likely failed because of disagreements over parity with other orchestras and “recovery.” These were the issues in the contentious 2007 contract talks. Musicians will typically agree to furlough weeks (without pay), benefit freezes and other reductions provided they believe concessions will be sufficiently recovered by the end of the deal.

Careful parsing of the language of the joint release (the fact of which is itself significant) does not make clear the status of negotiations for a new agreement. The joint release simply states that “both parties were not able to mutually agree on methods to modify the current contract.” It also suggests that the speculation about the cause of the breakdown in negotiations being disagreements over recovery may not be correct; recovery would, by definition, happen during the term of the new contract.

I suspect what happened is similar to what happened here in 1993; the musicians were willing to agree to make concessions for the current season, but only in the context of getting a better new deal than management was willing to make. In our situation, that led to threats of canceling our 1993 summer season, although in the end management simply paid us to stay home for 7 weeks.

The Detroit management may now in the same situation. I can’t tell from the website if any summer activities have been scheduled. If not, the possibility exists that management could simply lock out the orchestra for the summer weeks and get the concessions they’re seeking for this season that way. Of course, that’s not likely to make getting a new agreement for the 2010-11 season any easier.

On the other hand, the fact of a joint release suggests that some kind of negotiations are still going one.

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.

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