labor issues the orchestra world

right war, wrong enemy

These are what the Chinese would call ‘interesting’ times – as in the curse ‘may you live in interesting times’ – for orchestras and their musicians. As if coordinated by an invisible hand – cough, wink, nudge – a series of boards and their managements have made the decision that their problems are solely due to the unnecessarily high cost of their labor force – the musicians. Unlike a company that, say, makes cars, the people in an orchestra are the product. Without them, there is no music. The conductor can show up, but he won’t make much of a sound with his arms unless he flaps them really hard. And, like the NFL referees, experience matters. An orchestra full of just out of conservatory graduates would sound pretty good, but orchestras are artistic organisms that take generations to build and perfect. The experience and grounding of the senior players mixes with the youth and virtuosity (which the veteran players also possess, believe me!) and results in a sort of group-think alchemy that is extremely hard to describe, but is an undeniable part of what makes an ensemble great.

For years, behind the great ensembles, there stood great boards and managers. They loved the symphonic tradition so much that they sought to bring it to their communities and make the orchestras the best they could be. The love came first, along with passion, and those two virtues, along with fundraising savvy, enabled orchestras to thrive in the US. There have always been hard times for the arts, some harder than others, and some major strikes and lockouts have coincided with those tough times as well. In some cases the musicians overreached, in others, the board and management. But in recent years, there has been an insidious infiltration of symphony boards with business people who come to their board position not out of a passion for and a love of the ensemble and the music it exists to perform, but out of a zeal to reform the institution and to make it conform to their ideals of for-profit economic models. The first item of business in such a agenda is to cut costs. Why? Because it’s the way the rest of the business world operates. Employees too expensive? Outsource their jobs and lay them off. Too many employees? Build some robots and have them replace ten humans each. Revenues falling off? Cut wages.

But, as it’s been said in many other places, and with much more elan than here, musicians are the product of the orchestral organization. They alone produce the combination of sounds that miraculously make us joyful, sad, optimistic, pessimistic, inspired, despairing, and countless other emotions.

A fact that is not often known to many is that the size of the orchestra matters. It applies across all of the sections of the orchestra, but is most especially noticed in the sound of the string sections. A section of 8 cellos, no matter how accomplished, will not have the beautiful and refined sheen of a section of 12 would possess, and not nearly the power. It’s like the difference between a four-cylinder engine vs. a V-12. A four cylinder engine will get you up to 120 miles per hour, but it will take a lot more work to do so, and it will have some roughness and vibration in the process. The V-12 engine, on the other hand, will get you up to 120 mph also, but it will do it smoothly and with little apparent effort, and when you ask for more speed, it will give it to you with no drama or additional effort.

Ask a section of 7 or 8 cellos to do the work of 10 or 12, and you will get a sound that is less blended. You will also get a brittle and harsh sound at the loudest levels of output. And most of all, there will not be that reserver power that a great section almost always has – where you’re already seemingly at ’10’ on the volume scale, and when that bit extra is really needed, they can go to ’11’ with little apparent effort. It’s not only loudness. The sound of a larger string section playing pianissimo is infinitely more complex and sonorous than that of a smaller string section. There is more of a blend of the different voices which results in a rich carpet of sound – an almost visible haze of sound, in fact. The Berlin Philharmonic is famous for its softness – and they carry large string sections, as well as combine the best of the experienced veteran players with the best of the young hot shot players.

So, at the end of the day, the musicians are not the enemy that they’re being made out to be. They are the single greatest asset an orchestra can possess, and once lost, they are irreplaceable. The real enemy is poor governance. Bad business decisions made about multi-million dollar hall renovations, or purchases, or from the ground up new construction. Horrible investments in the stock market have crippled some ensembles, who then take it out on their hapless musicians – many of whom warned their board of their folly years in advance. I’m hearing a lot of language about how orchestras must become more agile and adaptive – but most of this language involves musicians having to make wholesale changes in the way they make music together – and yet boards and managements continue to work the same ways they have for generations. Where is their innovation and newfound agility and adaptiveness? Only at the head of a budget-cutting axe, I suspect.

6 replies on “right war, wrong enemy”

Great post, Charles!

You should send this to all the major “newspapers” (or whatever they’re called now in these internet times) to Letters to the Editor — especially to those cities in which orchestras are currently fighting this disturbing trend.

Wow. Perfectly articulated! And tragic. It does seem like the death of American orchestras in all but the top-five (a new configuration of top-five) cities. Thanks for this extremely accurate insight.


Very thoughtful observations. I agree with you on the effects younger business types are having on the management/musician dynamic.

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