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August 30, 2010

Potential strike at Detroit Symphony sends warning throughout orchestral world

Not surprisingly, given how apart far both sides have been and how testy the tone during negotiations, the musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra voted over the weekend to authorize a strike. That decision doesn't mean there will be a strike, but it sure increases the odds. The season is scheduled to open in early October. (Because of a technicality involving labor laws -- from what I understand, orchestra management didn't file required paperwork in time -- the players have to be paid through the Sept. 23 under the terms of the old contract, which expired Sunday.)

The threat of a strike isn't merely of interest to folks in Michigan. The Detroit Symphony is a major ensemble in every way -- artistic quality, widespread reputation, historic legacy -- but it has been plagued by debt. From management's perspective, nothing less than a new economic model will do, and that model includes a large cut in salaries for the players.

The numbers are sobering: One management proposal calls for a drop from

the current $104,650 to about $75,000 in the first year of a new contract and back up to almost $80,000 in the third year. The other management proposal is worse, going down to $70,200 in the first year, close to $74,000 in the third, with still less for any new players who might be hired -- they'd start at $61,200.

The players countered with an immediate 22% cut to $80,000, but raises thereafter bringing base salaries up to more than $96,000 by the end of a new contract.

Like I said, the gap between the two sides is great. And none of these proposals would magically erase all the orchestra's financial woes. Much more fundraising and cost-saving would be required. (Detroit Symphony music director Leonard Slatkin agreed earlier to take a cut in pay.) 

As the Detroit musicians see it, deep reductions will destroy the orchestra, making it a less appealing choice for current and perspective members and leading to the inevitable erosion of the musical product. Sound familiar? The financial problems at the root of the trouble there are the same that affect many orchestras, including our own Baltimore Symphony, where the players made substantial concessions on wages and benefits to help the organization stabilize, but warned about losing good players (a few have, in fact, left) and not being able to attract the best talent.

In Detroit, Baltimore and many other places there has been a lot of talk about the approaching expiration date of the existing business plan for orchestras, how things will have to change fundamentally if long-term survival is to be possible. Behind closed doors and, increasingly, out in the open, a lot of folks are questioning whether orchestras with big budgets, 52-week contracts, handsome benefits packages -- not to mention music directors and CEOs with hefty salaries -- are viable any more. What ends up happening in Detroit will be closely watched and debated everywhere.

One thing you can always count on in cases like this is a good deal of public apathy or disdain. You'll hear people using the words "elitist" and "luxury," and you'll find little sympathy for the notion that classical artists deserve to make money, or that governments and corporations and wealthy individuals should step up to the plate to help out in every way they can.

As Detroit Free Press columnist Brian Dickerson has written about attitudes in his city, "otherwise reputable opinion leaders" are not rallying to "the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, a world-class institution some five generations of Detroiters have labored to build into one of the world's most esteemed musical ensembles.

"Some sneer that Detroit's unwashed masses can no longer discern the difference between a great orchestra and a mediocre one, in much the same way that Detroit car makers once snorted at suggestions U.S. consumers would notice a modest slippage in vehicle quality."

Dickerson goes on to say:

The musicians' assertion that the salary concessions being sought by management would cripple the DSO's ability to attract top talent is unassailable. So is management's contention that anything more generous threatens to drive the orchestra out of business.

What's incredible, and ineffably sad, is the complacency with which Detroiters are shrugging off the disintegration of a cultural infrastructure our predecessors spent the entire 20th Century putting in place. And even that legacy is not as threadbare as our dwindling sense of obligation to the next generation, which stands to inherit a city whose music flows mainly from slot machines.

There are eerie similarities between Detroit and Baltimore (where some folks are now salivating over the ca-ching of slot machines). The BSO may have dodged a lot of bullets in recent seasons, but there's no guarantee of anything anymore, certainly not with this endless recession hanging overhead. That's why it matters what happens at other orchestras, and why it's essential for those who care about our city's cultural life to remain informed, involved and inspired. There are bound to be rough years ahead.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:45 AM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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