From Motown to Mobtown, orchestral evolution
“We’re in Detroit, and they’re *still* ranting about Slatkin,” was one comment I got on Twitter in support of my blog post about new beginnings and new music directors. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra may be excited about its new leader (Slatkin is starting his second season), but the orchestra is an interesting case study right now for other reasons, as Mark Stryker examined in a thoughtful piece in the Detroit Free Press this weekend. As musicians and management work towards a new contract, they’re looking at a proposal that involves not only a hefty salary cut, but a formal redefinition of the job of an orchestral musician, making outreach, teaching, and chamber concerts a part of the deal. As Stryker points out, most musicians already do all these things; the difference here is that they’d become part of the job, rather than optional extras (done for extra pay).
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra must be watching this situation with particular interest. The BSO musicians have swallowed huge pay cuts in the last few seasons; like their DSO colleagues, they are concerned that this will affect their musical level and make the orchestra unattractive to top players. (Though that’s an argument I’m never quite sure I buy, given that there hundreds of eager and highly talented conservatory grads generally race to apply whenever an orchestra job opens up.) Furthermore the BSO, under Marin Alsop, is blazing new trails in its explorations of new ways in which an orchestra can make itself part of its community. BSO musicians this year have been called on to perform at open rehearsals with amateur players, participate in a teaching academy, and advise potential patrons on their subscription packages. This is healthy in a lot of ways; it’s clearly time for a generational change if orchestras are to survive. But it’s a shift in the way an orchestra musician’s job has come, under the current union rules, to be defined.
Memories are short. In the first part of the 20th century, playing in an orchestra was a part-time job, and musicians supplemented their income with other, non-musical day jobs. The union evolved as a way to protect musicians and keep them from being exploited, but some of its contract stipulations have come to function as severe limitations (they all but killed orchestral recording for several years). Orchestras, even struggling ones, are multi-million dollar institutions with a civic, public role; finding ways to open them up to the community, and expand the roles of their members, is not a bad thing. In fact, nobody’s really arguing about that. The issue is about admitting such changes into the formal union contract. Like a lot of these union debates, it’s a little late; most of the BSO musicians have grasped that such changes are a matter not of preference, but of survival.
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