Archive for March, 2008

Chicken Little travels back to the future

March 20, 2008

From United Press International, 1970

25 Orchestras Doomed to Die

NEW YORK – (UPI) – Among events forecast for the 1970’s you can now include the demise of the some 25 symphony orchestras maintained in middle-size American cities out of civic pride in local culture.

The forecaster was a research organization without aesthetic commitments and interested only in monetary outgo and income and other telltale statistics. Its conclusion was that in the ’70’s local philanthropy will no longer be able to meet inevitably mounting deficits.

The forecast was a projection from detailed studies of income-outgo of nine orchestras, those in Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, Louisville, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, and Seattle, by the Midwest Research Institute of Kansas City.

Its study indicated $1 million a year was the most any orchestra could expect to raise in subsidizing funds from all sources and even this figure is “optimistic.” By projecting the rate of deficit increases during the 1960’s into the 1970’s the statisticians arrived at their conclusion of doom.

It specifically set the demise of the Atlanta and Houston symphonies for the early ’70’s, that of the Baltimore and Dallas orchestras for the mid ’70’s, and of the Seattle Symphony for the late ’70’s. Shortages of money also caused Dartmouth College and Stanford University to cancel their summer music festivals this year.

The orchestras have one alternative to “going out of business,” the report said. That is to “reshape” – either by reducing the size of orchestras from 100 to 90 musicians or by shortening seasons. Either would be extremely difficult.

“In past years, as long as the musicians were underpaid and the service income was nearly equal to cost, the economical anachronism of the large symphony orchestras remained hidden,” the report said.

“Now, in an age of near socialism, with musicians unionized and asking for proper compensation in return for skilled services, the economic crisis of the symphony orchestra is becoming painfully evident.”

Symphony orchestras, the report said, have “become frozen in shape and structure, ceasing to evolve. Consequently the American symphony orchestra has become an unwieldy and inflexible bureaucratic and financial nightmare.”

In “Pollyanna-like fashion” they’re “still hoping for a light in the wilderness.” Further grants from the Ford Foundation, for instance. These grants will “hardly register in the widening gap between income and expenses,” the report said.

The idea of two cities sharing one orchestra is not likely to be workable, it found. Nor is that of “community arts funds.” It considered hope for federal government subsidies to be a vain one, in view of the “overwhelming social and economic problems” with which government must cope.

The study was made for the Kansas City Performing Arts Foundation which undertakes to support, among other civic cultural endeavors, the Kansas City Philharmonic. Its crisis is immediate.

By shortening its current season it met pay demands of musicians but this postponed the showdown until next season when musicians will expect to be employed for a longer season at the same or increased pay.

The study did not include the orchestras in the largest cities – those in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. But it “presumed that an analysis of these orchestras would show a similar picture with respect to performance income and cost.”


On to Plan B in Columbus

March 15, 2008

Management’s plan to scare the orchestra into concessions by publicizing their downsizing scheme appears not to be going very well, so it’s time for more chunks of the sky to fall:

Nearly broke and still short of solutions, the Columbus Symphony could fold as early as next month, the president of the symphony board says.

Although efforts to save central Ohio’s largest arts organization continue behind the scenes, Robert “Buzz” Trafford said the orchestra’s demise is possible if additional donations prove elusive.

“Without more help, there’s a very real risk that our money won’t take us beyond the next month or two,” Trafford said. “Our options would become extremely limited, including suspension of operations.”

Fortunately there’s a bail-out in the works:

The possibility that the symphony could soon die has prompted campaign organizers to redouble their efforts to match the combined $1.3 million recently approved for the first year of the drive by the city and Franklin County. Organizers have set April 1 as their informal deadline to secure matching money from private donors.

The symphony would receive the most: $1.15 million, enough to keep the organization afloat and eliminate most of the $1.4 million deficit projected for 2007-08.

“We’re trying to get cash flow generated for all the organizations but particularly the symphony,” said Press Southworth, president of the Columbus Cultural Leadership Consortium, which represents the arts groups that would benefit.

With the county money approved Tuesday, Southworth expects to firm up more than $500,000 in pledges next week.

If at least some private pledges are confirmed by April 1, he said, some of the public matching funds could be freed up for immediate distribution.

The symphony, Southworth added, is first in line.

Surprise! There’s a catch:

Even if the campaign succeeds, however, symphony managers will have to work for the money. “There’s a real fear among many corporations of putting money into the symphony again without seeing progress on the restructuring plan,” Southworth said. “Our biggest issue right now is the potential restrictions on certain gifts.”

