Archive for March, 2009

More weirdness in Madison

March 26, 2009

The management of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra has given its musicians a “last, best, and final offer”:

Doug Gerhart, executive director of the orchestra, said management is trying to be “as fair and reasonable as possible” with the latest contract.

Musicians disagree, saying they’re being punished with a lesser contract for exercising their right to strike…

[Bassoonist Todd] Jelen argues that musicians should not have to agree to fewer services without full knowledge of the orchestra’s finances.

“They haven’t opened their books,” he said. “I can’t see how they would even fathom we’d take concessions without doing that.”

This story just gets stranger and stranger. As I wrote earlier, it looks like management is already engaged in regressive bargaining. And now they’re refusing to provide financial information?

It’s not true that the union is always entitled to such information. But when an employer is, in the legal term of art, “pleading poverty,” my understanding was that the employer was required to provide whatever financial information was requested, subject to certain confidentiality restrictions. And, of course, if the management really wanted the concessions, wouldn’t they help the musicians try to understand why they were necessary by providing whatever information was provided? Of course, that assumes that the concessions were necessary and not intended to punish the musicians for having the temerity to actually bargain.

Is there an award for most unfair labor practices in a single orchestra negotiation? It must be one hell of an award to cause a management to behave like this.

Notes to young conductors

March 26, 2009

Us old farts sitting in front of you really do want you to succeed. And our definitions of success are not so different from yours. The major difference is that, while we want the orchestra to sound good every bit as you want it to, we also value efficiency (which is not quite the same as saying we’d like to the get the hell out of here as soon as possible, although that’s generally true as well). And, of course, we also have our ideas about how the music should go, and can’t help getting annoyed when a conductor has different ones and insists on them – especially one who really hasn’t earned his/her maestro/a stripes yet.

So remember that, while authority is granted, respect is earned, and pay attention to your elders, even if they’re sitting in front of you, bound by the terms of the labor agreement to do what you tell them to.

Conductors should be seen and not heard

Conducting is physical, not verbal. The perfect conductor would say nothing between “Good morning” and “see you tomorrow.” Every word you say is essentially an admission of failure, generally yours.

OK, so no conductor is perfect. But, if you have to talk, don’t use 500 words when five will do. Tell me what the problem is as concisely as possibly and let me fix it. I don’t need to know why it’s a problem (I can guess that) or that it’s wonderful except for the problem, or multiple rephrasings of the nature of the problem so as not to hurt my feelings. I need to know what the problem is and whether it’s fixed.

And please don’t enlighten us with your insights into the music, or your characterizations of the composer’s intentions, or anything else unless you’re really, really good. And, because you’re a young conductor, you’re not that good. You’re standing up there to conduct, not to lecture.

Don’t let us guess what instrument you play

If you’re a pianist, please don’t spend any time telling the poor pianist how to play the piano. If you’re a wind player, keep your insights about breathing to yourself. If you were as good as the people in front of you, you’d probably have an orchestra job. And it’s boring as hell to sit in a sectional for another section. All you’re going to do is to is convince us  that you don’t know anything about our instruments. We probably suspected that – but why spend time confirming it?

Keep your interpretive insights to yourself

As a young conductor, 9 out of the 10 really good ideas you have regarding phrasing and pacing will be stinkers. Even worse, you won’t know which of them might be the one good one in the pack.

So concentrate on getting what the composer wrote out of the orchestra. Not only is that plenty hard on its own, but until you’ve grown up and are able to recognize when you have a good idea, that’ll produce better results. And when you have grown up, you’ll find that you like the composer’s ideas better than yours anyway.

Don’t tell us we’re wonderful

We know when we play well. We assume that young conductors don’t know anything, so we’re not going to believe you anyway. Orchestra musicians like to be treated with respect, but obsequiousness is not respect. It’s manipulation, and orchestra musicians get enough of that already. It also looks like you’re trying to be liked; a surefire way not to be.

Update: by an odd coincidence, I bought a book this morning (for $1) at my library’s coffeeshop/library deaquisition outlet called On and Off the Record, a collection of writings by and about the great British record producer Walter Legge. In is there is a chapter about Herbert von Karajan, whose career was intertwined with Legge’s to a remarkable degree. He quotes von Karajan as saying about rehearsing:

If I don’t raise my voice, they’ll listen to what I say, and the less I speak, the more important each word is.

So follow his advice, even if you don’t want to follow mine, and you too might leave an estate estimated to be in the hundreds of millions.

Philly at risk?

