Norman thinks it’s “The Rulebook”

In a post rife with reader comments, Norman Lebrecht thinks the top European conductors are shunning American orchestras because of the current wave of strikes, or because they don’t like rules, or… something:

Stumbling into the new season, Minnesota has become the third orchestra to lock out its musicians, after Atlanta and Indianapolis.

In San Antonio,  a head-on showdown has just been settled before both sides went into fixed positions, but the financial outlook remains fragile. Atlanta has meantime forced its players into a humiliating capitulation. There’s a war on out there.

It doesn’t have to be like this. And it is damaging the outlook for US orchestras.

The Hungarian conductor Ivan Fischer told me this summer that the reason he turned down the chance to become music director in Washington, DC, was, in his compound noun, ‘the rulebook.’

Too much of what a music director might try to do was inhibited by thick legal agreements between two potentially hostile forces, management and musicians. Too much of a conductor’s time was taken up finding wriggle room in the interstices of a dusty contract. Not a job for an idealistic or progressive  musician, said Ivan.

Several others have privately voiced similar sentiments.

Don’t European orchestras have work rules too? And, if I recall correctly, orchestras get shut down by their managements (or, more accurately, their governments) in Europe as well.

The question of the relative strictness of the work rules governing American orchestras as opposed to those in other advanced industrial societies is an interesting one. No doubt there are differences, but of course there are differences in how well employees as a class are treated between countries. It’s hard to talk intelligently about differences in work rules without recognizing how different the basic employment environment is between the US and, say, Germany.

But no doubt things are quite loose in Ivan Fisher’s home orchestra, the Budapest Festival Orchestra. I once attended a meeting of (mostly) orchestra managers from various countries, during which the CEO of that orchestra told the group very proudly that, in his orchestra, musicians had to re-audition every two years (a statement met with audible gasps). The very next speaker, a young man running a very interesting orchestra in South Africa, brought the house down when he said that a mystery had just been solved for him; he had always wondered at the wave of Hungarian musicians auditioning for his orchestra every two years.

For a conductor who’d gotten to rule the plantation in that kind of labor environment, no doubt the prospect of actual work rules and due process would seem rather intimidating.

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 Reply