Twilight in Syracuse

The Syracuse Symphony is shutting down after musicians refused to accept $1.3 million in concessions:

The decision will bring the 50th anniversary season of the orchestra to an unceremonious end. There were more than 20 Syracuse and regional concerts remaining in the 2010-11 season.

The orchestra’s 18 full- and part-time staffers and 61 core and 14 contract musicians will be laid off Monday. However, eight employees will remain to help in the transition, Interim Executive Director Paul Brooks said, although he added that the organization has very little cash to carry out an orderly transition.

Brooks said no refunds would be issued to ticket holders, and he said any donations received during the SSO’s public fundraising campaign, “Keep the Music Playing” will not be returned.

Its April 27 concert by renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma also is canceled. But despite suspension of operations, Brooks said, the Syracuse Opera has been assured that the orchestra will play for its two performances of “The Pearl Fishers” April 8 and 10, said Brooks.

Brooks made the announcement after a three-hour closed board meeting in the conference room of Eric Mower and Associates in downtown Syracuse.

He said the SSO was without funds to continue operations because it fell short of its March fundraising goal of $445,000, failed to receive $1.3 million in concessions from the musicians for the 2011-12 season and had $5.5 million debt as the major reasons for the suspension. The SSO has a budget of $6.9 million for 2010-11.

“In order to be sustainable, we have to have in place a balanced budget for next fiscal year. We have been unable to reach an agreement with the musicians through diligence on our part and on their part,” Brooks said.

Ah, the magic word “sustainable.” What’s telling is that management claims the orchestra is “without funds to continue operations” because musicians didn’t agree to concessions for next year. Of course they already made concessions for this year, and made an offer for next season as well:

Last summer, the SSO and musicians agreed to a shorter season, from 40 weeks to 34 weeks, but the same number of performances…

Musicians made a counter proposal to the board March 24, offering $715,000 in new salary, benefit and position concessions, Garland said. They also presented a plan to temporarily change the mix of core and contract players, which could possibly add up to $200,000 in savings. Since July 1, the musicians have returned to the SSO $720,000 in salaries, wages and benefits, and before that, proposed a two-year wage freeze.

But it wasn’t exactly what the Board demanded, so it’s time to turn out the lights. It wasn’t “sustainable” as the Board defines the term. Well, they’ve got their sustainable situation now.

If that’s not depressing enough, go and read the comments to the article. Typical was this one:

well, that and the amount of gov’t money was reduced and that ticket sales only covered a third of the cost. $30k and benefits for 34 weeks. Seems like a lotta wiggle room for them to earn less AND still have 18 weeks off…. every year. It truly was a good gig. Oh well, they’ll figure it out.

And here’s another:

To hear them squeal like pigs and read their childish rants makes it a cause for celebration. Syracuse reached its zenith in population about a 100 years ago and it has been downhill for one reason, high taxes and this just might be a signal for the rest of the pigs at the looking for a handout that it is time to find a way to make it on your own. As far as libraries, the day may come when everything is one line and they can indeed be cut. The downtown library is mainly a place for bums to sleep these days.

There are days I am truly convinced that we are either the Roman Empire post-Nero or ancien régime France. Were Americans always this mean-spirited? Did labor agreements always mean this little?

I know the AFM is profoundly conflicted when faced with situations like this. But I think it’s time for a policy that, when an orchestra shuts down like this, if it starts up again it doesn’t do so with the blessing of the union unless something more dependable than a mere CBA is in place to protect the livelihood of musicians. How many times has the AFM allowed itself to be used as a kind of Good Housekeeping Seal for orchestra looking to hire musicians, only to have those musicians get screwed? How many times has it happened in Honolulu alone?

I don’t know if that’s the right answer. The real answer – unfortunately not a realistic option – would be a cartel like the NFL that can simply prevent communities that can’t support professional orchestras from having them. Maybe people would take better care of them if they weren’t allowed the fantasy that they could get a better and cheaper orchestra simply by shafting the existing one.

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.


Leave a comment
  • I’m too computer-illiterate to understand how to use the html tags to create a link, so i’ll just paste the URL here to a wonderful article by a treasured local (San Francisco) columnist about the current union-busting climate. It’s truly depressing. When did we stop aspiring to “Nobody should have less than X” and switch over to “Nobody can have more than the bare minimum?” Most of these folks would be utterly horrified to realize that they’ve taken a page out of Karl Marx’s playbook.

    It’s the way the story has always read. The few at the top decree the size of the pie, and they succeed in getting the rest of us to fight over how many crumbs we can find for ourselves and our families, too distracted by trying to survive to come together and reject the premise that the pie can’t be any bigger.

  • One of the small towns in Sarasota county had a “town hall” meeting where about 70 teabag, er tea party people showed up to complain about pensions for firefighters. Our local paper ran a front page article, the first paragraph of which read, “About 70 residents gathered in the shade of Englewood Firehouse No. 4 on Wednesday morning to tell their firefighters they loved them — but they hate their pensions.”

    The comments under that article were equally as depressing:

    “It doesn’t require that you spend your life fighting fires. It requires that you are ready to, if needed. Which is actually fairly rare. You may have to be at most accident scenes, but are you really needed, most of the time?”


    “I’d be careful. There are enough firefighter buffs down there to have an all volunteer fire department. Buy the equipment and feed them. no pensions and no salaries nor taxpayers getting ripped off with firefighters making 50.000 per year. Justify that to a Walmart Home Depot or Publix worker.”[sic]

    Needless to say, that depressed me as well – if firefighters are getting screwed, it doesn’t bode well for musicians.

    “Sustainability” has been the new meme amongst the orchestra execurati lately. It gives a very green organic liberal sensibility to what is really a form of the Shock Doctrine. The management says an orchestra is in crisis and must become more “sustainable” because of a.) the economy, b.) declining ticket sales, c.) our community can’t support classical music, d.)those greedy musicians and their Union, e.)all of the above, and as a result of this crisis can then implement changes, cancel concerts, or suspend operations, actions that would never have been accepted absent the crisis, real or manufactured – mostly manufactured.

Leave a Reply