March 25, 2009

An article in the Guardian (UK) last Wednesday raised the possibility that one of the Big Five might not survive the current economic crisis:

The [Philadelphia Orchestra]- best known for the soundtrack to Disney’s Fantasia – has lost $2m (£1.4m) in public funding. Though it has an interim music director in Charles Dutoit, it has no permanent holder of that post, nor a chair of trustees, nor an executive director. It has just announced staff and pay cuts, and cancelled a tour to Europe this summer. Music lovers in the US could start to think the unthinkable: that one of their “big five” orchestras may not survive the economic crisis. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s temporary executive director, Frank Slattery, told the New York Times last week that he “can see catastrophe for American orchestras” if the markets do not recover.

I can’t really see Philly folding, regardless of how long it takes for the markets to recover. That’s not to say that major changes wouldn’t be required to keep it going, though.

There are two points to make about the current crisis. The first is that orchestras – even American orchestras – have survived worse. The second is that the current iteration of the American orchestra – full-time, underwritten by large dollops of donated cash, and with a solid underpinning of 10s of millions in endowments – has never been tested as severely as it appears is about to happen. I suspect that our industry is going to look somewhat different when this crisis ends, especially if (as appears likely) it doesn’t end soon.

But the article’s identification of Philly as the Big Five orchestra least likely to survive will not surprise most industry insiders. Philly has been rightly regarded for a long time as the weakest of the Big Five institutionally (not musically), and I suspect that most informed observers would even rank many of the next five or ten orchestras above it in terms of institutional strength.

I have no explanation for that. But I do wonder if the orchestra’s unique relationship to electronic media over the decades helped them avoid the kind of institutional development that other orchestras found essential to survive and grow. Philly is, after all, the only orchestra that was ever able to sue a major movie studio over royalties. A large external source of ongoing revenue makes life a lot easier for boards and managements – at least until it ends. And it ended, for Philly as for everyone else, around 10-15 years ago. Philly appears to have struggled as an institution ever since.

Bad stuff in Phoenix

March 23, 2009

A long blog post at the Phoenix New Times goes into detail about allegations of age discrimination, anti-union activity, and general nastiness by the Phoenix Symphony management and Music Director Michael Christie. This has led to a complaint filed against the Phoenix Symphony by the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board:

The complaint charges that the symphony has been discriminating against its employees, punishing them, demoting them, and sometimes firing them because they have come to each others’ defense, spoken out, and/or have made complaints against the symphony to the EEOC.

The NLRB has issued a hearing date for the case of April 27 before an administrative law judge, and the agency has suggested a remedy, which would include hiring back the dismissed musicians and paying their back pay with interest. (So far, the symphony has indicated they will not accept the proposed settlement.) But the NLRB is also considering another legal remedy, seeking injunctive relief in federal district court to halt the symphony’s alleged unfair labor practices.

Currently, the NLRB’s regional director Cornele Overstreet says that the move is awaiting the approval of the Board itself and NLRB’s general counsel. If he receives the green light, he could then go before a federal judge to petition for an injunction ordering the symphony to reinstate the fired musicians while the case is adjudicated. Otherwise, there would be the possibility of “irreparable harm.”

The complaint can be downloaded here.

This is actually pretty remarkable; the NLRB seldom issues such complaints, and very seldom (at least in recent years) against an orchestra. Apparently the musicians at the Grand Teton Music Festival wrote a letter protesting management’s actions and sent it to the Phoenix Symphony; that can be downloaded here.

At the end of the article, the blogger reported a conversation he’d had with Doc Severinsen, former Pops conductor of the Phoenix Symphony, about one of the terminated musicians, principal cellist Richard Bock:

…the former Tonight Show bandleader stuck up for the playing of his longtime friend and colleague.

“I was sorry to hear it, and surprised,” commented Severinsen. “He’s an excellent player. I can’t imagine that he did anything musically that would have caused him to be fired. Otherwise, why would he have been here in the first place? Unless his playing went downhill, and I never heard that happen.”

I worked for Doc here in Milwaukee, and always thought he was a really good guy. I’m glad to see that confirmed.

Durham to be SSD Director

March 23, 2009

It’s been almost nine months since Laura Brownell announced her departure from the position of SSD Director for greener pastures. Today President Tom Lee announced that he has just appointed Chris Durham to the position:

Over the weekend I appointed Chris Durham to the position of Director of Symphonic Services. Chris has worked for the Federation for almost 20 years. Prior to that time, Chris performed with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and held the position of Vice President of Local 103, Columbus, Ohio and served as Chair of the Orchestra Committee. After working for the Federation for a period of time, he served as the Secretary-Treasurer of the Local 2-197 after which he rejoined the Federation team as a SSD negotiator. He also helped the Federation as a trustee during a reorganizing process in Local 11-637, Louisville, Kentucky. Chris also served as a member at large on the first ROPA Executive Board and has been a member of the Federation for 32 years.