It was clever of the powers-that-be to set up the public funding so that it was contingent on private funding, which in turn is contingent on the board getting its way. Who knows what could have been accomplished had the same care, time, and intelligence had been devoted to actually running the orchestra?

But- wait! How can they run out of money if they’re about to start selling subscriptions for next season?

The board would be irresponsible, [Trafford] said, to cover expenses by spending money from advance-ticket sales (once they begin) for its recently announced 2008-09 classical series. Such spending is customary for U.S. symphonies in stable budget times, Trafford said, but the practice is unacceptable in a crisis that casts future seasons in doubt. The board would “borrow” against advance sales only if a consensus were reached among musicians, donors and the community about a restructuring to ensure another season.

And it would be “irresponsible” to do what every other American orchestra does because if they did that, then… they might be able to keep the doors open and actually have the concerts next season for which they are now selling tickets. And how could that be considered “responsible”?

Some might think that “irresponsibility” might be better defined as telling the world you’re going to have the mother of all labor disputes at the start of next season and then… trying to sell tickets for those concerts. But what do greedy musicians know? And besides, the musicians are being pig-headed:

Such conditions represent a tall order, however, because the board and the musicians have yet to sit down to discuss the plan since Trafford tried to present it Jan. 17.

Akins and Doug Fisher, president of the musicians union, have rebuffed more recent board efforts to meet, said Tony Beadle, the symphony’s executive director.

A new work! L’histoire du Beadle! And, like Stravinsky’s masterpiece, a complete fantasy, according to the musicians:

Though there is much in [the Dispatch] story to rebut, the most shocking omission is the fact that early this week we finally received from the management and board, after weeks of classic union-busting tactics, a formal request to meet with them to discuss the situation in accordance with our contract. The day before the Dispatch story appeared, we accepted their request and offered to meet with them as early as this Monday. None of this was reported by the Dispatch and instead, a quote from Executive Director Tony Beadle, falsely claiming that we have refused for weeks to meet with them, was printed.

The title of the Dispatch article, by the way, was “Columbus Symphony: Could it really die?” It’s really too bad that murdering an orchestra is not a criminal offense – because that’s what happening in Columbus.

Mozart looked like this

March 13, 2008

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what Mozart looked like. But a portrait of Mozart has recently surfaced that may be the best representation of Mozart’s physicial appearance that we are ever likely to have.

Does it add to our knowledge of Mozart in any meaningful way? No. But curiosity defines humanity in a way that no other trait does.

In other news, Bach’s head has been reconstructed by a forensic scientist, and he looks very German indeed. Too bad they couldn’t manage the brain part.

What do they put in the coffee out there?

March 2, 2008

More weird news out of Seattle:

It’s been just six months since Seattle Symphony Orchestra announced it would have a quartet of rotating violinists in the concertmaster chair, but it is redefining the position after discovering the arrangement violates terms of the musicians’ collective bargaining agreement.…by terms of the musicians’ contract, if Larionoff is concertmaster, she can’t also be the orchestra’s second chair.

"According to the contract, there is one person for each job, and no one can be both associate concertmaster and concertmaster," explains Schwarz. "This was brought to our attention by the musicians, who wanted the letter of the contract adhered to, and they are absolutely correct."

Timpanist Michael Crusoe, chairman of Seattle Symphony and Opera Players’ Organization, notes: "The main focus of the talks was the fact that our contract doesn’t allow part-time positions. But that was what we had when four concertmasters were hired. The orchestra contract calls for one concertmaster."

Also at issue in the talks, Crusoe said, is that all musicians have benefits, including health insurance, life insurance and pensions. Those would have to be paid to all four concertmasters.

And they just discovered this? I don’t think so.


An odd week

March 2, 2008

My orchestra is under the Curse of the Renter, which is to say that we
don’t own our own hall. I would say that’s good news and bad news,
except that there’s very little good about the situation. We pay the
county a fortune in rent and a long list of add-on charges and we have
little control over dates. To add insult to injury, it’s a lousy hall.
When I was out for two months due to a broken finger in 2006, I went to
a few concerts and was really horrified to hear just how bad the sound
was in parts of the hall.

As a consequence of the Curse, we spend about 1/3 of our season as a
homeless orchestra; a figure that would be closer to 1/2 if we weren’t
the pit orchestra for the Florentine Opera, which is also a tenant of
the hall. What to do with us during that 1/3 of our season is a problem
that no management has really figured out during my tenure (not that I
have an answer either; I don’t). We are relieved of the rental expenses
when we’re out of our hall. Unfortunately we’re also relieved of our
core audience.