Lis­ten Up,

Pasatiempo - - Lis­ten Up -

It has built a net­work of al­liances with cor­po­ra­tions that draw ben­e­fits from sup­port­ing the group at home and on tour, and it has in­sti­tuted a de­tailed net­work of per­son­al­ized cus­tomer ser­vice that has strength­ened bonds with its cus­tomer base. The Cincin­nati Sym­phony looked sim­i­larly doomed in 2009, but a nice lit­tle nest egg of $85 mil­lion ar­rived from a lo­cal phi­lan­thropist; used wisely, that should pro­vide a safety net for a good long while.

The most dis­taste­ful spec­ta­cle now play­ing out in the world of Amer­i­can or­ches­tras is em­a­nat­ing from Detroit. The Detroit Sym­phony ended its 2010 fis­cal year (in Au­gust) with a deficit of $8.8 mil­lion, this on an op­er­at­ing bud­get of $29.3 mil­lion — which ba­si­cally means the deficit is way, way too much. The mu­si­cians went on strike last Oc­to­ber in a dis­pute that is mostly about pay but also in­volves re­sis­tance to re­defin­ing their ac­tiv­i­ties so as to ob­li­gate them to spend more of their orchestra hours work­ing in ed­u­ca­tional ac­tiv­i­ties. One hoped it might be a golden mo­ment for the Detroit Sym­phony, where Leonard Slatkin, a very es­timable con­duc­tor, be­gan as mu­sic direc­tor just as things started to crum­ble. The mu­si­cians are un­der­stand­ably an­gry con­tem­plat­ing the prospects of pay cuts to the tune of 20 or 30 per­cent (depend­ing on whose arith­metic you pre­fer); and yet, they’ve got to be aware that this deal would look de­lec­ta­ble to so very many of their neigh­bors in de­pleted Detroit. They’re fol­low­ing the play­book that is hauled out too of­ten when or­ches­tras be­gin the down­ward spiral. Ad­min­is­tra­tions are painted as en­e­mies of the mu­si­cians, de­sir­ing only to make the play­ers’ lives mis­er­able. (An odd rea­son to go into an ad­min­is­tra­tive pro­fes­sion that doesn’t pay very well, one might sug­gest.) If play­ers’ de­mands aren’t met, the mu­si­cians will have no op­tion but to leave for other or­ches­tras where they’ll be bet­ter ap­pre­ci­ated. (One won­ders what or­ches­tras would those be. Louisville? Charleston? New Mex­ico? Or maybe that one golden open­ing in the Cleve­land Orchestra — an­other deficit-rid­den or­ga­ni­za­tion — that, of course, every­one would au­di­tion for any­way?) On Jan. 10, the mu­si­cians of the Detroit Sym­phony walked through the look­ing glass and down a pathway that grows in­creas­ingly sur­real; still on strike, they be­gan hand­ing out fly­ers out­side the North Amer­i­can In­ter­na­tional Auto Show, urg­ing Ford Motor Com­pany to with­hold its fund­ing from — yes, from the Detroit Sym­phony — and to dis­as­so­ci­ate it­self from this ap­par­ently dis­rep­utable or­ga­ni­za­tion by hav­ing its logo re­moved from the orchestra’s web­site and other pub­li­ca­tions. It’s true that it’s not the old days, and that Ford manages to do­nate only about $120,000 an­nu­ally. This amount is not go­ing to make or break the orchestra. But it is enough to cover the salary of one of the mu­si­cians, and it does seem coun­ter­in­tu­itive for the ben­e­fi­cia­ries of Ford’s largesse to cut the legs out from un­der their own chairs. But, of course, it’s the prin­ci­ple of the thing. The spokesper­son for the play­ers’ com­mit­tee ex­plained that Ford “shouldn’t be as­so­ci­ated with an in­sti­tu­tion that’s try­ing to crush its union.”

Wel­come to 2011 and the new face of the in­sti­tu­tions that once sym­bol­ized the high­est as­pi­ra­tions of civic cul­tural achieve­ment. The hopes and dreams of great cities have in­creas­ingly be­come night­mares, and those or­ches­tras that are prov­ing the most re­sis­tant to change are those that seem the least likely to thrive in the fu­ture. A few may rise from their ashes. Said the pres­i­dent of the mu­si­cians union in Honolulu fol­low­ing the Honolulu Sym­phony’s demise: “Well, I wouldn’t say ‘R.I.P. a sym­phony.’ I don’t know about the Honolulu Sym­phony it­self, the name it­self. But there are still mu­si­cians here, and ob­vi­ously there’s com­mu­nity in­ter­est in a sym­phony.” To which the head of the mu­si­cian union’s orchestra com­mit­tee added: “We think this pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity for new lead­er­ship with a real vi­sion of what a pro­fes­sional sym­phony orchestra is to come for­ward and fi­nally pro­duce that for the com­mu­nity.” It’s hard to imag­ine pre­cisely what that new, en­light­ened man­age­ment might achieve that the old, be­nighted one could not. At the mo­ment, one can hardly wish for more than this: respect and grat­i­tude to the in­stru­men­tal­ists who keep the mu­sic alive, to the ad­min­is­tra­tors who keep the or­ches­tras vi­tal, to the phi­lan­thropists who help th­ese glo­ri­ous in­sti­tu­tions to feed the souls of their com­mu­ni­ties, and to the lis­ten­ers who will not ac­cept the dire al­ter­na­tive.

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