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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.

By Anne Midgette  | September 20, 2010; 9:45 AM ET
Categories:  national, news, random musings  
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Next: Poll: the role of the orchestra musician


Ms. Midgette,
Thank you for your article.

I would like to address your comment" 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.)"

I have been on the audition committee for the Detroit Symphony for the past 30 years.
For principal positions it can take years to fill a position despite there being "hundreds of eager and highly talented conservatory grads". Our principal cello position took 9 years to fill, principal bass 5 years, and we are presently several years into filling our principal flute position. For section jobs, we consider ourselves extremely fortunate if we get a few candidates into the finals. Yes there are lots of eager people out there-and that has not really changed in my 30 years career-I was once one too!

The quality of Baltimore or Detroit is built up painstakingly over years and years, and a lack of paying completive wages and conditions of work does effect the quality. Like any profession the best will be drawn to the best working conditions.

You and your readers may be interested in reading this link which relates our recent audition results:

Hopefully this may relieve your doubts.

Geof Applegate
Principal Second Vioin, Detroit Symphony

Posted by: geofa | September 20, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

In the comments of Mark Stryker's article, there was a link to a Time Magazine article from 1969, in which the troubles of the orchestras in that year are remarcable similar to those of today. Here it is:,9171,942093,00.html

Quote from the article:
"Between 1971 and 1973," predicts Manhattan Fund Raiser Carl Shaver, an expert in orchestral finances, "we stand a very good chance of losing at least one-third, if not half of our major symphony orchestras."

Plus ca change...

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | September 20, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

Great post Anne and fascinating issue. Just one of many changes (and opportunities) affecting the arts community.

I look forward to future posts on the topic.

Victoria Hutter
NEA Public Affairs

Posted by: hutterv | September 21, 2010 10:15 AM | Report abuse

It would be of course unfair to demand orchestra members to perform all outreach activities for free, i.e. out of orchestra salaries. Performing free chamber music concerts, free open lessons in master class style at local schools, coaching school band and orchestras and chamber group for free, and the likes should be given some credit as outreach activity participation. And the credit should be in some way computed into not only musician's salary but also maintaining position in the orchestra in long term. Obviously, a musician who has no interest in outreach activities is less desirable than the one who does in long run. Musicians will actually be contributing to raising public interests in classical music and therefore contributing to the health of the orchestra. Another word, such is only self-interest activities that would only help secure musicians economic future.

It pains me to say this but it is reality. The classical music in America is dying business. It has been so as long as I remember and I am not a young person I used to be. Some years it is a little better looking than others, and it seems to follow the overall economic ups and downs. I dare to observe that levels at the down times are also in the down trend so is the levels at up times. Even Washington Post reduced the space available for reviews of classical performance, especially the grassroots locally sponsored events, which get enormous encouragement from mentions from the Washington Post. Actually the Washington Post critics rarely cover grassroots events any more. It started when Tim Page was in charge. At least the Washington Post is trying save money, a self-interest act, responding to overall public interests. After all, the Washington Post is not in classical music business.

But BSO is. NSO is. Fairfax Symphony and National Philharmonic are. People making living from classical music must take part in outreach activities. It is only fair to count participating in outreach activities to the level of musicians' pay.

Posted by: joungcook | September 21, 2010 10:51 AM | Report abuse

As a former professional bassoonist and now Executive Director of a regional orchestra in California, I can simply say that these issues have been around for a generation already. Many in the industry, not only in the big institutions, but in the many excellent "Freeway Philharmonics" around the country would give their eye teeth for a position that would give them a decent salary in exchange for performing orchestral concerts, chamber music, teaching and a whole host of other possibilities in partnership with dance companies, theater companies and the like. Professional musicians (like myself) are trained to take and win auditions, however there is little reward for being a well rounded artist. In many cases orchestras have become expensive Ivory Towers. I'm not knocking these institutions, if they have the money and endowments to continue on, they serve their purpose for great music. But there can only be a handful at any given time. And - they come and go with the wealth of the city that supports them.

Orchestras, their musicians, their boards and their directors must look to other arts groups for partnerships. They must look beyond the walls and limits of their concert halls for inspiration and new audiences.

Orchestra musicians have not been encouraged to use their imaginations and use all their talents. It's not their fault. The ever increasing need for perfection made hours and hours of practice necessary, with the mental and physical stress that comes with that. It is hard for most to conceive that community engagement and connection to the public could be rewarding because it "might" take time and concentration away from their instruments.

I have found that when musicians are truly engaged in the dialogue with management and music directors, changes can be made. Detroit, like many, might have waited too long to have that dialogue.

In end the same problems can be seen in dance companies, museums, theater and literature. If culture is to be revered once again in the US, we all have come down off our pedestals and meet our audiences where they are. We need to teach and enlighten. People are hungry for it, but we tell them from the start - "you won't understand this, but it's good for you" that's not a good way to attract and keep an audience.

There is lots of hope however, hope in the smaller institutions, hope in the fact the patrons understand the need for change and will fund it. There are great examples from Saint Paul to Lisbon, Portugal. Let's report on them. Their success is a window into the future of the arts.

Posted by: marcjfeldman | September 21, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

Every city cannot support major league sports or arts. Look at Maine, Missouri, Virginia, etc and you will find multiple symphonies all scrapping the donation jar and coming up short.

Would one statewide orchestra work better in these places? 52 weeks of employment, touring, multiple venues in state, and less philanthropic competition.

