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Posted at 3:41 PM ET, 03/ 1/2011

DSO: Too little, too late?

By Anne Midgette

On February 19, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's management announced the cancellation of the season after players voted against a final contract proposal, continuing what has stretched into a 23-week strike.

Now, the players say they're ready to return to work, without a contract. (UPDATE: They do, however, want arbitration; the updated version of the Detroit Free Press story is here.)

The question is whether the season, and the orchestra, can be saved. It's a question that's far from rhetorical. There seems no solution to the standoff, and lots of Detroit players are looking for other jobs. Mark Stryker, in the Detroit Free Press, reports that the whole percussion section is leaving.

Given the stalemate that's reigned for weeks, the players' action now looks like a belated realization that their futures are very much at risk.

I lived in Germany during the period when the costs of reunification were playing havoc with arts budgets, and cities that had previously been able to afford lavish arts institutions were suddenly finding themselves strapped. (One of my first articles for the Wall Street Journal was about the city of Frankfurt going bankrupt.) At that time, Munich's daily newspaper ran a series of opinion pieces in which dozens of prominent artists, administrators and politicians debated the degree to which the arts were actually necessary to a community, when the choices are between, say, funding hospitals or the opera house.

One element that kept recurring in these essays was reminiscences of people who had lived through World War II, and seen postwar performances in the basements of bombed-out buildings, playing to rapt audiences of people who welcomed the chance to enter another realm for a few hours. That, they said, demonstrated the kind of spiritual sustenance that the arts can provide.

That image sticks with me as I think of Detroit, a city in which entire blocks are sitting vacant. Yet an orchestra is not necessarily providing the kind of sustenance that people in crisis today turn toward. It has a different relationship to the culture; to a lot of people, it still has to demonstrate what it can offer, before it can begin the work of offering it.

As I see it, the DSO management sought to respond to the changing landscape -- of orchestras, as well as of Detroit -- by expanding the definition of the players' role, introducing into the contract mandatory outreach activities which many of the players already participate in, but which would now be part of the job. But changing their job descriptions was one of the aspects of the proposed contract that players objected to most.

The problem is that art can't respond to crisis effectively if people don't want to hear it. Meanwhile, newspaper coverage of the players' complaints -- including the decline in base salaries down to around $80,000, a 30% decrease -- has not won them new fans in a city where most salaries are a lot lower than that and lots of people have lost their jobs altogether.

Is there an answer? Can music demonstrate that it is spiritually sustaining to an American city in trouble? Can a city like Detroit still afford an orchestra? And what do you think the DSO should do, moving forward, to start rebuilding?

By Anne Midgette  | March 1, 2011; 3:41 PM ET
Categories:  national, news, random musings  
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The question you don't ask is, how much damage has already been done? Donors and sponsors aren't going to be rushing to give their cash to a company that's capable of cancelling its whole season, with workers who'd sooner strike than accept their responsibility to the company, and the community - especially at the salaries they're taking. The same goes for potential subscribers. Plus, with a disgruntled orchestra on the stage, is there a danger you'll be likely to be given a substandard performance? That's what I'd be asking myself while looking at the season brochure...

Yes, there is an answer. Not only must the musicians accept the 'mandatory outreach activities', they should be actively organising them. Free concerts in school lunchbreak­s, in bandstands­, in malls, in Orchestra Hall's foyer; handing out info sheets, programme notes, kids' activity sheets (which all cost nothing); everyone who stays to listen gets a 30% money-off voucher for the next concert, provided they give an email address. Get some positive news coverage, and blog about it. The musicians have been shown themselves capable of organising themselves in the past few months. So there's no reason why a 100-strong company can't be pro-active in making themselves successful again. That's more than a gesture of goodwill, and the community will respond accordingly.

Posted by: MarthaFarquar | March 1, 2011 4:07 PM | Report abuse

The DSO musicians had a tremendous opportunity here, and blew it. They could have accepted the FIRST offer, or better yet, proposed one LOWER than management's first offer, along with text that explained their commitment to the city; that they truly would be willing to get into the trenches (outreach) like no other orchestra had done in the past; a clear understanding that everyone in the community needed to pitch in to help turn around the city, no matter the income level; a complete willingness to reinvent the tired, dated orchestra model that many still cling to. In other words, they could have descended into the city from their perches, gotten dirty, and emerged like no other symphony EVER.

IF they had done any of that, they would be a national, if not international model of what the orchestra of the 21st century could be. They would have had the support of all people in Detroit and beyond. The press would be incredibly positive--everyone wins. They would have not only solved their crisis, but positively impacted other failing orchestras throughout the country.

However, they didn't do this. They continually rejected generous offers. They argued they DIDN'T want to do more outreach, they DIDN'T want to reinvent the orchestra. And now their critics are huge in number and growing, especially from the Detroit community. When Detroit is closing HALF it's public schools, when sanitation and Police forces are being sharply cut, when the unemployment rate practically leads the nation, when once glorious buildings are now laying in crumbling ruin, NO ONE wants to hear someone whine about "only" an $80,000 salary--and don't even bring up how many weeks in a year that's for. To a nation of hurting people, they are coming off like elitist snobs, totally ignorant of their organization's, the state, and national economic situations.

