covid-19 labor issues oregon oregon symphony the orchestra world

smoke (and mirrors)

Smoke as seen from my front yard.
My front yard two days ago.

There’s little chance that you’ve failed to notice that much of the western US is on fire. It’s come close to home for me in a way that it never has before. I live in the very northwestern corner of Clackamas County, which is to the south and east of Portland. The entire county was under a level one evacuation protocol when high winds fanned the flames of some smouldering fires in the Cascade foothills. Since then some areas to our south and east have been put under level two and level three. Level two is ‘be ready to leave at a moment’s notice’, Level three is ‘get out now’. We had our cat carriers out, and had made a mental list of what we’d put in the car if we needed to. Cats, viola, documents, us. That was all that we really needed to have. Everything else was stuff – precious stuff – but still just stuff. Mostly replaceable. Meanwhile, many of our fellow county residents have lost property, possessions, and in more than a few cases, lives of pets and family. The death toll is looking like it will rise significantly once burned areas can be searched. It’s such a sad time for many.

So that’s the smoke alluded to in this post’s title.

my viola on a chair

As this natural calamity occurs, there is another one happening as well. The Oregon Symphony 2020-2021 season was due to begin two days ago. All of our services (rehearsals and concerts) have been canceled through December 2020. We have no hall to play in (at least for live audiences), and any outdoor possibilities (considered or not) have been rendered moot by the unhealthy air in the region. I was supposed to take part in two donor events this past week which were both canceled due to hazardous conditions. There’s no telling if they’ll be able to be rescheduled. A week that was to have had a couple quartet rehearsals and two concerts for small groups of donors turned into a week of trying to figure out what to do, and worrying about what would come (or not come) next.

This is the mirror that I’m forced to look into – a present that I can’t even imagine right now. I’m watching other orchestras starting their seasons to various degrees. The Dallas Symphony has already held several concerts, Houston is about to hold their season opener. The Minnesota Orchestra plays a concert tonight. The Seattle Symphony has started a new streaming service and is presenting concerts on it. Toledo is holding concerts this weekend. Almost all of our peer orchestras (the group collected under the ICSOM organization) are either working or being paid a substantial amount of their wages while out of work. The Oregon Symphony is one of only six orchestras that is fully furloughed. We’re not being paid anything, other than unemployment, at this point*. Health insurance is being paid, for which we are very grateful. But it is frustrating, not knowing what is happening. We don’t know what plans are being made (if any) to begin playing concerts of any sort before January. We do know that our contract (CBA) will be modified due to the COVID-19 situation, but have no idea what will come of that. Even a couple hundred dollars a week of income could make a huge difference to some of us. And unlike some other orchestras, our players’ association does not have a million dollar ‘war chest’ for strikes, lockouts, and other situations where we’re out of work for a long time. I am beginning to fear that I will come out of this time with zero savings – after years of scrimping and gigging to get a cushion to make it through lean times. That means the latter half of my career will be spent worrying about money constantly, and most likely being unable to retire until well into my 70’s. It’s not exactly what I was looking forward to.

Not all of it has been terrible. The orchestra produced several acclaimed video series – Symphony Storytime, a series for children; and Essential Sounds, a chronicle of the crisis over the spring and early summer featuring performances by OS musicians (I was fortunate to be able to take part in the episode embedded below).

I had a lot of hope around the end of last season (the time it was scheduled to end, June, not when it actually ended, March). Hope that my job would remain pretty close to what it was in the first half of March 2020. That hope is fading. It is entirely possible that the last ten years of my time here will have been the best years that the Oregon Symphony will ever see. I hope that that is not the case. But hope is in limited supply these days.

*We will be, at some point, be paid our Premium Pay, which is 2.5 weeks of vacation pay normally paid in our last pay period of the season, and our Electronic Media Guarantee (EMG) payment, which covers the use of previously recorded material for various electronic means of broadcast.

By Charles Noble

I'm the Assistant principal violist of the Oregon Symphony.

3 replies on “smoke (and mirrors)”

You are all in my thoughts and have been for months. I was so looking forward to seeing you on Thursday.
Take care of yourself and family.

One of only six in ICSOM that are fully furloughed?? So much depends on whether board and management think of the orchestra as a fixed or variable cost, and whether you own your own hall – or management can negotiate “desperate measures” rental rates. If you think of the orchestra as a fixed cost then you’ll try to keep the musicians working with as few incremental costs as possible: no guest soloists, no rented parts, no extra musicians for unusual orchestrations. You’ll schedule donor events, community visits and concerts for small, socially distanced audiences. Maybe some live streaming if, like Detroit, you’ve already invested in the technology. But if you think of the orchestra as a variable cost that can be furloughed while you go right on paying fixed costs like office rent, then it’s time for some serious soul-searching. Why are you in this business at all?

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