Peter Dobrin says it all

This article by Peter Dobrin of the Philadelphia Inquirer is the best reporting on the current crisis yet to appear. Go read the whole thing:

…What someone is willing to pay for orchestral musicians in this country has changed radically in recent weeks.

Yes, a brief strike last month by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra resulted in stasis – a deal that asks musicians to apportion more income for health care, but grants them a 4.5 percent raise over three years, starting with an annual base salary of $145,860.

But lockout at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra ended in reverse sticker shock. The size of the ensemble will shrink to 88 from 93. Players will take a steep pay cut and will no longer be paid their full salaries year-round.

Not every American orchestra is in crisis, but so many are buckling under fiscal stress that a long-expected implosion of the business model seems at hand. Shrinking compensation could set off a reordering of the admittedly subjective hierarchy, which takes into account not only ensemble quality, but also ambition (touring, recording) and budget size. Some orchestras will bleed their best talent, who will leave for better-paying posts or for teaching.

Consider the magnitude of the market correction playing out.

Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra have rejected a base-pay cut from $135,000 to $89,000; management instituted a lockout Monday, and concerts have been canceled through at least Nov. 25. Musicians continue to play without a contract at the Cleveland Orchestra, but concerts of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra have been called off while talks continue. Members of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra are being pressured to accept a nearly 20 percent cut in total compensation, and those in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra have given back 27 percent of base pay in recent years under management threat of bankruptcy…

You can be sure the troubles visiting these cities will rumble through Philadelphia – again. The highly concessionary contract signed under supervision of U.S. Bankruptcy Court during the orchestra’s 15½-month Chapter 11 case left deep resentment.

The Philadelphia Orchestra has the curious honor of book-ending the era of modern orchestra labor relations with two portentous events: in 1963 becoming the first American orchestra with a 52-week contract, and, in a perhaps-related development five decades later, achieving ignoble status as the first major orchestra to file for bankruptcy…

After 1963, other orchestras aspired to year-round employment. These contracts lured top talent, but also meant finding more concerts and venues to fill out players’ schedules. Bigger budgets required larger staffs – marketers, fund-raisers, administrators to ensure that management was complying with complex work rules. Orchestras grew.

Audiences grew, too. Until they didn’t.

With ticket revenue now down in many cities, and endowments too meager to underwrite operating deficits, many managers are turning to cuts in musician salaries.

It’s important to remember that for the vast majority of American orchestral players, a spot in an orchestra does not bring a six-figure salary, or even, in many cases, a living wage. When the contract of the 53 members of the Alabama Symphony reaches maturation in 2014, players will earn $39,485.90 annually. At the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra that season, base pay will be $43,134. (Modest sweeteners are given for seniority and rank.)

It’s not at all clear at the end of this shaking out how many U.S. orchestral musicians will be able to make a living in the trade. Atlanta’s fading from full-time status leaves 17 U.S. orchestras out of hundreds with 52-week seasons, according to the League of American Orchestras.

What will it say about a country of 313 million if it can’t find a way for a little more than 2,000 musicians to make enough money to exist without moonlighting? The free-market system may or may not be wise, but it is so far deaf to this question…

It’s strange to say this about orchestras, so often criticized as being out of step with the rest of the country culturally, but at the moment, they embody the upheaval in other arenas: changing demographics (see the U.S. electorate); the squeeze that ensues when something requiring widespread participation no longer draws widespread participation (see newspapers, department stores, major TV networks); class warfare and resentment of talented workers’ earning good livings (see organized labor, subsection teachers); and the alarming realization that no institution, no matter how critical, has a guaranteed future (see the U.S. Postal Service).

Great things happen when a broad spectrum works toward a common interest, but we’ve become a nation of small-minded individualists. This sort of relevance may be cold comfort, but for once, the nation can look to the symphony orchestra as the perfect emblem of our time.

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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