As a local officer, a player conference officer, musician and SSD negotiator he brings a wealth of experience to the Federation Director’s position. He has also worked with local officers on matters affecting orchestras of all sizes and it is this experience as well as his ability to interact with large, small ,and intermediate size locals that brought him a wealth of knowledge that will serve the orchestras and their locals well.

At the time of Laura’s departure I wrote that  there were “two people in the department who could plausibly be appointed Director” but that it was unlikely, in my view that “either would want to move to New York, or even spend the kind of time there likely to required by the current administration.” Chris was one of the two, and I’m glad I was wrong. He has a different set of skills and interests than did Laura, but is widely respected throughout the AFM and will do a good job.

Of course Chris’ promotion begs the question of who will replace him in the field; a question, I might add, of some interest to Local 8, as he has become our house negotiator for all our bargaining units except for the Milwaukee Symphony.

NPR is clueless (again)

March 22, 2009

I swerve between anger and terror whenever I heard the mainstream media cover our business; anger due to just how wrong they usually are and terror when I consider how wrong they must therefor be about all the stuff they cover I don’t know anything about.

The latest example to fuel my rage comes from a frequent offender, National Public Radio. On Friday, NPR’s flagship news show All Things Considered had an 8-minute segment on Mark O’Conner’s Americana Symphony, which began:

Mark O’Connor says he’s created an orchestral language from the seedling of Americana.

OK, I thought to myself, “a new orchestral language” would be interesting, especially if avoids replicating the mountains of music mined from the vein of Americana created by Copland, Schuman, Sessions, Ives, Harris, Cowell and others.

Imagine my surprise when it turns out that this “new orchestral language” is essentially a pastiche of Copland and Lord of the Dance. So I kept listening for discussion of the historical context of this “new language” and some mention of the folks that actually invented the “American sound.” There was none, of course. But I did discover another old source for the new language:

One of the most visual sections of the symphony is the fifth movement, “Soaring Eagle, Setting Sun,” which depicts the climbing of the mountain face of the Rockies.

“The entire movement is one large crescendo that lasts six or seven minutes, that starts very low, in the basses where it’s barely audible,” O’Connor says. “And as the heavy footsteps climb that mountain, the music describes the elation once you’re at the peak and you can actually see the setting sun.”

Lord of the Dance, Copland, and Richard Strauss. Can’t beat that.

Henry Shaw, RIP

March 16, 2009

Word came over the weekend that Henry Shaw died on Sunday, March 8, 2009, at the age of 90.

His day job was as a violinist with the Cincinnati Symphony, retiring from the orchestra in 1985 after a 47-year tenure. I knew him only as the longest-serving editor of Senza Sordino in ICSOM’s history, and I only knew him through the pages of the 61 issues that he edited and produced.

One of my projects, when I became one of his many successors in 1994, was to produce a complete index of all issues of Senza to date. That project showed me just what a contribution Henry had made to ICSOM. Tom Hall, Henry’s immediate successor when he stepped down as editor in 1982, described him as “our greatest editor” and went on to say that Not only did he serve the longest, he was the first to write some truly important editorials, including ‘The Winds of Change’ and ‘Our Decibel Dilemma.’ The first members of an ICSOM Hall of Fame should be George Zazofsky (ICSOM’s first Chair) and Henry Shaw.”

All of the issues that Henry edited and produced (Volumes 11-20) are available for download on the ICSOM website. They’re interesting as historical documents, of course. But what I find impressive about them – especially as a former editor myself – is the consistency of quality, tone, and reliability. And every one of those issues was produced in close collaboration with a printer using hot-lead typesetting. I can’t imagine producing 61 issues under those conditions, one after the other, at the level Henry did. He must have been a remarkable man.

A good week

March 8, 2009

I’ve not been posting much recently, due mostly to being swamped on multiple fronts. But this week reminded me that being swamped is not necessarily a bad thing. Working backwards, then…

We ended the week with two lovely subscription performances with our music director. The program was Goldmark’s In Springtime, the Grieg piano concerto with Bill Wolfram, and the Brahms second symphony. The Goldmark was a bit of an oddity (and I’m sure I just did the last performance I’ll ever do of it), but a very attractive piece. The Grieg was played compellingly by Bill, who really is one of the best musicians of any kind on the circuit today. (I had the pleasure, years ago, of doing the Brahms songs for alto, viola, and piano with Bill, and it was only strolling through an airport a few days later, singing to myself, that I realized that not once during the performance had I felt constrained by the piano – something that had never happened to me before when playing with anyone except once or twice in quartet. I simply did what I wanted to do, and it was magically and perfectly together with Bill. Pretty clearly it wasn’t my fault that it was so together either.)

