Archive for the ‘The business of orchestras’ Category

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.


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.

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


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.

Why unions? – Part II

February 1, 2009

It’s surprisingly infrequently that I find myself writing about orchestral matters on my AFM Observer blog – surprising because of the importance of the AFM in the orchestral ecosystem. But one of those infrequent occasions arose yesterday, when I found that material from that blog was used (misused, in my view) to try to sway members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra to vote against unionizing. Rather than repeat what I wrote in response, you can read it here.

What not to say when talking to the audience

December 23, 2008

When Greg Sandow singled out not talking to the audience as one reason why “classical music doesn’t connect to our larger culture,” he probably wasn’t thinking of this kind of talk as the solution:

So, on Friday night, I go to Carnegie Hall for a Christmas concert. The King’s Singers are performing with the New York Pops Orchestra; Marilyn Horne is a special guest. This should be an evening away from politics — just a little fodder for my next New Criterion music piece, you know?

Shortly into the concert, the conductor turns to the audience and speaks about “the holidays.” This year, he says, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa are overlapping with Christmas. (According to what I can find, Kwanzaa begins on December 26, but never mind.) Then we have New Year’s Day. And “on January 20, there will be a new beginning for our country.” The crowd, of course, erupts into cheers. Then he says, “I see I’m not the only one who’s ready”…

Politics aside, where are manners? Where is consideration for a minority of audience members? Where is a sense of public space, and what is appropriate and not? The guy was uncouth, as much as anything. And the sad thing is: There’s no one to call him on it…

I suppose that conservatives, somewhere, act like that conductor, injecting politics where it doesn’t belong, transgressing against public decorum (and simply displaying bad manners). I have not witnessed it, though.

He’s got a point. But that’s the problem with talking to the audience. Does the audience really want to know what the performer thinks?

When I’m in the audience, I sure don’t. I attended an event at a local nightclub a few months ago, as a favor to a friend. I liked some of the music and didn’t like the rest of it. But I liked none of the talking, and found it lowered my confidence in the performers’ abilities overall.

I think it’s a mistake to think that, because performers are good at communicating when they perform, they also have a gift for communicating when they talk.

But I think the conservative critic underestimates the extent to which liberals are subjected to politics in public performance venues. Kate Smith singing God Bless America started showing up at Milwaukee Brewers games a few years ago, in which seemed to me a clear correlation with the Iraq war. And, shortly after the invasion of Iraq, we showed up at a runout and were ordered to start the concert with the National Anthem. We start every season with the National Anthem, which is a venerable tradition that I have always enjoyed. But being required to play The Star-spangled Banner at the start of a preventive war that many of us opposed was equally “uncouth.”

Maybe we should just focus on the music.

Perhaps it was Mahler 2 doo?

December 18, 2008

Gilbert Kaplan’s night with Mahler’s Resurrection symphony and the New York Philharmonic, which was imminent when I wrote a little about it here, didn’t make him any fans amongst the musicians, according to an article in the New York Times (as well as industry scuttlebut):

On Monday a trombonist in the orchestra, David Finlayson, laid out a sprawling indictment against Mr. Kaplan on his blog. It was an unusually public airing of complaints in a profession notorious for excoriating conductors in private.

“My colleagues and I gave what we could to this rudderless performance but the evening proved to be nothing more than a simplistic reading of a very wonderful piece of music,” he wrote. Mr. Kaplan acknowledged in rehearsal that he was incapable of keeping a steady beat, Mr. Finlayson added. Despite being a self-professed expert on the piece, Mr. Kaplan ignored Mahler’s “blizzard” of directions, Mr. Finlayson wrote.

He called Mr. Kaplan’s music career a “woefully sad farce” built on the complicity of orchestra managements and a willingness to donate money. “We can rely only on ourselves to stand firm against any attempts to promote this imposter,” Mr. Finlayson added…

Mr. Kaplan’s performances present a particularly extreme example of the gap that can exist between the way performers perceive a concert and the way listeners do: a gulf as old as music criticism itself.

In the case of Mr. Kaplan’s “Resurrection” concerts, musicians say that a top professional orchestra, especially a great Mahler orchestra like the Philharmonic, can bypass the conductor and produce a superlative performance on its own.

This musician wouldn’t say anything that dumb. There’s a reason that orchestras like the New York Phil, as well as orchestras like the Milwaukee Symphony and even orchestras like the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, have conductors – it’s because they need them. I doubt whether the New York Phil, or any other orchestra on the planet for that matter, could actually get from the beginning of the Mahler to the end without multiple train wrecks in the absence of a conductor.

Admittedly Mahler’s an extreme example (not surprisingly so, given that Mahler was a conductor and believed in their indispensability), but could the New York Phil produce a “superlative performance” of any significant piece in the repertoire without a competent conductor in front of it? I doubt it.

That’s not to say that, if the conductor is bad, the orchestra will sound terrible (although it sure won’t sound or feel great to the musicians). Good orchestras don’t need a lot of help to fly at least loosely in formation in a piece they know. But, at least in my experience, superlative performances by orchestras only happen in the presence of both really good conductors and really good orchestras.

I’m not saying I like that fact that we need conductors. I daresay there are conductors who don’t much like the fact that they need orchestras. And it’s a lot easier for orchestras to pretend that conductors aren’t necessary than it is for conductors to pretend that orchestras aren’t necessary.

But it’s just as dumb.

Collapsing the supply chain

December 16, 2008

Bill Stensrud has another interesting post up on his Businss of Classical Music blog; this time about the supply chain for recorded music. I find his analysis of what’s happened to that supply chain more compelling than his predictions for the future, however.

The music recording industry involves a number of discrete businesses. These businesses link together in a sophisticated way to create a “supply chain”. Historically, the collaborative effort of these businesses created a viable economic ecosystem and an acceptable financial return for all participants. (more…)