day 109

COVID-19

It’s been 109 days since my last day on the job (actually working) as a member of the Oregon Symphony. Our season officially ended on June 13. I’ve had a couple of concerts as a member of 45th Parallel Universe‘s Pyxis Quartet via their remarkable live collaboration platform (thanks, Danny!), but that’s been about it. A colleague of mine called our situation an ‘unplanned sabbatical’. Unplanned is right.

I’ve written a half dozen posts in the intervening time, but have deleted the drafts the next day. Nothing felt good. Nothing felt right.

Mostly, I’ve been trying to get my instrument out at least once a day, and do some warm ups and a scale or an etude. Sometimes actual music gets played. Sometimes not.

It’s an unprecedented time for many occupations in the US. But in my middle-class, blue collar neighborhood, things seem to be pretty much as usual. I see my neighbors going to work each morning, while I sit around trying to figure out what I’m going to do with myself.

I and my colleagues feel pretty much invisible to society – even more so than usual. Some countries are announcing that they are slashing funding to arts education in their national curricula. Not exactly inspiring hope for the future.

My union brothers and sisters around the country are anticipating a round of contract re-openings in these tough times for US orchestras. One orchestra, the Indianapolis Symphony, decided that cutting off their employees’ health insurance was the right course of action in the midst of a pandemic. What were they thinking? Well, they’re in the midst of renegotiating a new CBA. Surprise, surprise. And don’t get me started about the Nashville Symphony. My initial reaction was profound disbelief. But I wasn’t in the room where it happened. There is a lot that I don’t know about the situation, and there may be plans to simply overhaul the entire ‘season’ rather than try to carry through preexisting plans. We’ll see.

Uncertainty is the greatest enemy to hope (and fiscal planning). When I think about how much I’m worrying about the future, I try to put myself in the shoes of those people who are trying to chart the course of my orchestra into the future – effectively without any sort of official guidance, and precious little (or nonexistent) funding. My heart goes out to the many people who have been working tirelessly these past three months who have just been furloughed until the next season starts (don’t ask).

I also know that our board of directors has been working overtime to try to fill the gap in earned income as well. Their responsibility is to the current and future financial health of the orchestra, and it’s a heavy burden when times are tough. I’m confident that they will make things happen in the sometimes mysterious ways that boards do their thing. High level contacts with government officials, financial institutions, and philanthropic foundations may help us get through the next few months and enable us to spring into action when the coast is clear.

Flowers in our garden.

As for me, I’m trying to keep busy and keep my thinking to the short term. It’s a luxury, but it is what will keep me sane, along with limiting my intake of the 24 hour news cycle. I’m doing work in our garden, riding my bike (without crashing, thank you very much), and spending lots of quality time with my wife and our two cats. So I’m making the best of a tough situation, and am grateful that, for now, my savings and thriftiness will enable us to get through this period without undue financial hardship. I hope that all of you are staying well and safe – and WEAR A MASK IN PUBLIC!

indianapolis board rejects latest offer

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – Another proposal, another rejection. Some say the lockout that’s kept the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra off the stage may now have reached a critical point that could result in some musicians leaving town.

The move comes after the musicians’ union rejected the Symphony Society’s latest offer Friday, then countered with its own. Just one day later, with the deadline still more than 24 hours away, the Symphony Society told 24-Hour News 8 that offer was rejected as well.

It means the month-long lockout at the Hilbert Circle Theater continues, and it may mean another round of cancelled concerts ahead.

It may also mean that orchestra members who have held strong thus far may soon consider taking their talents elsewhere.

As the orchestra gathered to practice at Carmel High School Saturday night, many were hopeful their sixth contract offer since talks began would finally seal the deal.

“This proposal has some very serious concessions,” said ISO French horn player and negotiating committee chairman Richard Graef. “But, we’ve made them in an effort to keep the music going and the orchestra financially stable.”

Source: WISH-TV, Indianapolis

is the oregon symphony the future model for the symphony orchestra?

You have to wonder. We have a deep pool of highly talented and skilled players. We “punch above our weight” as our outgoing President, Elaine Calder, likes to say. We’re paid about 50% less than we should be. Our player complement is 15% down from the CBA mandatory minimums (amended by side letter). Our season lasts 38 weeks out of the year.

Now, look at some of the opening proposals that managements of some 52 week orchestras have made in the past few months and weeks:

  • Indianapolis Symphony – reduce season from 52 to 36 weeks; reduce player complement from 87 to 63; cut salaries by 45%.
  • Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra – cut salaries by 57-67%; cut season from 37 to 35 weeks, some players down to 20 or 15 weeks; cut salaries by 15%.
  • Atlanta Symphony – 12 weeks of player furloughs (cutting season from 52 to 40 weeks); cut salaries by $20,000.

Interesting, eh?

The Oregon Symphony’s solution to its budgetary woes in the face of an unprecedented downturn in the local and national economy was reached over a period of several contract negotiations, and with the pain equally shared by both the management and musicians. To our credit, the musicians of the Oregon Symphony have been remarkably pragmatic about what is/was possible in our particular corner of the world – and to a large extent, so has our board and management. The musicians would love to be playing year round and making a commensurate salary, I’m sure. Management would love to have a $100 million endowment fund and guaranteed long-term stability. But together, we figured out what was possible and sustainable, and though it involved pain on both ‘sides’, we made those changes and have put ourselves in a place where stability is no longer a pipe dream, and growth is no longer inconceivable.

But as Elaine Calder would say, we’re in Portland – not somewhere else. What works here may not be applicable to another region. So, to look to the Oregon Symphony and see a new model for the symphony orchestra is a tempting, but ill-advised decision to make. It’s easy to slash and burn. It’s very difficult to build. I look at Indianapolis with their $100 million dollar endowment. How much of that is unrestricted? Calder took the bold step of raiding our unrestricted endowment funds to eliminate the deficit that threatened to send the OSO into bankruptcy – and at that point our endowment was scarcely $30 million at most. The board and management could have asked for that $6-8 million to come entirely out of the musicians’ pockets, both in terms of salary and weeks worked, but they did not. Perhaps some of our brother and sister organizations should look at that part of the Oregon Symphony equation.