Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Unions, Classical Music, and All o' That

A couple of weeks ago, Greg Sandow was quoted in The Australian as follows:
Sandow says that if the Philadelphia Orchestra were to suddenly discharge all its musicians and replace them with young players on contract, what might be lost in polish could easily be made up for in pizazz.
"I wonder if that wouldn't be more exciting to hear," he says. "It might really surprise people."
Sigh. I wish people would stop and think before they say things like that. He'd just throw out an enormous body of accumulated knowledge and playing experience to reduce costs and possibly gain "pizzazz."

Is there any evidence that the Philadelphia Orchestra lacks, um, pizzazz or excitement? Has Greg heard the orchestra play in the last few years? Does he understand what goes into orchestra building?

But getting back to the idea that a reasonable way to reduce costs is to break unions (as, perhaps, NYCO is about to try) or to talk the musicians into taking enormous cuts or to generally blame union and musician wages for the financial difficulties faced by some arts organizations today (see Detroit, see Philadelphia, see NYCO, see the quiet threats emanating from David Gockley's office at San Francisco Opera).

First, let's remember the division of labor at opera companies and symphonies:
  • The musicians and singers are paid to put on concerts and operas.
  • The nonmusician union members are paid to make costumes and sets and wigs and move stuff around the stage.
  • The administrators are paid to raise enough money to pay for putting on concerts and operas, and to perform myriad administrative tasks with some degree of smarts.
If an opera company or symphony orchestra finds itself in financial trouble, it's rarely because the musicians can't play and the costumers have forgotten how to sew. (If you know of such a case, please provide details in the comments.) It's invariably because the administration has failed in some way or there has been a major economic downturn. They haven't raised enough money, there's been some kind of major leadership failure, they have incurred new costs for some reason - and so on. And it's important to keep in mind that the administrators were involved in union negotiations, and signed the contracts with their eyes open.

We are currently in a serious economic downturn, and coming out of it very slowly - read Paul Krugman's column and blog at the NY Times, if you need more information about that. Or keep an eye on the unemployment numbers. This has affected every arts organization in the country.

NYCO and the Philadelphia Orchestra are poster children for weak or incompetent administration. At NYCO, the board made at least two terrible mistakes: the appointment of Gerard Mortier, evidently without due diligence about what kind of budget he would want, and the renovation of the NY State Theater at Mortier's request, which left the company with their usual bills to pay, no place to perform, and no income. Mortier skedaddled without ever coming to NY or staging a production, leaving the board scrambling to find a new director. They wound up with George Steel, who had about as much experience running an opera company as do: several months at Dallas, which was preceded by great success as the concert presenter at the Miller Theater. Maybe Steel is the third big mistake; hard to say at this point. He's in a terrible position, where he'll get blamed for mistakes other people made. Honestly, you'd have to be a miracle worker to pull them out of the current skid.

Oh, I forgot about the way NYCO has run through its endowment. Once valued at $55 million, presumably at the height of the boom, the endowment is down to $9 million. That's the fourth terrible mistake. They've also got an inexperienced board president, appointed just a few months ago, who says things about not disclosing their finances. As a non-profit, hello, you are legally required to release financial information to the public. Don't talk about keeping things under your hat. It only makes you look bad. So, let's call this the fifth mistake.

The Philadelphia Orchestra has been having various problems since the 1990s, when they stopped contributing to the musicians' pension plan. I'd call that a long-term governance issue. They've had music director issues, with Christoph Eschenbach coming and going rather quickly; a successor has been found, but he is not in place yet. So there's been weak, or no, musical leadership. I understand there have been problems with the administrative leadership as well, with Alison Vulgamore appointed after a chaotic period with no general director. (Oh...and it is not good that she is taking a big pay raise when the orchestra has just declared bankruptcy.)

Guess what? The Philadelphia Orchestra could try to lower its costs by firing all its musicians, and it would still have the higher costs of the Kimmel Center over the Academy of Music, the low ticket sales, the problems in their administrative leadership. And they would have a gigantic public relations failure on their hands too. I bet most of their audience would flip out if the orchestra replaced 100% of its musicians with recent conservatory graduates. The loss of good will would be immense. I myself would never set foot in their hall or give a penny to an organization that had done such a thing, and I know that I am not alone in that.

See also:


john_burke100 said...

Sandow sneers at the music, mocks the audience (as though Time's wingèd chariot didn't know his address), and now cavalierly tosses off the idea of firing the performers. He's pretty much an all-around scab, isn't he?

Lisa Hirsch said...


Henry Holland said...

He's pretty much an all-around scab, isn't he?

I'd replace "scab" with "blithering idiot" but "scab" works too.

Mortier skedaddled without ever coming to NY

I'm sorry, it's obvious that I'm pro-Mortier and lament the fiasco his tenure at NYCO was --going dark for such a long period was a disaster, to say the least-- but like you, I'm not a fan of misinformation either. Mortier certainly came to New York.

BTW, there's hints about the 2011-12 NYCO season in the linked NYT article:

Mr. Steel did not release titles at the meeting, saying he did not want to detract from a public announcement. According to what the company called a “working schedule,” subject to change, the season would begin with a Bel Canto opera in concert on Oct. 6, with four to six solo singers, orchestra and no chorus.