And the Brahms benefited from the 12 years we’ve spent working with a music director with a particular love and feel for Brahms, as well as from this orchestra’s innate feel for the Germanic romantic literature. It just all came together in the most natural and easy way; ensemble and pitch fell into place, and there was a lovely pacing, intensity, and (paradoxically enough) intensity to the whole effort. I can’t imagine us doing a better Brahms 2, or any orchestra doing one much better than we did last night.

On showing up for the first concert on Friday morning, I saw the program book for March and April. Suffice to say that I was front and center on the cover. Actually it would be more accurate to say I was the entire cover.

Further backwards in time, on Tuesday our principal 2nd violin, Jennifer Startt, and I played the Handel/Halvorsen Passacaglia for the subscription campaign kick-off event, which featured a Q&A between Edo de Waart, our music director designate, and an audience of several hundred subscribers, hosted by our concertmaster Frank Almond. I was surprised to find out that I could still be that nervous. Perhaps spending all that day (and the previous day) listening to auditions with Edo reminded me that, in a sense, one is always auditioning when one plays for the boss. But it went well, or felt as if it did. We had spent a lot of time on the violin/viola repertoire over the past few months, working in real detail, and it seemed to have paid off, in terms of ensemble and pitch in particular.

And I discovered the subscription brochure led off with a quote from me about our music director designate, which of course I had known about (having supplied the quote) but was interested to see in context. A laudatory quote, of course, and an honest one. But it reminded me that there times when the multiple hats I wear sit at odd angles to each other on my head.

Who’s an orchestra for?

March 7, 2009

Labor disputes never bring out the best in employers, and orchestras are no exception. The management of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra is engaging in what looks to me like the illegal practice of regressive bargaining:

The latest issue in the struggle — which led to a strike last Oct. 1 — is the orchestra wants to cut the number of guaranteed gigs. Instead of 75 concerts and rehearsals a year, management wants the ability to offer musicians only 45 performances, or as few as 35 if they gave the musicians six months’ notice. While the pay scale would remain the same, musicians could see their WCO earnings drop by half.

“When they are working for us, they’ll be well-compensated, but there won’t be as many concerts,” [Doug] Gerhart (WCO Executive Director) said. “All prudent groups are (cutting back). We’re not unique. It seems to me that it’s completely fair, reasonable and respectful.”

Bassoonist Todd Jelen, a member of the musicians negotiating committee, said the orchestra is trying to go backwards in their contract proposals. Musicians left the bargaining table last Thursday, Feb. 26, against the request of a federal mediator.

“Our argument is, if the WCO is not in financial jeopardy, they should be able to produce as many concerts as last year,” Jelen said, citing repeated requests to see the orchestra’s financial records. He called the cancellation of the March 27 and 28 concerts retaliation.

I love the “respectful” part. Even more respectful is the lack of any hint that Gerhart’s income from the WCO is going to drop by a penny, much less by the percentage he proposes to slash out of the income of his per-service workers. And yet his workload would diminish significantly by cutting the number of performances, no? So how about making him equally “well-compensated” proportionally to the amount of product he’s supervising?

It reminds me of a famous quote from the old days of 1993-94 in Milwaukee, when our Executive Director at the time told the local paper that cutting the season from 48 to 41 weeks really wasn’t so bad for the musicians: “[the musicians are] not going to be paid less for their work. They’re going to work less.”

Levine’s First Law: All institutions are run for the benefit of those who run them.

Bad news from the Pension Fund

March 6, 2009

Ouch.

Announcement of Benefit Changes Effective May 1, 2009

The unusually deep decline in the financial markets during the past year has had a severe impact on the assets of virtually all institutional investors, including the Fund. Because the Fund’s actuaries have advised that these losses have resulted in a significant deterioration in the Fund’s long-term financial condition, the Trustees have decided that immediate action is necessary. Accordingly, the Trustees have agreed to change the pension benefit multiplier for contributions earned on and after May 1, 2009 to $2.00 for each $100 of contributions for benefits payable at normal retirement age (generally age 65) in the form of a single life annuity.

We are preparing a notice describing the details of this change and its effect on other forms of benefit, which you should receive within the next several weeks. The Trustees recognize that benefit reductions have an adverse impact on participants’ lives, but, after careful consideration and consultation with the Fund’s actuaries, concluded that this action was necessary at this time.