Bad cases make bad models

The NY Times has a story on what appears to be the inevitable strike in Detroit scheduled to start Monday:

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra has weathered decades of strikes, deficits, criticism over its racial makeup, mediocre concert homes, cuts in state aid and canceled tours.

It has always bounced back, rescuing and restoring its beautiful old concert hall, enjoying moments of critical acclaim and recording fame, and becoming a leader in efforts to bring blacks into the symphony world (although it still has only two black players).

Now it faces another hurdle, one that its members and managers say could alter its course for good. The players, who were scheduled to begin rehearsals on Monday morning for the new season, have declared their intention to strike over extensive cuts in pay and benefits and extensive changes in how they perform their jobs.

As so often happens in orchestra labor strife, one side raises alarms about quality and the other about survivability. The musicians argue that the kind of cuts sought by management would scare away top new talents and even current members, eroding the orchestra’s finely wrought musical level.

“The bottom line for us is, we want the artistic quality of the orchestra to stay the same or get better,” said Haden McKay, an orchestra cellist and the players’ spokesman. “The cuts are so deep, it’s really going to damage the quality of the orchestra long term.”

Management contends that the issue of quality will be moot if the orchestra dies, and that Detroit simply cannot afford an orchestra of the kind that now exists. “The contract has to reflect what’s sustainable in the city you’re living in,” said Anne Parsons, the orchestra’s president and chief executive….

Acrimony has escalated in recent weeks. The musicians denounced the cancellation of their life insurance and instrument insurance policies once the strike was declared even though players said they were willing to pay the premiums themselves. “The only word I can use is punitive,” Mr. McKay said.

Ms. Parsons responded: “We are following the letter of the law completely. If you walk off the job, you walk off the job.”

…few cities have suffered like Detroit. And that argument has helped generate support for management’s side. The Detroit News, in an editorial on Thursday, pointed out that household incomes in Michigan have dropped 21.3 percent over the last decade and that 16.2 percent of the population now lives below the poverty level.

The players, it argued, should make the same sacrifices Michigan’s other workers have had to make and should not risk the orchestra’s future with a strike.

“Union-protected jobs with six-figure salaries are scarce in today’s Michigan,” the newspaper said. “The musicians should hang on to theirs with both hands, and pray along with the rest of us for a future that returns our state to prosperity.”..

Detroit’s economic problems have been an acute factor in the orchestra’s problems. Big-city orchestras always suffer when companies decline or move away, and the Detroit Symphony is a grave example. Consider the bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler needed to keep afloat companies that in the past each gave in the six figures annually.

“Their giving went pretty close to zero the past fiscal year,” Ms. Parsons said. “We’ve got board members whose pensions have disappeared.”

While this article misses some of the sheer nastiness of the negotiations (which include cancellations of the orchestra members’ insurances and implementation of a proposal to eliminate peer review, neither of which does anything to address the financial condition of the orchestra), it does get to the heart of the problem: the economy of Detroit is horrible, even by the standards of the current severe national downturn. A recent blog post from David Byrne, of all people, gives some  sense of what’s happened to Detroit:

As I ride around town on this trip I pass mile after mile of residential neighborhoods in which most, or at least half, of the houses are simply gone, while others are boarded up, burnt out and one or two are still inhabited. This isn’t in the suburbs or rural countryside—this is close to downtown:

In the picture below you can see the Renaissance Center, a downtown showpiece, in the background. To the left is a completely abandoned area of housing projects.

On Google Maps you can see what it looks like from the air: block after block with only one or two houses each.

Pity the poor mail carriers, who often only have one or two houses per block.

This is a city that still has an infrastructure, or some of it, for 2 million people, and now only 800,000 remain. One rides down majestic boulevards with only a few cars on them, past towering (often empty) skyscrapers. A few weeks ago I watched a documentary called Requiem For Detroit by British director Julian Temple, who used to be associated with the Sex Pistols. It’s a great film, available to watch on YouTube, that gives a context and history for the devastation one sees all around here. This process didn’t happen overnight, as with Katrina, but over many many decades. However the devastation is just as profound, and just as much concentrated on the lower echelons of society. Both disasters were man-made.

Obviously both sides recognize this (from the DSO musicians’ website: “The musicians of the DSO do not dispute the dire condition of the orchestra’s finances at this moment, although they certainly take issue with management decisions that brought the institution to this point). The real dispute at the core of this negotiation  is whether the economic situation in Detroit shortly after the bottom of the worst recession in several generations mandates permanently down-sizing the orchestra and its artistic ambitions.

What I find most disturbing about the national attention given to Detroit is that it feeds the concept that “the model is broken,” a phrase I’ve heard from lots of different people on board and staffs in recent months. It’s a little like saying that “Germany will never have great orchestras again” in July 1945. I suspect it was hard to run the Berlin Phil that year, and for a few years afterwards. I doubt that anyone in the arts there seriously considered that the Berlin Phil wasn’t going to be a great orchestra ever again, or made long-term plans to reduce the orchestra to a second-tier ensemble.

There’s always a question in times like these about whether the problems that particular institutions, or industries, are having are short-term or systemic: is this economic storm in our industry a change in the climate or simply a change in the weather? There certainly are reasons to believe that the environment in which American orchestras function is changing. But the troubles of the Detroit Symphony, which has no choice to but to make music at  Ground Zero of the implosion of the quintessentially American heavy industry, are not such a reason.

“Hard cases make bad law” is one of the great legal maxims. Oliver Wendell Holmes explained why:

Great cases like hard cases make bad law. For great cases are called great, not by reason of their importance…but because of some accident of immediate overwhelming interest which appeals to the feelings and distorts the judgement.

Detroit is, of course, “important.” But its current prominence in the press should not lead the industry to believe that it serves as Exhibit A of the “broken model” theory. It’s the opposite; it’s a worst-case situation.

The fact that so many other orchestras have made adjustments to the current economic situation, and done so with little public fanfare, demonstrates that beyond doubt. The adjustments in other places were manageable, were recognized as necessary by the musicians, and were not accompanied by any desire or agenda other than to move forward. Nowhere else, to the best of my knowledge, were proposals for economic relief accompanied by proposals to eliminate peer review or temperature clauses; doomsday weapons which simply make real negotiations virtually impossible – as anyone  with any experience in our industry (including, of course, the management in Detroit) knows very well.

The reaction of the musicians in Detroit was identical to how most orchestras would react when faced with something as radical as what management is proposing there. The Detroit strike only proves that it’s possible for a management to make concessionary bargaining even harder than it has to be.

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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