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April 5, 2011

The battle is just beginning if Detroit Symphony strike is really over

There's encouraging news, at last, from Michigan, where the six-month strike by musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra may be over. The players will return to work on Thursday, even before a final ratification vote on a contract ironed out over the weekend.

Details of the new deal are sketchy, but you can pretty much count on the players taking a hit. Hard to see any way around that. The issue all along has been how deep a pay cut would be imposed.

There's just too much financial pressure on the orchestra, which lost $19 million over the past three years or so and faces a $54 million debt involving its concert hall. One particularly sobering statistic I read: there were 25,000 donors to the Detroit Symphony in the 1990s, about 5,000 now.

We've been through some of this in Baltimore, when the deficits just got too big, the options too few. The upshot is that in our fair city, fans of the Baltimore Symphony enjoy an artistic quality, week by week, from musicians who are worth a lot more money than they get. That, I assume, will be the case in Detroit under a new contract.

It's a bitter lesson in contemporary values, but arts organizations everywhere (or mostly everywhere) are learning to live within tighter financial constraints. They're also learning to live with the beginnings, at least, of new business models.

One bone of contention in Detroit appears to have been the extent of ... 

community outreach projects the musicians would be expected to participate in. The Baltimore Symphony has been expanding that side of its operations substantially for a few years now, thanks in large measure to music director Marin Alsop's determination to open up the BSO experience to more people outside the doors of Meyerhoff Hall. There's no guarantee that new audiences, especially paying audiences, will materialize because of outreach efforts, but it's hard to argue that those efforts shouldn't be made.

I've heard it said here, and I can well imagine it being said elsewhere, that finely trained musicians want to concentrate on the music-making they trained for; that they find too much community service detrimental to the fundamental goal of sustaining artistic growth. But the movement toward embracing the world beyond the safe routine of the concert hall is surely going to gather momentum. It makes sense, short-term and long-term.

It will be interesting to see how that outreach issue and all the other disputed matters turn out in Detroit. An awful lot of effort will be required on both sides to make progress. And speaking of both sides, it's worth noting that the Baltimore crisis in middle of the last decade was really only brought under control with the departure of key personnel in management and on the board. I wonder if something similar will happen soon in Detroit.

Regardless, everyone involved with the present and future of the Detroit Symphony will start a whole set of fresh battles if the contract deal goes through -- battles for rebuilding the public's faith and support; for fostering mutual respect inside the institution; for ensuring the value of what happens onstage, no matter how much less will be in the pay checks ahead.

A tall order for any orchestra, but a struggle obviously worth waging. What happens next in Detroit will be of keen importance to many other places where budgets and artistic aspirations collide.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:46 AM | | Comments (2)


The musicians of the DSO certainly don't come out of this situation looking very good to the community. I understand the gripe that in order to maintain their world-class level of musicianship requires hours in the practice room every day and that having to take on a few extra responsibilities might have some kind of an impact on that. But come on.

Being a vital part of a community these days requires being active in the community and doing things that have an impact on the people in the community. I don't think there's that much civic pride in a musical organization--even one like the DSO--just because they happen to take up residence in the community and provide entertainment. People want more, like a connection to the great musicians on the stage.

It's no wonder donorship to the DSO has decreased so much over the years. Why would a community invest in an organization that doesn't want to invest in them?

I'm really amazed that they have managed to NOT disintegrate, at least for the present -- especially when the hyperbole issuing from both sides of this "struggle" was pretty bitter (and sometimes downright nasty).

Kudos to both sides, though, for seeing the "big picture" and managing to live/work together, realizing that a world _with_ a DSO is much better than a world _without_ one! ;^)

As for outreach programs -- well, they're all about establishing relevance and meaning. If the community-at-large doesn't feel like an orchestra has a purpose and a place, then whom is the orchestra really serving? Only itself, of course! (For example, who bloody cares if you can impress the Berliners, Wieners, or Japanese when you fail to make ANY impression on the folks in your own nieghbourhoods...)

Our American society once placed orchestras on a bit more of a "social pedestal" (all about the "prestige," ya know?), but those days are dead and/or dying; if the musicians and office staff can't "reach out and touch" some lives in a meaningful, _tangible_ manner, then they may as well seal themselves in ivory towers.

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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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