labor issues music the orchestra world

columbus lost at sea?

In a move which will likely result in the permanent crippling of a once fine orchestra, the management of the Columbus Symphony (Ohio) is proposing massive cuts of both orchestra personnel positions and the length of the season: the former down from 53 to 31 full-time musicians, the latter from 46 to 34 weeks.

The restructuring plan is designed to get the symphony on firm financial footing and ensure its survival.”This is to try to save the orchestra and enable us to grow it into something special,” said Robert “Buzz” Trafford, chairman of the symphony board.

Trafford presented the proposal yesterday to six musicians. The group walked out about 45 minutes into the meeting when they learned how many musicians would be let go under the plan.

“We feel completely betrayed,” said Jim Akins, principal tuba player and chairman of the orchestra committee, which represents the musicians in meetings with management.

“For the past two years, we’ve given this board all our support. But this proposed plan was done outside of any collaboration or consultation with musicians,” Akins said.

Read the entire article here.

What is especially dismaying about this news is that the musicians had already borne a large part of the financial “solutions” imposed to date in the form of reduced salaries, benefits, and the length of the season. It puzzles me that in this day and age, with the dessicated corpses of a number of formerly fine orchestras lying by the side of the road in this country, that draconian cuts of this size and scope would be viewed as a legitimate strategy to save an orchestra.

It’s like having your horses escape from the barn, then burning down the barn to keep it from happening again. Idiotic, stupid, short-sighted, and monumentally stupid – that’s what this action is.

But it’s the easy way to go for a board and administration that clearly doesn’t see anything wrong with their failed management policies over the last decade. It takes guts to look yourself and your team in the eye and actually look at what you’ve done right and wrong, and set a new course. In this case the CSO team decided that the size of the orchestra and the size of the season were solely responsible for the financial difficulties of the orchestra.

I’ll be interested to see how well they manage to raise funds for a dismembered torso of an orchestra that they have left – barely a chamber orchestra at 31 members – cut by 42 percent, and with a season cut by nearly 24 percent! I don’t think that patrons will be lining up at the door to support what’s left over from this massacre.

With the Jacksonville debacle barely settled (and so needlessly badly handled), this latest travesty really makes me wonder what the state of the arts truly is in this country. Especially the state of orchestra administrators, who seem to need no real knowledge of either finance or music to run multi-million dollar musical institutions. I’d bet that when these cuts go through the next headline will be about the CSO’s executive director getting a better-paid, higher-profile job with another orchestra. It’s almost as though you’re rewarded by the League of American Orchestras for doing the most damage to an institution, or at least that’s the way it appears as we watch orchestra after orchestra suffer from ineffective and ineffectual leadership, especially at the middle-tier level.

This news just makes me sick.

3 replies on “columbus lost at sea?”

I agree that this is not good news. I am sorry to see your comments about the League of American Orchestras. Usually, you tend to be pretty objective and aware that there are many challenges that face orchestras today, and that there are many fine people on boards, staffs and in orchestras who work together to solve issues. The LOA has been doing some innovative sharing of best practices, introducing new models (which is very hard to do, since orchestras are not “risk laboratories”) and other valuable services. The LOA is a service organization – it cannot tell orchestras or boards or communities how to run their businesses. It’s hard work out there, and getting people to continually give more to support orchestras requires hard and creative work. When a plan fails – even after hard work and creative leadership – I’ll bet nobody feels good about it. “Ineffective leadership” can often be equated with failure of the community to support at a level needed. Not always – but sometimes. Let’s hope things get worked out in Columbus.

I, too, hope that things get worked out in Columbus, and I know that the musicians there will not let the orchestra go under if they have anything to say about it – and I’m sure the same could be said about the management team there as well. But cuts such as are being talked about in Columbus are well nigh a death sentence for an orchestra, especially if it is already struggling. I most of all hope that there is a long-range plan ready to go after such cuts are made – they can’t hope to solve the problems that no doubt exist simply by cutting what they feel they cannot afford.

This situation is a extreme illustration of something I learned long ago through direct experience and observation.
To survive in this business one needs to always remember that no matter how much sacrifice you might make for an orchestra, it will never “care” about you back. In effect it is an inanimate object really, not capable of caring. Better to focus on the music and get yourself a good well balanced life outside of your Orchestra. As so often happens, the musicians in Columbus had been made to feel very involved in the goings on there but in actual fact were kept in the dark about the most vital aspect. The Orchestra Committee Chair states the musicians feel betrayed now. This is sad evidence of their well intentioned but obviously misplaced trust. I certainly hope a way will be found to preserve what they have worked so hard for.

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