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.