And now this recent move by the musicians to begrudgingly return to work without a contract?? That must be a nice option, to choose to return to employment.

It is too late for the musicians of the DSO. They had the marketing opportunity of a lifetime here, and completely missed out. Good luck finding employment out there in the real world.

Posted by: tomasss | March 1, 2011 5:13 PM | Report abuse

You said it. Too little, too late, and for the wrong reason.

Having said that, I should also note I'm in complete agreement with the DSO members vis-a-vis the so-called "outreach" requirement management wanted to force upon them. The value of the DSO to Detroit (and the world, for that matter) ought to be judged solely by their excellence as a performing group and NOT by touchy-feely extracurricular activities such as community outreach. Individual members may engage in such activities at their own discretion, but not as contract-mandated forced labor.


Posted by: ACDouglas1 | March 1, 2011 5:24 PM | Report abuse

In light of how organized labor is currently under siege in this country, it is tempting to view the Detroit Symphony's travails in that context. But collective bargaining only works if the service you provide is one that your community is able and willing to pay for. Detroit clearly has more pressing needs than paying six-figure salaries to these undoubtedly splendid musicians. Perhaps it's a group mentality that kept them from compromising, but they should have taken the cuts in salary in a spirit of solidarity with their fellow citizens of that beleaguered city. Their obdurate refusal to budge has resulted in a lot of bad will.

Posted by: Lutoslawski | March 1, 2011 6:25 PM | Report abuse

The players were led astray by the union. I told them this would happen and now, yes, it is too late. If any negotiation takes place, they will be negotiating from a position of great weakness. They bluffed and they lost but the sad part is that the outcome was so predictable. Will any other orchestras learn from this? Not a chance. The AFM won't let them. And please don't tell me I don't know what I'm talking about - I am a member of the AFM.

Posted by: pronetoviolins | March 1, 2011 7:41 PM | Report abuse

You can argue all you want to about 'touchy-feely' being beneath the musicians, but the bottom line is the old format DID NOT WORK and had no support, i.e. no one willing to pay for it. Reality intrudes.
I also wonder if Mr. Slatkin and/or management were willing to take substantial pay cuts?
I say this as someone very sad at the demise of any orchestra.

Posted by: kashe | March 2, 2011 7:43 AM | Report abuse

"You can argue all you want to about 'touchy-feely' being beneath the musicians, but the bottom line is the old format DID NOT WORK and had no support, i.e. no one willing to pay for it."

Then Detroit doesn't deserve an orchestra.


Posted by: ACDouglas1 | March 2, 2011 11:28 PM | Report abuse

"Then Detroit doesn't deserve an orchestra."

What you seem to be saying is that communities don't have the right to decide what they want from their orchestras. Musicians wanted money that was given to the DSO for community outreach. Are you saying that players should get that money without being required to perform the work expected by the donors?

Posted by: Kent99 | March 3, 2011 4:02 PM | Report abuse

"What you seem to be saying is that communities don't have the right to decide what they want from their orchestras."

What I'm saying is that any community that wants from its orchestra anything more or other than first-rate playing doesn't deserve an orchestra.


Posted by: ACDouglas1 | March 3, 2011 10:11 PM | Report abuse

"What I'm saying is that any community that wants from its orchestra anything more or other than first-rate playing doesn't deserve an orchestra."

People don't learn to love great music by being shamed or bullied - they love great music by being engaged and inspired on a personal level. Limiting ways of engaging modern audiences doesn't honor the craft, it only hastens its death.

Posted by: Kent99 | March 3, 2011 11:32 PM | Report abuse

What is the best piece of classical music ever produced in each country? This is a somewhat whimsical game that I have started on a new blog--just for fun--and I would welcome reader's of Anne's blog to join us there. The site has no profit motive whatsoever, but I don't want to violate this blog's rules about solicitation. The link is

Posted by: dmason1 | March 4, 2011 9:32 AM | Report abuse

To perhaps address the great deal of ignorance stated above, read the actual record of the DSO musicians at
You should note that they already had offered to make FURTHER cuts to their pay but the board rejected it. A sea-change in the musicians role within the city should have been discussed in advance and in detail but there is no record of that except in the board's final offer. This is a topic that needs to be researched and discussed at length, not used as a stumbling block in contract negotiations.

Scapegoating a union also rears its ugly head. It ignores the necessity of union help in getting employees anything at all over the past 100 years. Their job is to provide due-process in protecting legal rights and advancing their benefits and salary, not jack-booted goons like some try to make them out to be.

Anne, perhaps you could provide a forum for many knowledgeable people to contribute in discussing additional roles for orchestra personnel in a community that would be realistic in todays volatile situation. The NSO already does many trips, school visits and petting zoos - I'm sure Detroit would do likewise if given the chance.

Oh, and mean, vindictive remarks like many above are no help whatsoever. Keep it to yourselves.

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | March 6, 2011 9:47 PM | Report abuse

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