On the fungibility of musicians

One of the uglier memes being spread by the proponents of the Great Attempted Orchestral Downsizing of 2012 is that cutting the pay of musicians won’t damage the quality of the orchestra because everyone is replaceable. A recent post by Chicago lawyer Kevin Moen summarizes it perfectly:

Perhaps most disturbing, however, is the response from some orchestra managers
and board chairs to the argument that players, faced with these draconian measures, will  pack up and leave.  The message is simple and blunt:  we don’t care.  Go ahead and leave.  After all, you’re totally replaceable; we’ll just hire one of those fantastic kids coming out the conservatories.

This message is being delivered with stunning candor.  The chairman of one major orchestra demanding huge cuts noted the “quite remarkable” number of music-school graduates, characterizing it as “a large supply.”  Another manager acknowledged a “risk” that his players would “find their way to another place” if forced to accept management’s demands, but shrugged it off:  “those who can leave will.”  Yet another board chairman told one departing principal that he wouldn’t care unless nine or ten players left – and then, only because it might be “bad PR.”  (And of course, who can forget the manager who thought he could hire a brand-new Louisville Orchestra on Craigslist.)

What we are seeing is the public manifestation of a belief that has long simmered in the background among some managers:  that players are really just interchangeable parts, and if one leaves, the orchestra can easily find someone just as good.  As a player, I knew managers who held this belief privately; as an attorney, I’ve encountered it in negotiations.  It represents nothing less than the commoditization of symphonic musicians.  It is perhaps the most dangerous trend at work today, and left unchecked, it will ultimately destroy musicians’ livelihoods.

In one sense, of course, everyone is replaceable; as Charles de Gaulle was reported to have once said, “the cemeteries are full of irreplaceable people.” But the argument that there are lots of great players out there available to replace every departing musician, and thus it’s not a problem to lose musicians to other orchestras, is a weak one.

For one thing, musicians who leave an orchestra for a better-paying job elsewhere in the field are, by definition, going to be hard to replace; after all, the candidates for the audition to replace them very likely also auditioned for the departing musician’s new position – and lost. Our experience in Milwaukee with auditions is not unusual; we’ve had several rounds of auditions for most openings before finding someone acceptable to the Music Director and audition committee, and have often had do so active recruiting to get quality candidates to come to the audition at all. It certainly hadn’t felt to us as if our problem has been choosing between hordes of musicians we’d love to have in the orchestra.

There are definitely more applicants for openings than there used to be two or three decades ago. My personal belief is that the overall level of applicants is higher, but that the best players auditioning for us now aren’t noticeably, or consistently, better than the people we hired  two decades ago.

There is also the issue of experience. Playing in an orchestra is a skill that takes a while to develop for most musicians. In fact, playing in a given orchestra is not necessarily a skill that transfers immediately to a new orchestra – something I found out when I played principal for two weeks in 2009 for the Hong Kong Philharmonic. While I thought I did well enough (especially considering that I never completely got over the 13-hour jet lag), my lack of familiarity with the members of the viola section, the acoustics on stage, and the overall style of the orchestra was a significant hindrance to doing as well as I might have had I been there a year or so.

Lastly, there’s the clear preference audiences have to attend concerts performed by people they know, or at least recognize. I have no doubt that my orchestra’s board could find orchestras of comparable quality to mine to come to Milwaukee to perform the same concerts we do, and possibly for less money. But experience, here and elsewhere, demonstrates that they wouldn’t sell many tickets over the course of a season of such concerts. It’s not because they’d be worse concerts than we’d do; it’s because attending a concert is in part about connecting to the people on stage. Audiences know good concerts from bad concerts, but  wanting to go to a concert isn’t just about it being good. It’s about it being an experience, and part of that is seeing familiar faces on stage.


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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  • This is an extremely difficult subject for those of us in Freeway Phil orchestras. None of our employers offers us full-time work, so in order to make a living as full-time professional musicians we win as many auditions as we can and have contracts with multiple orchestras. Inevitably, since there are only 4 weeks in a month and more orchestras than that in this area, conflicts arise, and we rely on being able to take a service or a week or a percentage of the season off (without pay, naturally) in order to play enough weeks in each group to maintain our positions. Yes, this works against being able to create the kind of cohesive style that a full-time orchestra can attain after years together, but for these smaller groups I’m not sure there is a realistic alternative.

  • The lawyer’s name is Kevin Case—a violinist. I still remember the terrific Prokofiev he played as a concerto competition winner back in our young-twenties days at Music Academy of the West. And I think his column is right on the money.

    Your point about experience is good, too. We’re seeing that in the Louisville Orchestra right now as we have some key players who are new, here only for this season, or here only for specific concerts. (None were found via Craigslist or facebook.) There is nothing like getting to be able to predict how your section is going to enter based on the way your principal breathed, or how a particular orchestra follows the conductor’s beat, or even just how NOT to upset the nerves of the person sitting near you in the orchestra. People can understand the concept of a team when it comes to sports—why is it so hard for managers and boards to understand when it comes to musicians?

    Your point about the audience liking to see the familiar faces of “their” players is something I haven’t thought about much, always being on stage. But it makes sense.

    I really worry about the 20-somethings who want to make careers in classical music. It’s hard enough for me, and at least I can say that I’ve had some good experiences in the last 20 years, despite the salary cuts and lack of respect. But the culture is getting downright vicious now.

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