Newsflash: conductor doesn’t like unions

In this week’s edition of The New Yorker (paywalled, unfortunately) is a fascinating piece by Alex Ross on Iván Fischer, the Hungarian conductor and founder of the Budapest Festival Orchestra. While the piece focuses largely on his unhappiness with the current rightward lurch of Hungarian politics, Ross also reports on Fischer’s views on the orchestra business. He’s not happy:

“It took me a few years [after he began conducting American orchestras] to figure out why I was so unhappy,” he told me, over lunch at the Palace of Arts. “Everyone was congratulating me. My manager in London was quite contented. But I thought deeply, and came to the conclusion that the entire orchestra system was flawed. Especially in America, it is a very boring, very bad system. Everyone complains about governing boards and managements”—when we met, a fifteen-month lockout at the Minnesota Orchestra had just ended—“but I also blame the unions. They are too rigid in their attitudes. Let us imagine, say, a first—trumpet player who can no longer play well. The union should look after the musical interests of the entire orchestra. But, instead, they defend that one player to the end. I dislike also the audition system, which is based on playing certain famous excerpts from the repertory. The trouble is that some players give perfect renditions of the excerpts but turn out to be useless in the orchestra, while others do poorly in the audition but are fantastic in the orchestra. There should be more flexibility, more competition.”

Fischer speaks from some experience: he has appeared with many leading American ensembles, and from 2008 until 2010 he served as the principal conductor of the National Symphony, in Washington. Over time, his pessimism has only deepened. “Unfortunately, I think that all these orchestras will die out in twenty or thirty years,” he said, sitting back and shaking his head. “They have become too big. Like dinosaurs, they must feed themselves all the time. And the real problem is that they are no longer organizations where real music—making happens. Instead, they exist to satisfy other needs. They satisfy a necessity for job security among the musicians; they satisfy a kind of career mania of soloists and conductors; and they satisfy the interests of a small margin of society that likes to go out and be seen at some kind of ”—-his face clouded over, as if contemplating a mystery—- “unidentifiable social event.”

Such scathing assessments of the orchestra business have been delivered at regular intervals over the decades. Fischer takes pride in not just criticizing the status quo but putting an alternative model into practice. “I knew the orchestra had to be smaller in profile—not a dinosaur but a tiger. Or some fast, small mammal. Doglike! And I imagined a different driving force for the organization. This would be the artistic fulfillment of the musicians. It is their passion that must be satisfied. But for that to work there would have to be a big change in structure. So: no union, no job security. They are free to pursue other work, and they come back refreshed.” The resulting structure is atypical, but it appears stable, and a core group has been with the orchestra for years.

Music directors as successful as Fischer have little trouble paying their mortgages and feeding their families while “satisfying their passion.” And, of course, they have “other work” to pursue, from which they come back both refreshed and richer. I wonder if he realizes what trying to survive economically looks like to an orchestra musician without unions or job security – especially those not lucky enough, or politically adept enough, to be in the “core group” that can stay out of trouble with music directors and remain employed over a long period.

I don’t have to imagine it: I’m old enough to have talked to enough musicians who tried unsuccessfully to do just that before the trade union movement finally reached the American orchestra business in the 1960s. Most of them had day jobs in order to make ends meet, and even then had the ends failed to meet all too often. Many of them had been fired from orchestras (some more than once) because of their activism, or because something about them prevented their bosses from satisfying their passion.

It’s more than a little ironic that Fischer’s anti-union sentiments are voiced in the context of an interview featuring his unhappiness with right-wing politics. I suspect that Fischer would strongly defend the right of Chinese workers to unionize, or would believe the Communist government under which he grew up should have recognized the rights of workers. Somehow, though, “art” makes it all different.

There’s a reason that musicians negotiate for salary increases, medical benefits, and tenure, and not for “satisfying their passion.” Actually, there are two reasons. The first is that, while it’s nice to have fun at work, for most people it comes second, in terms of priorities, to things like eating and sleeping under a roof. The second is that orchestra musicians don’t have a whole lot of control over whether or not their passion gets “satisfied.”

The interview reminded me of two incidents at a seminar in Salzburg I attended in 2002. The event was titled something like “the Alberto Vilar Seminar on Critical Issues in the Performing Arts: Orchestras” and was attended mostly by orchestra managers from Europe and the US; I was the only labor person (or orchestra musician) in attendance.

The first was after I made a presentation on why orchestra musicians almost invariably supported unionization. One of the questions I got was from Joe Kluger, then CEO of the Philadelphia Orchestra (and a long-time friend). He asked why musicians were so afraid they’d be fired without unions, and whether I’d feel the same way if I was working for him as a staffer. My response was that I’d be happy to work for him, or most managers, as a staffer without tenure protections; the difference was that, to another staffperson – even one I reported to – I would be regarded as a person. To most conductors, I’m regarded the same way as a violinist regards a string. I’m simply part of the instrument, and equally fungible and discardable. I think I saw a light go on with at least some of the managers in attendance.

The second incident was during an early panel session on cross-cultural perspectives on running orchestras. One of the panelists was the manager of Fischer’s own Budapest Festival Orchestra, a rather mad-eyed Hungarian gentleman, who proudly told the gathering of how his orchestra auditioned its entire membership every two years, bringing audible gasps from those present. Two panelists later, the manager of the Kwazulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra (South Africa), prefaced his presentation by saying:

A mystery has finally been cleared up for me. I’ve not understood until today why, every two years, a wave of Hungarian musicians come to audition for us.

It took a few minutes for the laughter in the room to subside. I don’t think the mad-eyed Hungarian gentleman said another word for the remainder of the seminar.

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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  • I believe what is suggested as the “new vision” for the MN Orchestra might be more applicable to the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (which has changed beyond all recognition). The MO board, led by banksters, basically wanted a third-string “house band” in their “new business model” of a renovated Orchestra Hall being a corporate rental facility. The word “orchestra” was at one time removed from the actual mission statement until enough people realized this and complained. Actually, their “new business model” was one of “we’re banksters so we know what’s best financially” – a model which, had they applied it to their daytime jobs, would have gotten them summarily fired.

  • Fischer’s comments explain some things, at least to me: I’d welcome a more “artistically-selfish” attitude from Fischer once and awhile; so far his finished product never seems to surpass the sum of the orchestral parts.

  • Let’s call it the Hungarian model of the orchestra musician as entrepreneur; it is madness. Re-auditioning every two years will destroy the excellence that comes from long-serving members of an orchestra that learning to play together and take ensemble playing to a metaphysical level. If the union demands problematic work rules then that issue should be addressed directly.

    I believe an idea like this was part of the Minnesota Orch’s board and manager’s new vision and was based on a belief that if they require more competition among players performance quality has to go up because a competitive marketplace always results in higher quality at lower cost.

    Isn’t the problem with the bloated, big orchestra thing and the expense of operating a full symphony orchestra really the absurdly high salaries and fees paid to music directors, guest conductors and guest soloists as well as executive directors in the management office.

    The governing board and management of the Minnesota Orchestra badly misjudged their financial health and overpromised when MO were offered base salaries comparable to other major orchestra, then they wanted the rank and file musicians solve the problem for them by accepting drastically reduced salaries.

    The fundamental labor/management conflicts in history have always been characterized by the surprising inability to understand the basic needs of those on the labor side of the table. The Hungarian model is a another stupefying example.

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