Yesterday, we posted again on the musicians strike at the Detroit Symphony, primarily to respond to a Detroit Free Press article that tried to cast the dispute as a battle between the progressive attitudes of the board of directors and the dull reactionaries who happen to play instruments in the orchestra. We took issue with that account. It didn't match the comments by a former member of the Oregon Symphony who commented on our original post, and the rhetoric of the "progressive" board itself sounded far from inclusionary, collaborative or democratic. We suspect we'd be on that picket line, too.
For those just catching up with the Detroit Case, we posted three times about various aspects of the dispute.
1. If the cellist's salary declines in Detroit, does the music sound less sweet in Portland? This lays out the original problem and disputes the notion that a salary cut will mean the symphony will tumble into mediocrity (whatever that is). The comment threat is full of good ideas. And this post was by far the most viewed post in the brief history of Arts Dispatch, thanks to an ArtsJournal link, among others.
2. Dear Detroit, the economy of music isn't rational I tried to sharpen the idea that the "iron laws" of economics may not immediately apply to such things as music quality, and I argued that the Detroit Symphony (and by extension, all symphonies) should be involved in making classical music itself more central to the culture, whatever that takes.
3. The Detroit Symphony and the top-down community That was yesterday, when I finally started to understand that problem wasn't "mechanical" -- coming up with tactics and strategies for the symphony. It is a problem of a breakdown in the community. And until that's fixed, then nothing else matters.
This morning I visited Sticks and Drones, the website of Bill Eddins, the Music Director of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, and Ron Spigelman, the Music Director of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra in Missouri. Eddins was mentored by Ernest Fleischmann, the late executive director of the LA Philharmonic for many years and an important figure in the debate as the Detroit Free Press casts it. Fleischmann favored the all-out, community engagement approach, and Eddins concurs. His post insists that symphony orchestras must change their way of doing business, along the lines Fleischmann suggests. And he puts the onus on the musicians because they've resisted the calls for contract renegotiation by their "progressive" symphony boards. It's a post well worth reading, because Eddins is so deeply engaged in the issues involved, even though I don't agree with the framework of his discussion.
Eddins writes, "I know of at least two other top 30 budget orchestras where management has asked for musicians’ contracts to be re-opened specifically to lay the groundwork for these kind of changes." I would suggest that unless those orchestras have open, transparent, collaborative communities, in which all the major decisions are shared ones, change is going to be brutal. As long as the paradigm is "management v. labor," as long as the hierarchies are strict and advice and consent rare, it's almost impossible to move forward with the enthusiasm and creativity that the best kind of change requires.
My own thinking on this has shifted through the course of these posts. At first, I thought it WAS a tactical problem and the musicians were the ones resisting the solution. But why they are resisting? Do they believe that all is well with American symphony orchestras? I doubt it seriously. Do they trust "management" to make the right decisions? Of course not! Why should they? They live in a system in which the music director and executive director are often lordly creatures whose opinions must not be questioned.
Fleischmann, who said he wanted the orchestra to be a "community of musicians," by many accounts was like that. "Ernest Fleischmann may be arrogant, rude and ruthless, but even his critics admit he's the best orchestra boss in the business," Martin Bernheimer, the LA Times music critic wrote about him. Andre Previn called him "an untrustworthy, scheming bastard," after a power struggle with Fleischmann that Previn lost. I don't know; I wasn't there. Maybe he was also the sort of leader who takes the time to find out what everyone around him thinks about a problem and then applies the best solution regardless of who originates it.
At the Detroit Symphony, I'm suggesting, the community (audience, board, staff, musicians) needs to be flexible, engaged and creative. Power plays, brinksmanship (and that's coming, I fear), back-stabbing, scapegoating, the entire Machiavellian arsenal, might have some immediate effect. But they destroy the community you need to succeed in the long run. The question for Detroit: Is that community irreparably destroyed?
Here is Shelley Heron's comment:
Barry, you have correctly surmised that the musicians have been entirely left out of our management's latest plan to redefine the DSO.
A strategic planning effort concluded in late 2008 that was a fully collaborative process which included Leonard Slatkin. It took more than three years of dedicated effort on everyone’s part to successfully produce a long-range plan that was supported by the entire organization. It was the first time in the organization’s history that the musicians felt they had been involved in a meaningful process.
However, in June of 2009, only seven months later, a presentation was made to our board of directors by Michael Walsh, Jesse Rosen (League of American Orchestras) and others about the need to redefine the orchestra in the wake of the economic downturn. They felt that everything had to be on the table from the ground up, and that while it would be very difficult for the musicians to accept, it would be a “great adventure.” After that presentation, DSO CEO Anne Parsons said, “We’ll have to have a discussion and create a plan.”
I was stunned. Having been a participant in the strategic planning process for last three years I couldn’t believe what I was hearing -- that our strategic plan, not even a year old was essentially being shelved so that the “powers that be” could ram home massive change using the financial crisis as cover.
And I’m sorry to say – that is exactly what is happening. All of the discussions have taken place in back rooms without DSO musicians present and management is hoping that their stick is big enough to force the changes they desire.
So many times in the past the DSO has failed to recognize the long-term implications of its actions. Unfortunately, in my opinion, this is yet another example.
For anyone wishing to read more, I have written a detailed accounting at:
Oboist – Detroit Symphony Orchestra