administration labor issues the orchestra world

are we expendable?

I just read this article published today about the contract negotiations in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Here’s one section – in particular, the last paragraph – that incensed me:

If the Minnesota Orchestra’s proposed cuts are approved, would that mean a
significant turnover among its 85 musicians? The orchestra’s principal
trombonist, R. Douglas Wright, is a member of the negotiating committee who
thinks so.

“A change of five musicians could make a big difference in the sound,
depending upon which musicians,” Wright said. “If their proposal passes as
is, we’re going to lose a lot more than five.”

Board chair Campbell accepts there could be some turnover.

“The number of highly trained musicians that this country is producing every
year is really quite remarkable,” he said Wednesday. “If you just take the
top echelon of music schools in the U.S., they produce almost 3,000
performing artists a year. So couple what’s happening in the marketplace
with a large supply — not to dismiss the fact that we don’t want to lose
any of our wonderful musicians — but there may be some changes.”

I hate making sports analogies, but this is like saying that thousands of college athletes are turning out for football, and they are all so highly qualified that they can step in and replace starting players for the NFL. What this board member fails to mention is that many, many college athletes (and music majors) might do well at the college level, but will fail to win national auditions for the biggest orchestras. Music schools don’t turn out uniformly excellent and qualified musicians – even the most prestigious among those schools, the conservatories, produce musicians who, for one reason or another, never gain employment in their chosen field.

The point made by the trombonist is right on the money – of the thousands of music school graduates, and even of the hundreds that are the cream of the crop, there may be only a few that will fit in with the sound concept and ethos of a particular ensemble. Principal players, especially, are very difficult to find a match for. In wind sections, just the change of one member of any section can create the need for playing adjustments that might take years to make from the rest of the section members, and the entire wind section as a whole. And that is just with the best possible candidate being offered the job.

I see a very disturbing trend coming from the management side: the business model of the for-profit corporation is starting to be ever more aggressively pushed on the non-profit sector. Some of these ideas can have merit, such as in marketing and sales. But the symphony orchestra cannot be downsized or outsource and remain what it was meant to be. It’s like tearing down the Louvre and putting up photos of the artworks up on line. Yes, we can still see the Mona Lisa, but that is no substitute for the real thing in its intended setting.