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New York Times Puts Symphony Strikes In Perspective
by Jerome Weeks 2 Oct 2016

It’s the dwindling numbers of CEO patrons vs. the inability to cut workforce costs.

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In the classical music world, they looked like falling dominos. First, the Fort Worth Symphony musicians went on strike on Sept. 8 — and have remained that way ever since, with management canceling concert after concert and union members making temporary arrangements to play them.

Then on the same day, Sept. 30th, both the Pittsburgh and the august Philadelphia orchestras went on strike.

Inevitably, perhaps, Michael Cooper’s account of this unsettling trend in the ‘New York Times’ on Sunday, put the Fort Worth strike third in its opening account — and then never mentioned it again.

But his analysis of why symphonies in Fort Worth (and Philly and Pittsburgh) are shut down while the Minnesota Orchestra, the Indianapolis and Cincinnati symphonies (not to mention Detroit’s) have all rebounded to different extents in recent years after near-death experiences is worth noting: First, the financial troubles heaped on classical music organizations by the Great Recession haven’t faded.

Second, and more tellingly: Union musicians naturally tend to look across the country to other ochestras’ contracts: How can their own outfit attract good players if they don’t keep up? But ultimately, much of a symphony’s fiscal health has to do with local business leaders.

In short, it’s the economy, stupid, but it’s the economy of local CEOs committed to the arts. The conventional, broad-based subscription model of symphony support has been slipping — with people increasingly making last-minute entertainment choices to go out evenings.

But what’s also changed is the nature of American businesses — thanks to corporate mergers and holding companies, whose CEOs live elsewhere and feel little local loyalty. As a result, what’s also faded is the old tradition of a coterie of civic-minded, wealthy citizens seeing a high-quality, cultural environment as worth encouraging — it’s good for a city, good for its ordinary citizens and inspires local pride. But of such people, who is left — and what are they willing to pay?

Meanwhile, it’s extremely difficult to pare the cost of your work force. An orchestra has to have a certain number of musicians to play much of anything of consequence in the classical canon, and management can’t keep well-trained musicians around when orchestras elsewhere provide better employment.

Which makes one wonder: Then what is to be done? The ‘NYTimes’ story ends by quoting a Stanford Business School professor who has studied orchestras: These two perspectives (management vs. musicians) “have very little to do with one another.”

One case of symphonic resurrection that the article doesn’t examine, though, is Detroit’s. The symphony has actually broadened community support thanks to live streaming and community concerts in outlying areas. Unfortunately, a significant reason for the orchestra’s ability to attract and hold top-grade musicians is somewhat beyond the ability of anyone in Fort Worth: That would be Detroit’s famous, cheaper real estate values and and its lower cost of living. They’ve attracted more artists and musicians in the years since the near-collapse of the auto industry.

 

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  • nmlhats

    Detroit’s principal timpanist and concertmaster left during the strike for the greener pastures of Dallas.

    • JeromeWeeks

      Thanks for the comment. But, yes, of course, that makes all the sense in the world. That was during the strike — when it looked extremely likely the Detroit Symphony wouldn’t even survive. But I don’t see how that counters my point about Detroit’s rebound and the possible reasons for it.