Dual committeeism?

One of the unsung benefits of the Internet for orchestra musicians is
getting to watch, in more or less real time, some internal orchestral
business that in past eras were only reported by smoke signal, if at
all.

A wonderful example was the blog started by Seattle Symphony concertmaster Illka Talvi when SSO Music Director Gerard Schwarz fired him in 2005. Although management did eventually prevail, the blog caused them lots of grief. In fact, part of the settlement between Talvi and the SSO was that the relevant blog posts be taken down.

A more contemporary example has erupted from An Orchestra That Shall Not Be Named. Michael Hovnanian, who plays bass in “an orchestra located in a large Midwestern city,” addressed a comment posted on his blog by someone who appears to be a co-worker:

…Some in Mr. Hovnanian’s unnamed orchestra have urged their representatives, the Members’ Committee, to push for a committee of musicians to offer input into repertoire and scheduling. The Committee has regarded these requests as an elegant dinner party guest might regard a turd in the punch bowl. They have protested that another committee would somehow cripple the Members’ Committee to represent the orchestra, although we have had Audition and Tour Committees for years. An uncharitable view of this strange state of affairs is that the Members’ Committee is jealous of their standing in the orchestra. An alternative, less uncharitable view eludes some of us at this time.

Ten years ago, this is the kind of thing that musicians in orchestras with names would only have heard about as if it were a rumor of distant thunder.

It’s likely not a sign of a healthy internal climate that musicians feel the need to take their problems with their orchestra committee public in this way. The orchestra committee of An Orchestra That Shall Not Be Named (AOTSNBN) is legendary within the community of orchestra business for its experience and tough-mindedness. It is also true that stories circulate of the iron grip with which that committee controls affairs within its orchestra.

I have friends that have served on that committee, as well as whatever the opposite of friends are. It does appear to be a committee that adheres to the old-time union religion. Of course, the Local within which it resides (The Local Which Shall Not Be Numbered?) has something of the same reputation. This is not a bad thing, and certainly the results the committee and the Local have achieved for the orchestra at the table over many negotiations are beyond reproach.

But multiple committees are not bad unionism, and certainly not “dual unionism”  – a phrase that, ironically, was used extensively against the musicians of that very orchestra in their battle with their Local in the early 60s and their pivotal role in the formation of A Player Conference That Shall Not Have Initials.

Multiple committees do pose problems of coordination, of course. My orchestra has a plethora of committees, and every so often one of them bumps up against another, or has told management something was OK that another committee told them was completely unacceptable. But such problems are solvable. I understand that St. Louis, for example, has a very large orchestra committee, of which all the other committees are subcommittees (which sounds like yet another product of the endlessly fertile mind of Brad Buckley).

But this semi-public dissent from within the ranks of AOTSNBN is an elegant illustration of the dangers of having one small group represent the entire orchestra in all matters. Doing so can indeed create the impression on management that the orchestra is unified on all questions, at least in the short term (although most managements talk to enough musicians to know when the orchestra is indeed divided on some issue).

But real union democracy requires not only that the majority get its way but also that the rights of the minority on any question are respected, which first and foremost means that their views are heard. In the words of a wiser person than myself, “the cure for democracy is more democracy.”

Dissent and bad feelings will out, on way or the other. It’s better to have them come out within the tent (even if that involves sub-dividing the tent) than in the form of someone pissing on the tent from outside.

My brother-in-bratsche-blogging Charles Noble has some thoughts on the question of whether or not musicians should have input into programming decisions via any mechanism.

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One Response to “Dual committeeism?”

  1. charles noble Says:

    It seems to be a perennial problem – it’s not always possible to get the people that have the interests of the majority of the orchestra in mind to run for the orchestra (players) committee, and so you’re often left with those who have their own agendas to serve rather than the combined agenda of the whole body.

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