Black Friday for orchestras — three strikes, and music’s out – Washington Post

On Friday night, audience members waited in the Kimmel Center for the start of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s opening-night gala, until the orchestra’s president, Allison Vulgamore, came onstage and announced that the musicians had gone on strike. (The gala dinner was held anyway.) Meanwhile, across the state, the musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony were picketing; they called a strike Friday morning. And in Texas, the Fort Worth Symphony is finishing the third week of its strike, with no end in sight. Here we go again.

The national story might well be, “But it was going so well.” And indeed, there has been little reason for hand-wringing about the future of classical music in recent months. Two of the most bitter orchestral labor-dispute stories — the Detroit Symphony strike of 2010-11 and the epic 15-month lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra through all of 2013 — have unexpectedly turned into renaissances. A couple of weeks ago, journalist and pundit Douglas McLennan, founder of ArtsJournal.com, wrote an article titled, “Some of our orchestras seem to be thriving. Is this a new trend?” Now, we can look forward to a whole new round of “Is it curtains for classical music?” articles.

The truth lies somewhere in between. It’s no secret that the new information age represents a challenging time for large arts institutions — and for many other large institutions, such as newspapers. Some have found creative ways to tackle huge hurdles, such as the Arizona Opera, which brought itself from the brink of collapse to financial health within a couple of years (the executive director who led this transformation, Ryan Taylor, was snapped up last year by the Minnesota Opera).

But other institutions have consistently struggled — and the Philadelphia Orchestra has been one of the most troubled. Despite a history of artistic excellence, it has been through a bad strike in 1996, a public falling out with its music director, Christoph Eschenbach, in 2008 and, in 2011, a bankruptcy filing. Although it emerged from bankruptcy in 2012, not even the arrival of a popular and aggressively populist music director, Yannick N é zet­-Séguin, has been able to significantly boost ticket sales or help resolve the budget deficit of several million dollars. Musicians, who have taken a number of pay cuts and freezes, have been playing without a contract for a couple of weeks; their last contract was a stopgap, one-year agreement, which expired last month. In a public statement, the musicians voiced concern that the decline in their base pay was compromising the orchestra’s ability to attract top talent.

Pittsburgh, too, has been facing long-term challenges and a declining audience. With a gifted but micromanaging music director in Manfred Honeck, the orchestra has undergone significant administrative changes in the past couple of years; when the new management assessed the orchestra’s current situation it discovered, the orchestra’s board chairman told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “that we were facing an imminent financial crisis.” The musicians argue that the situation is not as bad as management claims.

The bottom-line argument remains largely the same for most of the recent and ongoing labor unrest in classical music institutions. Musicians are in high-pressure jobs that require years of training, the purchase and maintenance of expensive instruments and irregular working hours, and they want to be compensated accordingly. Management finds that the money is harder and harder to get — depending, of course, on the community. (San Francisco, whose symphony last year signed a contract with base pay of $150,000 a year, is more affluent than Baltimore.) The Pittsburgh Symphony’s base salary is $107,000 a year, according to the Post-Gazette, and the Philadelphia Orchestra musicians’ is about $128,000. The base pay at the National Symphony Orchestra, for comparison, is $139,260, according to an NSO spokesman. Based on these figures, one could say that the great Philadelphians are underpaid — although the cost of living in each of the cities in question also needs to be factored in.

There are no easy happy endings in sight — only hopes that the bitterness of past disputes will impel everyone to find a swift resolution. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are two of the country’s leading orchestras, and while they are out, there is a lot of great music not being made. Will Simon Rattle be able to lead the Mahler 6th on Thursday in Philadelphia? Will Philadelphia still appear in Washington in January? Cross your fingers — but don’t hold your breath.

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