The moralistic approach to orchestra scheduling

Interlochen Public Radio did a piece yesterday on the DSO strike; in particular the service conversion proposals that management has put on the table. The whole thing is worth reading. But I was particularly struck by comments made by Joseph Horowitz:

…there are those in the industry who argue this discussion is way overdue. Joe Horowitz wrote the book, Classical Music in America: A History. He says the debate over “Service Conversion” speaks to what he calls a, “fundamental dysfunction” among the nation’s orchestras. Horowitz argues that the modern orchestra plays too many concerts.

There are exceptions,” he says. “But as a rule, they give far more concerts than they should. More concerts than are needed. More concerts than people want. And it’s a fundamental dysfunction.”

Horowitz says concert over-kill is one of the reasons why many orchestras are struggling financially. He says musicians should think of themselves as more of an educational resource than solely as concert performers. Moreover, he says, players should no longer expect to work full time.

“I write books,” he says. “I’m on my ninth book. I don’t expect to support myself and my family through that one activity. I have to do other things because, in deciding to be a writer, I chose a field that’s not like a being a doctor…it’s not as lucrative.

“It has other rewards. And musicians all made that choice and they refuse to live with it.”

The horror! Musicians made a choice to go to work for a full-time orchestra and they refuse to live with it! Or maybe it’s managements that made a choice to run a full-time orchestra and are now “refusing to live with it.” Of course, it’s not managements that are going to be working part-time for 30% less money.

It’s an unfortunate fact that some of the discussion about orchestras and musicians seems to be motivated by nothing more elevated than envy. “I can’t make a living writing books, therefore musicians shouldn’t be able to make a living by performing” fails both as humane sentiment and as intellectual analysis.

The question of what orchestras should do with their employees’s time is a lot more complex than simply saying that orchestras “give more concerts than people want,” even if one assumes the question is not being driven by a desire to take musicians down a few pegs. Horowitz likely never took any econ classes; if he had, he would realize that “want” is a complicated concept. “Want” under what conditions? What price? What venue? What repertoire? What kind of presentation?

It’s like saying that libraries have too many books because most of them aren’t taken out very often. It really misses the point of having orchestras – or libraries – at all.

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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