The first staged production — a piece of standard repertory from the 19th century — would go up in February, with a chorus of 28 and an orchestra of 57. A 21st-century opera with a similar-size orchestra and no chorus would have four performances later in the month, possibly the opera by the singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, which the company had already announced it would be doing.

A work of 18th-century standard repertory (Mozart?) was scheduled for March, and a Baroque opera for May. Each would have four performances. A fifth work, again a 19th-century staple, would take place in late summer.

Do. not. want.

I certainly know what a drag on finances a new hall can be but every time I pass Disney Hall I still can't quite believe it ever got built. For years, it seemed that it was only going to be the parking garage that got finished. Plus, whatever one might think of the outside (I love the steel part, loathe the public spaces inside) that actual hall is an acoustical winner. Seems like Philadelphia got both a venue nobody likes and one that is acoustically poor. It'll be interesting to see what Yannick Nézet-Séguin does when he takes up the MD post, but that's not until 2012-13.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Okay, I'll buy that Mortier went to NYC. He was never particularly in residence, though. Yeah, I was pro-Mortier but man, everything has worked out very badly for the company.

The LAPO had a secret weapon in getting Disney built, well, two: the gigantic donation from Mrs. Disney and Ernest Fleischmann.

It seems as though 1979-2005 was a big era of concert-hall building: Davies, the Minneapolis hall, Benaroya Hall in Seattle, Disney, Winspear Opera House, the newish hall in Orange County, Schermerhorn in Nashville, Kimmel Center, and maybe others. (I wish we could tear down Davies and start over....) I think it will be some time before the next wave.

Henry Holland said...

Yes, the Disney donation, forgot about that!

The burst of sports stadium building seems to be over too. Los Angeles hasn't had an NFL team since the 90's because the taxpayers have refused to fund a new stadium. Years ago, AEG (the owners of Staples Center and the area around it) announced with great fanfare that they were going to build an NFL stadium next to Staples > steal another city's team. On the condition, of course, that the city kick in a big chunk of the cost. A few days later, the City Council said "You're not getting a penny of public money" and the very next day AEG announced the project was canceled. I'll always be proud of the city council for not giving in to blackmail then.

Brian said...

There are actually two even bigger secret words for LAPO's success: Hollywood Bowl. Fleischmann's real stroke of genius was revitalizing the Bowl and turning it into an integral part of everyones ideal of summer in LA. Stuffing the Bowl with popular, non-classical fare, offering oddles of cheap, cheap seats and turning the thing into a giant booze addled picnic has allowed for a source of revenue for LAPO to comparatively divorce itself from many of the worries other arts organizations have been facing year round.

And while I would like to agree with just about everything in this post, I would like to point out one underlying concept I take issue with. That is the sort of American capitalist model that success and failure lies nearly entirely in the hands of the uppermost leadership and management. You make an eloquent argument about the outcome of bad management. But there are other factors in why companies and other organizations fail - like bad luck or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Sure NYCO and Philadelphia were clearly be hampered by weak leadership that has created their problems. But I don't believe that every inevitability and calamity economic and otherwise can be planned around or prepared for simply with visionary leadership. Sometimes shit just happens. And most success calls for taking risks which guarantees that there will be people taking the wrong ones at some point.

For example, Obama wins the 2008 election. Was it just the matter that his campaign was the better managed, or was it the totally fucked up economic meltdown going on around him that handed him the election? No company should blame its problems on the unions, but I think that bad management is a rather convenient scapegoat in many situations as well.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Ha. I did not realize that the Hollywood Bowl is a cash cow for the LAPO. Fleischmann was really a brilliant guy, I have to say.

You are right about the luck of the draw. I should have given more emphasis to the terrible economic problems of the last decade, from the first tech bust to the post-9/11 downturn to the monster problems of the last five or six years.

Joe Shelby said...

This same use of an alternative summer concert series, outdoors and using crossover musics (film scores, an annual Gilbert & Sullivan show, an annual Mozart opera) has worked well for the National Symphony Orchestra here in DC. Their outdoor venue is the Filene Center at Wolf Trap.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thanks, Joe!

Daniel Wolf said...


Ernst Fleischmann seems to be getting a lot of posthumous credit for developments that took place before his tenure, and two in particular should be noted: the Hollywood Bowl has been the summer home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic since its official opening in 1922 and Zubin Mehta, who was the Dudamel of his day, was named music director in 1962, while Fleischmann followed seven years later.

I agree with you on the thrust of this article, but I suspect that the case for unions would be much more forceful if it weren't for the cosmetic problems of a very few, very tiny, union groups in the performing arts, like the stagehands at Carnegie Hall, which have been able to secure wages on a pro-sports scale without doing very much at all in the way of solidarity for their brothers and sisters who haven't lucked into such a gig.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Yes, the Carnegie stagehands certainly do make for bad press for unions. I'm largely talking about musicians' unions and the craft unions at opera houses.

Thanks for the clarifications re Fleischmann. I think Brian was referring to the particular programming EF instituted at the Hollywood Bowl, but perhaps I am misreading.