Unions, Classical Music, and All o’ That

A couple of weeks ago, Greg Sandow was quoted in The Australian as follows:

Sandow says that if the Philadelphia Orchestra were to suddenly discharge all its musicians and replace them with young players on contract, what might be lost in polish could easily be made up for in pizazz.

“I wonder if that wouldn’t be more exciting to hear,” he says. “It might really surprise people.”

Sigh. I wish people would stop and think before they say things like that. He’d just throw out an enormous body of accumulated knowledge and playing experience to reduce costs and possibly gain “pizzazz.”

Is there any evidence that the Philadelphia Orchestra lacks, um, pizzazz or excitement? Has Greg heard the orchestra play in the last few years? Does he understand what goes into orchestra building?

But getting back to the idea that a reasonable way to reduce costs is to break unions (as, perhaps, NYCO is about to try) or to talk the musicians into taking enormous cuts or to generally blame union and musician wages for the financial difficulties faced by some arts organizations today (see Detroit, see Philadelphia, see NYCO, see the quiet threats emanating from David Gockley’s office at San Francisco Opera).

First, let’s remember the division of labor at opera companies and symphonies:

  • The musicians and singers are paid to put on concerts and operas.
  • The nonmusician union members are paid to make costumes and sets and wigs and move stuff around the stage.
  • The administrators are paid to raise enough money to pay for putting on concerts and operas, and to perform myriad administrative tasks with some degree of smarts.

If an opera company or symphony orchestra finds itself in financial trouble, it’s rarely because the musicians can’t play and the costumers have forgotten how to sew. (If you know of such a case, please provide details in the comments.) It’s invariably because the administration has failed in some way or there has been a major economic downturn. They haven’t raised enough money, there’s been some kind of major leadership failure, they have incurred new costs for some reason – and so on. And it’s important to keep in mind that the administrators were involved in union negotiations, and signed the contracts with their eyes open.

We are currently in a serious economic downturn, and coming out of it very slowly – read Paul Krugman’s column and blog at the NY Times, if you need more information about that. Or keep an eye on the unemployment numbers. This has affected every arts organization in the country.

NYCO and the Philadelphia Orchestra are poster children for weak or incompetent administration. At NYCO, the board made at least two terrible mistakes: the appointment of Gerard Mortier, evidently without due diligence about what kind of budget he would want, and the renovation of the NY State Theater at Mortier’s request, which left the company with their usual bills to pay, no place to perform, and no income. Mortier skedaddled without ever coming to NY or staging a production, leaving the board scrambling to find a new director. They wound up with George Steel, who had about as much experience running an opera company as do: several months at Dallas, which was preceded by great success as the concert presenter at the Miller Theater. Maybe Steel is the third big mistake; hard to say at this point. He’s in a terrible position, where he’ll get blamed for mistakes other people made. Honestly, you’d have to be a miracle worker to pull them out of the current skid.

Oh, I forgot about the way NYCO has run through its endowment. Once valued at $55 million, presumably at the height of the boom, the endowment is down to $9 million. That’s the fourth terrible mistake. They’ve also got an inexperienced board president, appointed just a few months ago, who says things about not disclosing their finances. As a non-profit, hello, you are legally required to release financial information to the public. Don’t talk about keeping things under your hat. It only makes you look bad. So, let’s call this the fifth mistake.

The Philadelphia Orchestra has been having various problems since the 1990s, when they stopped contributing to the musicians’ pension plan. I’d call that a long-term governance issue. They’ve had music director issues, with Christoph Eschenbach coming and going rather quickly; a successor has been found, but he is not in place yet. So there’s been weak, or no, musical leadership. I understand there have been problems with the administrative leadership as well, with Alison Vulgamore appointed after a chaotic period with no general director. (Oh…and it is not good that she is taking a big pay raise when the orchestra has just declared bankruptcy.)

Guess what? The Philadelphia Orchestra could try to lower its costs by firing all its musicians, and it would still have the higher costs of the Kimmel Center over the Academy of Music, the low ticket sales, the problems in their administrative leadership. And they would have a gigantic public relations failure on their hands too. I bet most of their audience would flip out if the orchestra replaced 100% of its musicians with recent conservatory graduates. The loss of good will would be immense. I myself would never set foot in their hall or give a penny to an organization that had done such a thing, and I know that I am not alone in that.


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One Response to Unions, Classical Music, and All o’ That

  1. Greg Sandow’s comment is incredibly thoughtless and foolish. Yes, young players should be heard and have their opportunities. But the idea that seasoned players’ rich depth and breadth of skill and experience is worth less is preposterous.

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