Pain in Baltimore

Coverage of the impact of concessions on musicians is not usually as explicit as in this article by Tim Smith for the Baltimore Sun:

Musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra have agreed to take yet another salary hit in an effort to help the organization weather the continued effects of the recession. The players accepted a freeze for the 2010-11 season and a 16.6 percent reduction for the two seasons after that. By the 2012-2013 season, base pay for BSO members will be $67,600 — essentially the same as it was in 2001.

“We’re devastated,” said Jane Marvine, an English horn player and spokesperson for the Players’ Committee. “In the last decade, two times we had great contracts that were unfulfilled. This sets us back a decade. We have everything going for us. The talent is on the stage and in the [administration]. We have a music director committed to expanding the orchestra as a resource for the community. We have a collaborative spirit. So it seems impossible to us that we have not been able to thrive as a major American orchestra in one of the wealthiest states.”

It’s one thing to have to take cuts when there are internal issues. It’s quite another to do so when, as Marvine suggests, all the pieces ought to be in place to move forward. Baltimore has a competent staff and a bright, committed music director who’s also a hot property – and they’re still having to take big cuts.

But these are not normal times. We were in the same situation – when the appointment of our new music director was announced in early 2008, the only question in our minds (and I suspect management’s as well) was just how good our new contract would be. When we actually started negotiating a year later, the bottom had fallen out of the economy and and we took cuts that would have been unimaginable a year before.

What’s unusual about Tim Smith’s article is that it gets to the sense of pain and loss experienced by musicians who take concessions. It’s not just the money, although that’s bad enough – given marginal tax rates, the net after-tax loss is significantly less than the 16.6% quoted in the article.

What really stings, I think, is the sense that musicians’ work is increasingly less valued by society. In a culture which places as high a priority on personal earning power as does ours, these kinds of cuts can feel like an attack on one’s value as a member of society.

Drew McManus raises another important issue as well: an “experimental Fellows program in September 2011 for highly talented post-conservatory musicians to perform with and be mentored by the BSO.” In the context of cutting wages and not filling open positions, having “Fellows” play with the orchestra on a regular basis can start to look like replacing professional musicians with unpaid (or poorly paid) graduate students.

I have no doubt that those on the ground in Baltimore are keenly aware of this possibility, and there are certainly ways to structure such a program so that its value is primarily educational and not simply economic. But it’s worth remembering that the reason that there is a pool of competent potential Fellows is that there is full-time employment in the orchestral field. If we, as a field, start using such people as alternatives to filling vacancies, at some point they will figure out that training to become an orchestra musician is a mug’s game and go find something better to do with their parents’ money.

The orchestral world is an ecosystem, and, like all ecosystems, will only tolerate a limited amount of unraveling before it falls apart completely.

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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