Posted by: JoelDKatz | September 21, 2010 11:38 AM | Report abuse

9 years to fill a position, even a principal position, is absurd. I suspect taking that long had less to do with a lack of qualified and willing candidates and more to do with politics. Or perhaps a conductor's or a committee's musical God complex. If you consider yourselves lucky to get a few qualified candidates then you're doing it wrong.

Posted by: getjiggly1 | September 21, 2010 11:45 AM | Report abuse

It is ironic that the Detroit area supports FOUR major league sports teams - Tigers, Pistons, Lions and Red Wings - but cannot support one major league orchestra.

Posted by: nymike | September 21, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

Dear M Midgette:
The orcehstra world may find itself coming up a little short these days. Or as they say, too little too late. But musicians should consider second side careers. I knew one musician, vertically challenged, who was also a fortune teller. The local authorities frowned on her because they thought that fortune telling was fraudulent. They had Queeny arrested. She was placed in a holding cell. Due to her size she was able to squeeze between the bars of her cell and escape. This so incensed the judge that he ordered the local newspaper to print an article about the culprit. The following was printed in the paper the next day: "Small medium at large"

Posted by: ggibbs1 | September 21, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

As Alex Ross put it years ago, classical music -- at least in this country -- is a "modest subculture." I don't like it this way, but it's the truth. Musicians unable or unwilling to be be educators and entrepreneurs as well as superb players may well find themselves unemployed. And if they're lucky to find good jobs, they won't feel quite the sense of entitlement that seems to be the case in Detroit -- six-figure salaries are really exceptionally good compensation for musicians and can't be taken for granted any longer.

Posted by: Lutoslawski | September 21, 2010 10:59 PM | Report abuse

The Orchestra has to recognise that they are basically performing on instruments that were invented several hundred years ago, and a music art form that was relevant about a hundred years ago. Why are we trying to preserve such an ancient skill in the age of the Computer, Electric Car, Ipad et al? The evolution of the Art form would dictate a natural passing. When there is so little public interest, why is there so much effort and funding to maintain the performing institution?

The main problem is that the Orchestra has NOT been run as a real business. They should have only survived on the true generated income from performances. Instead they received monies from Corporations, Foundations, and Individuals, which allowed the Orchestra to pay their unrealistic salaries, and not worry about the true cost. This situation has 'spoiled' these musicians, and got them used to the 'perks' that they perceive as an 'entitlement'. The problem with entitlements is that they are so easy to grant when times are good. But how do you roll it back when times are bad, or there is the passing of a rich patron, or there is the bankruptcy of a Corporation, or there is the inability of a Foundation to generate and give as much in a lean year?

The Orchestra should recognise that times are really bad. Many workers with current work skills would be really satisfied to live on what the musicians have been offered. If any musician wishes to leave, let him or her do so. No one is indispensable. This is a free country.

If the Orchestra cannot adjust to the changes, it will go out of business. Naturally.

Posted by: eugene007 | September 22, 2010 10:22 AM | Report abuse

RE: 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.)

Your skepticism implies that you think new conservatory grads are immediately qualified to take the place of a seasoned musician with no adverse consequences for the ensemble's level of performance. If this were true, college grads would begin their careers as senior scientists at Los Alamos, ROTC grads would begin their careers as Colonels in the military, and new teachers would begin their careers as school superintendents.

Posted by: drastic | September 22, 2010 10:56 PM | Report abuse

"The Orchestra has to recognise that they are basically performing on instruments that were invented several hundred years ago, and a music art form that was relevant about a hundred years ago. Why are we trying to preserve such an ancient skill in the age of the Computer, Electric Car, Ipad et al?"

So what is exactly the point being made here? That we should no longer enjoy -- and play -- baseball since the bats, balls, and mitts are essentially the same equipment that was used long before any of us (and our parents) were born? Or is the only attraction to the game that of poor, overpriced hot dogs and beer?

Classical music and symphony orchestras -- much like renaissance art -- is just as viable, moving, and exciting today as it was a century or more ago when there were no recordings, computers, a myriad of entertainment options, and more of the same.

Yes, there are challenges to marketing the modern symphony orchestra to compete for those all-to-precious "entertainment dollars" but to declare its obsolescence is ridiculous.

Is there a business "problem" with orchestras and other non-profit arts organizations? Yes -- often, that is the case-- but to lay the blame on "spoiled" musicians looking for their "entitlement" is just plain short-sighted and not looking at the big picture, especially in regards to the situation in Detroit. Perhaps one should delve more deeply into the way these so-called businesses are being run, i.e. how are they being (mis)managed and to what end. Remember, it is the musicians obligation to perform -- not to manage. Also, remember that the musicians are not simply the hired hands -- the labor (as they always seem to be portrayed); they are the product. Should it be solely up to them to pay for management's misdeeds? (And, just so you don't misunderstand my point that the musicians are necessarily exempt, my reading of the Detroit situation is that the musicians have offered to give up nearly 25% but the management is only interested in draconian measures which would cripple the orchestra for years to come, if not forever. It really isn't simply how Ms. Midgette portrays it at all as a job description dispute).

And since we are speaking of Detroit originally, just think about how successful their most noteworthy products have been when they were dumbed-down and stripped bare.

Anybody remember the Chevy Vega, for example?

Posted by: Reed8 | September 23, 2010 10:12 AM | Report abuse

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