Actions have consequences

… as Sarah Chang has just been sharply reminded.

My personal definition of “grown-up” is someone who not only understands that actions have consequences but doesn’t complain about the fact. Very, very few people pass that test consistently.

But one of the times it is most often forgotten in our industry is during labor disputes. And it matters more in our industry than in many others, if only because the orchestra business is relatively quite small and the participants tend to stick around for a long time.

The orchestra industry is likely about the same size as a smallish town, in terms of participants, and it’s not a town that people move to, or leave, very often. So what goes around very often comes around, as it does in a small town that’s out in the boonies in flyover land.

Labor disputes are a time when the short-term goal of prevailing in the dispute can swamp all other considerations. The consideration most often run over is the fact that, after the dispute is settled, the combatants will resume a long-term relationship poisoned by whatever seemingly effective but nasty tactics were used to score points during the battle.

Being a musician, it’s much easier for me to see the unwise things that managements do during labor disputes than it is those effective but nasty tactics used by musicians. Having said that, it’s clear to me that the DSO management has done some unwise things that will make bringing the organization together again, when this is all over, much harder.

Foremost amongst those unwise actions was Proposal B. Putting something that ugly on the table, and then implementing it without ever negotiating about it, will haunt the relationship between the musicians and their employer for years to come – especially as it included transparently unacceptable elements that had nothing to do with the orchestra’s economic situation.

But at least the fallout from that was predictable. More dangerous is the fall-out from such things as the on-again, off-again Chang recital.

I can understand how scheduling the recital might have seemed attractive to management. They might pull in some money; they probably had to pay Chang anyway, and it would have been a middle finger pointed towards the musicians, along the lines of “you’re not quite as important as you think.”

I suspect that management didn’t think through what was likely to happen next, though; the outcry from the musician community, the hundreds of postings on Facebook, the isolated instances of nastiness contained in those postings, and the possibility at least of worse than mere nastiness directed at her (although I continue to regard the claims of threats of physical violence with skepticism in the absence of any evidence).

And I’m sure that it was very tempting for management to then use those claims to criticize the “reprehensible tactics” of those opposed to the recital. There’s nothing so tempting in a fight as scoring points on the other side.

But did they stop to think that, when this is all over, they’re going to be back to raising money to pay the salaries of those musicians who have been conflated, by Chang’s statement and management’s response, with “reprehensible tactics”? It’s going to be a difficult pivot from implying that the musicians are thugs to claiming that they are world-class musicians deserving of the community’s support – but it’s one that they will now have to make thanks to trying to be too clever by half by scheduling the recital in the first place.

As I said before, I have no doubt that musicians in many labor disputes – and possibly in the Detroit one as well – have made similar mistakes. Having a labor dispute in this business is like a bad divorce between two people who will have to continue to sleep in the same bed regardless of the outcome. It’s almost impossible to do without leaving lasting scars that will impact the relationship for years.

But it’s the responsibility of both sides to at least try to do the minimum damage in the process. Thinking through the long-term consequences of short-term tactics is a good place to start.

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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