A substitute orchestra in Detroit?

In a front-page article in the Detroit News, Michael H. Hodges is pessimistic about the future of the DSO:

…outsiders warn that suspending the season involves a leap into the unknown, one that not only threatens the orchestra’s current hold on audiences and donors, but could put the 2011-2012 season and the orchestra’s entire future at risk.

“It plunges them into the black hole of a negative-revenue spiral,” said Chicago-based orchestra consultant Drew McManus, who has followed the Detroit strike closely.

“The big question now is whether they’ve stopped planning for the next season,” he added. “This one is a wash. But if they don’t have all the season planning activity in place for next season, which would include artist reservations and advance ticket sales, they enter that negative spiral. Once you’ve crossed that event threshold, there’s no pulling out of it.”

Hodges also raises the question of whether management might field a replacement orchestra, and is skeptical:

Hiring an entirely new orchestra isn’t much of an option either. In the highly unionized world of top orchestras, McManus said, any musician taking a replacement job risks career suicide.

“They’d get blacklisted and probably fined by the American Federation of Musicians,” he said, “and wouldn’t be able to perform with other orchestras. It’d hurt their audition chances, too.”

I agree with Hodges and Drew that a replacement orchestra is not a realistic option, but not for the same reasons. Certainly there would be risks for musicians signing up to replace the DSO; any who were AFM members would likely face crushing fines from the union and certainly there’s the potential for blowback in future career endeavors.

But the AFM doesn’t maintain a blacklist, and such a list wouldn’t be effective if it did. No American union has the legal power to bar an employer from hiring or employing someone based on anything other than their paying that portion of union dues devoted to contract negotiation and administration, and even that is only the case in non-right-to-work states.

I think the real obstacles are these:

  • a replacement orchestra would be picketed continuously, making it unattractive to patrons who don’t want to cross picket lines to enjoy a night out
  • most symphony patrons want to see their orchestra, not a generic symphonic performance;
  • Slatkin would be committing career suicide by conducting a replacement orchestra;
  • Ann Parsons would be committing career suicide by hiring a replacement orchestra;
  • Soloists would be committing SarahChang├╝rung by playing with a replacement orchestra;
  • other unions (IATSE in particular) would be unlikely to cross a picket line thrown up around a replacement orchestra – or, if they did, would likely make life unpleasant at work for the replacement orchestra;
  • any replacement orchestra would quickly unionize itself and want what the DSO musicians are trying to maintain now.

It’s not an accident that the tactic of replacing an orchestra has never been tried. I’d be shocked (and not in the Casablanca sense) if it was tried in Detroit.


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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