What is the Philadelphia Orchestra's future after the strike?

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Silent night: Patrons at what would have been the opening gala concert of the Philadelphia Orchestra's season file out of Verizon Hall on Sept. 30, after the striking musicians went out to walk the picket line.

Many are probably wondering what it was all about, this strike of the Philadelphia Orchestra last weekend.

It was about the musicians wanting to earn more money, of course.

Just as much, though, it’s about what happens when the CEO’s compensation keeps going up as musicians are being asked to accept less.

It’s about what happens when leadership has failed to stoke donor enthusiasm to an adequate level.

It is also about what happens when it seems like we are having the same conversation over and over again: How do we fix what ails the Philadelphia Orchestra?

The vision of the future, actually, is startlingly obvious: The orchestra must be critically unassailable when it is playing in Verizon or Carnegie halls. And at Capitolo Playground or in Camden, it must be forming deep connections between newbies and a great art form that is needed more than ever in noisy times.

To be clear, the orchestra has done both of these things splendidly, especially during the past two decades  — the playing always, but on the new-audience front, not often enough and often not in a sustained way. The shrunken neighborhood concert series is an example of an undernourished success. This has made the orchestra appear to some as a carpetbagger in the social-mission and outreach arena. It is not. It has simply been too absorbed with its own survival to worry much about others.

All this may be changing. It turns out the orchestra’s survival is very much tethered to the well-being of all its constituents — in schools and homeless shelters, in work going on now with prison populations, as well as in the concert hall. I don’t know whether the orchestra really can be both things at once — be absolutely first-rate with all of the time that takes, and become deeply engaged in education and social mission — but we are well on our way to finding out.

The strike, brief as it was, should not have happened. The only real good thing about it is that the musicians, in drawing blood the way they did by walking out on the opening night gala, have made it clear to anyone who cares about the orchestra that the bankruptcy took a toll.

How did things get so bad last weekend? The orchestra board must seriously consider the question. The musicians have taken it on the chin for striking an hour before the opening night gala concert. But didn’t anyone in management or on the board know this was a possibility? If not, why not? It seems to me that smarter leadership would have anticipated the potential outcome, and should have avoided taking such a gamble with the loyal core.

A disturbing subtext ran through what will forever be known as the opening night that never was. It looked like a classic one-percenters’ tantrum when some of the city’s leading philanthropists shouted, “Shame on you,” at musicians after the concert was scrapped and they walked through the Kimmel lobby out to the picket line.

Anyone who thought the walkout was staged simply for effect, or as an act of petulance, should have really studied the musicians’ faces. They looked miserable, and maybe a little surprised themselves.

A healing process began last week when the orchestra divided up into 20 chamber ensembles to give free concerts across the area.

But there’s one person uniquely capable of explaining to board and donors why the musicians behaved the way they did and to validate, at the very least, some of their most sincere concerns. That person is the music director.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin followed the standard advice when bad strikes happen to good music directors: Stay out of it. But these are not ordinary times, and he could forge a new standard.

He, more than anyone, might be able to convince nonbelievers that what the players really want is for this orchestra to remain great, and to remind everyone that a healthy orchestra is good for the city. He might explain to them that musicians must often borrow to pay for their own instruments, or that they train longer than doctors or lawyers to become the best.

In the big scheme of things, we pay musicians a decent salary because we value art, and they are where the art lives. Will Nézet-Séguin speak on behalf of that ideal?

He absolutely should put to rest the notion that these players are interchangeable with others. Such an ensemble would not be the Philadelphia Orchestra.

As sequestered as classical music often seems from the modern world, this episode follows one of the prevailing patterns of our time. Corporations have money for all sorts of things — Philadelphia Orchestra president Allison Vulgamore’s annual salary plus extras, for instance, was at last count about $725,000, much higher than that of her predecessors — but not for others. (Her total compensation is partially variable from year to year, and she annually donates “at least $25,000 to the orchestra’s annual fund, and in some years $50,000,” says orchestra executive vice president Matthew Loden).

 

It seems that the orchestra board thinks it's important to be competitive in paying its managers; paying the talent on stage seems less important to them.

It didn’t have to happen this way. The orchestra says it would like to pay musicians more but can’t. A substantial gap between expenses and income was supposed to have been closed by now, but it is not.

Musicians ended up with about a 7 percent raise over three years, which means that, in terms of salary gain, the strike didn’t really accomplish much. I don’t know what kind of figure would have sent the reassuring signal that they are the most important asset the orchestra owns. But I don’t think it would have taken much.

The board had a chance to express its gratitude for the sacrifices musicians have made. This contract doesn’t do it.

This strike was about a lot of complex things — money, yes, and the musicians’ perceptions of loss of importance and dignity, for sure. The resulting contract, however, does contain the seeds of something important. It gets the musicians on board with working more on fund-raising and education, and it provides a clause for how they get paid for that.

This aligns interests, which nearly always helps enormously. If the orchestra has a future, aligned interests all around are the only place where it will be found.

pdobrin@phillynews.com
www.philly.com/artswatch

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