Chicago Symphony strikes, others in crisis

The news is grim in Orchestraland. The troubles of the Philadelphia Orchestra over the past two years were but the canary in the coal mine. Will Philadelphia also find its way to stability sooner than some others? Sunday's piece explores the future.

Elsewhere, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is on strike. Philadelphia musicians weighed this option during the bankruptcy/judicially supervised renegotiation of their labor contract. In the end, they saw that a strike would probably accelerate audience drain, and took a huge hit in wages and pension instead. Chicago players are determined to see that it doesn't happen to them.

Musicians and management of the wonderful Minnesota Orchestra are still talking. The administration's April 12 position proposed that players take an average pay cut to $89,000, from $135,000, the StarTribune reports. A lockout is a possibility, which is exactly what happened at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Musicians continue to play without a contract in Cleveland, but concerts of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra have been called off while talks apparently continue. At the New York Philharmonic, an unusually short pact was signed in January after federal mediation; it expires Sept. 20, 2013.

Times are tough, to be sure. But whether by collusion, spontaneous realization, or a more nuanced combination of the two, much - though not all - of U.S. orchestra management has made the calculation that conservatories are turning out high-level players who would be willing to take many of these jobs. Are violinists and bassoonists really that interchangeable? And, if this begins to happen on any kind of scale, what kind of moral dilemma does it pose for a younger (cheaper) musician when he or she takes the spot of a veteran (more highly paid) one?

Managers say they have no choice but to slash musician salaries and pensions. "Structural deficit" is the term they use to describe the state of the balance sheet, implying that the income side is immovable and so expenses must be cut. Which raises some questions: How hard are orchestra leaders working to sell tickets and raise money? Are they hiring smart consultants? Have they been aggressive enough? Are they really making a passionate civic argument on behalf of the art form?

It seems to me if orchestras can prove they've left no stone unturned funding-wise, and the budget is being otherwise managed wisely, musicians will have to accept a greater burden for reducing labor costs in the name of saving the institution.

Each city has its own set of challenges, and each will have to arrive at its own solution. But I think there's probably no question that taken together, problems at orchestras ranging in size from Jacksonville to New York are more severe than at any other time in history. Like many institutions, this one is in crisis.

Strange to say about orchestras, so often criticized for being out of step with the rest of the country culturally, but at the moment, they are an embodiment of the upheaval that has come to other arenas: changing demographics (see the U.S. electorate); what happens when something needing widespread participation to exist comfortably no longer draws widespread participation (see newspapers, department stores); class warfare and resentment of talented workers earning a healthy living (see organized labor, subsection teachers); and the alarming realization that no institution, no matter how critical, has a guaranteed future (see the U.S. Postal Service, deficit).

This sort of relevance may be cold comfort, but for once, the nation can look to the symphony orchestra as the perfect emblem of our time.