What mattered in 2014?

The Danish cartoonist Robert Storm Petersen famously said that “it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Saying what mattered in 2014 is essentially making a prediction about what people in the future will think about our present. But it’s worth trying nonetheless; 2014 was a pretty dramatic year in our business, and merits discussion.

There were two things that stood out for me from the noise of ivory bans, and conductors saying dumb things, and managements doing dumb things, and journalists writing really dumb things, and TV series about musicians, and Strads being stolen and concertmasters Tasered by dumb crooks – not that all these didn’t matter, of course. The first, and most important, of the two that stood out was the failure of the lockouts. The second was the increasingly public advocacy by conductors regarding issues of artistic quality in the middle of labor disputes – without those conductors being fired.

Of the three lockouts that concluded in 2013/2014, there was one which will matter the most in the long term, closely followed in importance by a lockout that didn’t happen. The most significant of the ones that did, in my view, was Atlanta.

It’s generally a mistake to think of orchestra labor negotiations as a contest in which one side wins and the other loses. The reality in most cases is that neither side is trying to “win”: rather, both sides are trying to reach deals that will work for them over the long term, which necessarily means deals that the other side can live with. But Atlanta was different; put simply, the musicians whupped their employer. The orchestra’s CEO was forced out, the real decision-makers on the employer side – the Woodruff Center board – were smoked out and had to come to the table, and the employer’s most important demand – unilateral control over the orchestra’s size – was rejected essentially with no compromise at all. Almost as important, it happened pretty quickly, without the prolonged bloodletting that happened in the Twin Cities.

Of course, none of this would have happened had the Woodruff Center, which was calling the shots, had actually been trying to negotiate, rather than defeat – or impose its will on – the musicians. It helped that the employer’s proposals were, on their face, unreasonable. It certainly helped that the Woodruff Center showed itself in such a bad light in so many ways. Arguably the most telling of these moments was when it was revealed that the Woodruff Center had sold land that had been designated for the orchestra’s (abandoned) hall project and then giving the $2 million in proceeds to an organization outside of the Woodruff Center, all while pleading poverty at the negotiating table. It certainly helped that the musicians had also been locked out in 2012 and had both experience dealing with the tactic and ample motivation to drive a stake through its heart once and for all.

But the musicians and their advisers (in particular Liza Medina and Randy Whately) deserve great credit for handling the situation in such a way that the lockout failed so completely and so quickly. Our field owes them a tremendous debt for disarming a large grenade thrown at the heart of the concept of constructive labor relations.

Independently of what was happening in Atlanta, the management of the Metropolitan Opera – the world’s biggest performing arts institution by about half an order of magnitude – had been threatening for months to lock out its unionized workers, only in August to turn around and reach agreements with them with no loss of work, or performances, at all. The agreements themselves were not victories for either management or the unions (although some commentators tried to demonstrate otherwise). But it seems clear that the threat by management to lock out the musicians, choristers, and stage hands backfired on the management, and the resulting negative press and PR was an important reason why they were willing to reach an agreement that fell far short of their originally stated goals.

There were good reasons why so few managements had locked out their musicians in the decades prior to 2012. It’s an inherently unattractive tactic (as, of course, are strikes for many donors and patrons) that goes completely contrary to the reason to have an orchestral institution at all. 2014 may well be seen, in retrospect, as a test of whether the lockout was still an unproductive tactic for managements. If so, the lesson was very clear.

It may seem as if I’m giving short shrift to the Twin Cities lockouts (the SPCO lockout ended in late 2013). The Minnesota Orchestra musicians eventually achieved some of their goals, and the departure of Michael Henson and the return of Osmo Vänskä were important victories for both the musicians and the future of the institution. The courage and tenacity of the Minnesota Orchestra musicians were an inspiration to musicians everywhere; in multiple ways, they provided a model for dealing with a recalcitrant board and a management driven by ideology rather than the desire to make music happen. But the end of neither the Minnesota lockout or the one across the river in St. Paul represented the kind of body blow to the lockout as a viable management strategy as did Atlanta or the sudden abandonment, under pressure, of the strategy by the Met board and management.

Related to the lockouts was my second “what mattered in 2014” – the willingness of music directors to speak out against the shutdown of their orchestras. Historically, music directors stay stumm during labor disputes. But in these three situations, not only did music directors speak out; both current and former music directors went farther.  Pinchas Zukerman , Hugh Wolff, Edo de Waart, Stanislaw Skrowackzewski, and Eiji Oue all conducted benefit concerts put on by the locked-out musicians of their former orchestras, even though at least one of them got a very nasty letter from their former orchestra’s management warning them not to do so. And, of course, Minnesota’s music director, Osmo Vänskä conducted one benefit with the MO musicians and was scheduled to conduct another – and, to put the cherry on the Cool Whip, was re-hired as music director after resigning in protest last fall. In addition, both Robert Spano, music director in Atlanta, and Donald Runnicles, their principal guest conductor, wrote an open letter which received national coverage that clearly sympathized with the musicians’ point of view. And Spano was not shy about demonstrating his support for the musicians in other ways as well, as he showed when he guest-conducted in Milwaukee during the lock-out (that’s him behind the heart):

Robert Spano and the Milwaukee Symphony

Robert Spano and the Milwaukee Symphony

None of these gentlemen appear to have suffered any damage to their careers by their public support of the locked-out musicians (while de Waart is no longer listed as one of the SPCO’s current (or former) artistic partners, it’s not clear to me that was in retaliation for his stance on either lockout). What’s more impressive, none of them seemed to care very much about the potential risks to their their careers. What was happening was, for them as for orchestra musicians, simply unacceptable.

I don’t think this means that musicians can now count on music directors for public support in coming negotiations. But it does mean that managements can’t automatically assume they’ll be silent regardless of what the management gets up to, especially in a lockout situation. And that too will serve as a check on how the parties behave in a difficult labor negotiation.

So, at least in terms of the future of labor relations, I think 2014 was a good year for orchestras.

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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