DSO Aftermath

This article first appeared in the 4th quarter 2011 edition of Keynote, the official publication of the Detroit Federation of Musicians.  It is reprinted here with permission.


DSO Aftermath

by Doug Cornelsen

In an article last September 23rd titled Debt Threatens DSO Turnaround, Mark Stryker of the Detroit Free Press  rehashed the problem of the flawed financing of “The Max,” the lavish 2003 addition to Orchestra Hall which has imposed an annual three-million dollar cost over-run on the DSO’s operating budget.  Mr. Stryker’s article tendentiously presents “The Max” money problem – a consortium of five banks holding a $54 million loan on which DSO management has long defaulted – as a new hurdle facing the DSO organization.  In reality, the overwhelming finance debts on “The Max” are at least eight years old.  Nearly two years ago, this column pointed out that, in the face of their self-created debt, management appeared alarmingly willing to cut orchestra costs as a means of saving money, thereby risking artistic standards.  In view of subsequent events, this Symphony Corner observation has assumed the understatement proportions of Noah saying, “It looks like rain.”

The 2010-11 DSO strike was terribly destructive artistically, a fact unmentioned in Mr. Strykers article.  Taking severe hits in the strike-ending contract were not only salary but also the size of the orchestra and length of season.  From a pre-strike contractually-required size of 95 musicians, the orchestra is now down to no more than 70.  Auditions are planned this season to fill only several of these positions.  (The world’s finest orchestras usually number slightly over 100 musicians.)  The DSO’s historic 52-week season will be 40 weeks this contract year.  The events surrounding the strike have caused some wonderful DSO musicians to leave for positions with 52-week orchestras — there are at least fifteen in America — and there has been a precipitous number of retirements.  The supreme irony is that for several million dollars, a mere fraction of the cumulative budget loss on “The Max,” the contract could have been settled with no strike and no musical damage to the orchestra.  When, during the strike, picketing DSO musicians chanted, “Built the Max, on our backs!” they were not kidding.

Michael Kaiser could be accurately called Dean of American Arts Managers. His stellar career rests on dramatic rescues of a number of arts organizations that were floundering when he took over.  President of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. since 2001, last year Mr. Kaiser founded an Arts Management Institute to train arts administrators.  A Kaiser precept for arts boards experiencing financial trouble is that they must not cut costs in a manner which damages their product nor their public reputation.  This frequent mistake, he says, precipitates more of a downward spiral, making ticket sales and fund raising even more difficult.  Mr. Kaiser also dislikes the tendency of arts boards to blame unions for their problems:  “It is impossible to blame unions for the lack of revenue for arts organizations when so many are doing such a poor job of managing themselves.”

Seen from a Kaiser perspective, DSO management’s post-strike thinking, as described in Mr. Stryker’s article, is eye-brow-raising to say the least.  DSO leaders, wrote Mr. Stryker, had three goals in mind as a means of “fixing the troubled finances for good…the musicians’ contract, the real estate debt and the endowment.”  Management considers the musicians’ contract successfully completed, but is now concerned about their ability to successfully fund raise with a $54 million unpaid loan hanging over their heads.  A Kaiser consultant might point out that six months of negative strike publicity culminating in a musically denigrative orchestra contract, followed up with a prominent news article trumpeting the DSO’s massive bank indebtedness, is not an optimal way for management to achieve their third goal, substantially rebuilding the sadly depleted endowment. It must also be mentioned (though Mr. Stryker doesn’t) that the DSO board’s reappointment of the manager who led the strike does nothing to inspire musician confidence in turnaround success.

In spite of the front office, however, the orchestra is back to work for the winter season and, with a little effort, it’s possible to take a glass-half-full approach to the post-strike DSO.  As the old saying goes, it could be worse. Even with many DSO musicians gone the orchestra sounds thoroughly professional, partially due to the excellent skills of the host of subs now on stage.**  And there are few venues anywhere more sonically gratifying, for both performers and audience, than Orchestra Hall.  So listeners at DSO concerts will predictably hear creditable performances.

For musicians, if — IF! — management can keep the post-strike contract going, Detroit will still have an orchestra which offers a livable wage.  Though no longer upper echelon, it will remain an appealing opportunity for musicians direct from college or from smaller orchestras.  Especially in these times of shrinking employment, musicians who join the DSO during the next several years will be happy to have a decent job and will not be embittered by pre-strike memories.  For them, unpaid summers off, for example, will not represent management’s long-term failure to rebuild a quality summer season, but a time to play festivals elsewhere, or, with careful budgeting, to relax, travel, pursue hobbies — or practice for 52-week orchestra auditions.

And as far as that horrible Max debt is concerned, there is already a backstage rumor that the board is going to attempt some decisive action before year’s end.  But glass-half-full or not, it’s impossible to feel very good about the DSO these days. To try to do that, we need to look farther into the future, when some of the DSO leaders, to use Mr. Stryker’s term, take actions which set the Detroit Symphony back on a road of significant recovery and finally recreate an organization of which all can be proud.  Accompanying this vision of the future is Emily Dickinson’s famous poetic description of hope, which perches in the soul, and sings the song without the words, and never stops at all.

*    It could have been worse indeed.  Management’s most noxious proposals were deflected at the settlement negotiations by the DSO musicians negotiating committee along with Local 5 President Gordon Stump and Attorney Leonard Leibowitz.

** Some of the substitute musicians are Syracuse Symphony members, whose board of directors  demolished their orchestra with a Chapter 7 bankruptcy last April.    

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