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.

labor issues the orchestra world

in solidarity with fort worth and pittsburgh

Our shirts say: "Supporting the Arts means Supporting the Artists".
Our shirts say: “Supporting the Arts means Supporting the Artists”.

Orchestras cannot continue to embrace regressive tactics when it comes to making their business models work. Musicians cannot be outsourced to foreign call centers. We can’t (or shouldn’t) be replaced with robots or machines.

Our training doesn’t get cheaper, nor do our instruments, rents, and housing costs. But managements across the country seem to think that our salaries can shrink, or fail to keep pace with inflation, or be frozen, and it will make no difference to those of us performing in front of the public every week.

Finding new way to make the symphony orchestra an indispensable part of the the modern urban landscape is the way to bring orchestras forward. Fort Worth and Pittsburgh deserve orchestras that are paid commensurate to their skill level, and must be made aware of what having an orchestra of their caliber in their city means for their community.

Managers and conductors see constant increases in their pay “because that is what the market will bear”. Musicians seem to have no such market forces working on their behalf. That is why it is so important for we unionized musicians of the American Federation of Musicians to stick together.

Together, we can make a difference.


labor issues the orchestra world

socks and underwear

Oregon Symphony/Leah Nash
Oregon Symphony/Leah Nash

In the latest issue of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) journal, Senza Sordino, the Oregon Symphony’s ICSOM delegate, piccolo player Zachariah Galatis, wrote eloquently of the ennui that accompanied our recent ratification of a new collective bargaining agreement. I won’t go into it, he describes everything quite well in the article, but I’ll just say this about how the settlement looks to me, in terms of respect to the musicians:

The musicians of an orchestra are the socks and underwear of the budget line items. Necessary, not exciting. Spend as little as you can get away with on them.