|Orchestra Hall, Detroit|
It's hard to make sense of the dispute between the musicians and the board of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra from outside of Michigan. We aren't privy to the history of the symphony or the larger economic conditions it faces. We suspect that those conditions have deteriorated to such an extent that the support for the symphony going forward is going to be at a lower level for the foreseeable future. We sympathize with musicians who are asked to take a $30,000 per year pay cut, with little chance that this is going to be a short-term hit. But honestly, we aren't there and can't make a first-hand assessment.
But from the post yesterday and the subsequent comments, a couple of points are worth restating. The first involves one of the central arguments that the Detroit Symphony musicians are making. They contend that the salary cut will make it impossible for the symphony to employ truly first-rate musicians going forward, and that ultimately the music the symphony makes will suffer. As our commenters (Charles Noble, Frank Almond and Thomas Lloyd) pointed out, one way or another, this presupposes that the best musicians (however we define "best") will always seek out and secure the highest paying positions.
And that presupposition is built on the idea that the economy as a whole is a rational meritocracy. I think we owe the Chicago School of economics the credit for insinuating this particular canard into the culture. Is the Los Angeles Philharmonic many times better than the orchestras in Milwaukee or Portland? Will it suddenly become twice as good as Detroit's, once the pay cuts take place? No one is going to argue that, at least not successfully.
And it demeans the work done in Milwaukee and Portland by musicians we know are committed to the craft of their instruments and the art form of their music. We may admire the playing of a violinist in the famed orchestras of LA, San Francisco or Cleveland, but we don't for a moment think that our own violinists can't convey the musical ideas of Mozart or Mahler or Philip Glass. They can. We've heard them. Maybe we even prefer them to the recordings we've heard of the bigger orchestras. (In fact, I do in some cases.)
So, I'm unmoved by that particular argument mounted by the musicians in Detroit.
But what should the musicians of Detroit do? Sit there and take it quietly? I think I would offer to cut yet another five percent from my salary, if the money went to the right place. We might call the right place "marketing" (as Kennedy Center chief Michael Kaiser has), but I think it's broader than that. The Detroit symphony (much like the one in Portland) is fighting to make its work and art more central to the culture of its city. I'd demand to play EVERYWHERE the staff could schedule me -- malls, schools, colleges, outdoor amphitheaters, public squares, in Detroit and the suburbs.
If that meant playing fewer concerts in my concert hall, well, that's OK, because the real work to be done isn't perfecting my Brahms, it's showing why Brahms matters to my community at all, especially to people who don't come to the music already believing that. Once I've done that, everything else falls into place. We all listen to Brahms together. We start to build a better culture, one informed by Brahms, together. I don't worry about the salaries of musicians in a culture like that. Maybe I don't even worry about my own.
This sounds so simple. Too simple. But as Detroit is proving, we spend a lot of time squabbling with each other while the real "enemy," ignorance, runs rampant. We let our rules and regulations and past practices get in the way. We make false arguments or argue the wrong thing. The value of the orchestra isn't economic; it's not even semiotic: the orchestra as a sign of an "advanced" culture. All of its value is tied up in the experience it offers its listeners, second by second, measure by measure, the attention it demands and the rewards it issues. Who can we get to listen and how can we encourage them to join us again? I'm sorry: Nothing else matters.