The musicians of the Detroit Symphony were hired originally to play only orchestral repertoire and at very high levels of quality. Yet they now face the possibility of having to professionally wear many hats. Future symphony duties beyond orchestra playing would include teaching, mentoring, chamber music concerts, public speaking, among others.
Most change is both good and bad. One criticism of the proposed changes is that the level of quality of their performances will go down. That fear is justified, and probably true. Yet, the proposed versatility of the musicians’ jobs may, after a period of adjustment, improve their quality of life through that variety. Instead of the “assembly line” churning out of high-level orchestra concerts, the musicians will have the opportunity to perform more chamber music, which on the whole is more satisfying than orchestral playing. And their value to the community will be greatly enhanced. It is that non-monetary value which is the true spirit of music and music’s expression. (Needless to say, musicians must earn a respectable income to continue to perform at high levels.)
I see musicians returning to the role of “healers”, rather than distant performers on stage. Musicians are community “glue”, not only through playing beautiful music, but also through encouraging others in their expression of it. Connections with people are more difficult to make through traditional concert settings.
Two good articles on the subject are worth mentioning here.
In a well written and balanced article: Money not the only issue for DSO- Proposed changes in work rules could have major impact, Mark Stryker clarifies the larger scale of change involved in the outcome of the Detroit Symphony’s contract negotiations. I quote the first and last parts of the 4 page article, which outlines quite clearly both the history behind and the changes ahead for performing musicians in orchestras.
In 1987 the late Ernest Fleischmann, the visionary executive leader of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, gave a commencement address at the Cleveland Institute of Music in which he famously said: “The orchestra is dead. Long live the community of musicians.”
What he meant was that the traditional 100-member symphony with its 52-week season dedicated almost exclusively to European music written prior to 1930 had run its course. What was needed instead was a more dynamic, flexible and relevant model that could adapt to the needs of the population it served: An ensemble that could play traditional symphony concerts but also splinter into smaller orchestras and chamber ensembles, travel into the community to perform and teach, infiltrate the schools, advocate and address a much wider repertoire.
Orchestras have nibbled around the edges of the old model, yet not much has changed in 23 years. But the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s financial meltdown and contentious labor negotiations could lead to a version of Fleischmann’s vision. If adopted, management’s latest contract proposal would take the DSO further down the road toward the ideals he expressed than any other orchestra in the country.
Wholesale reinvention has been on the mind of progressive industry leaders and commentators at least as far back as Fleishmann, but inertia, union issues and management problems have conspired against innovation. Even before the recession, signs of unsustainable business models in some orchestras were clear, as was a tsunami of alarming issues — the elimination of music in the schools, long-term drops in attendance, aging audiences and the virtual disappearance of classical music from mainstream culture.
Some orchestras, including Los Angeles, San Francesco and St. Paul, Minn., have experimented with bold artistic and education ideas, but a radical redefinition of work rules has been a non-starter. Led by president Ryan Fleur, the Memphis Symphony, a regional orchestra with a $4-million budget, has gone the farthest. The symphony has introduced a system in which the players are paid a base salary covering traditional orchestral performances but can opt in to a program broadening their range of work for up to four weeks of additional pay.
The work ranges from student mentoring and teaching to a musician-produced concert series. One player produces a radio program, another works on the symphony’s Web site and two others do music therapy work. About 85% of the players participate and individual assignments are chosen in consultation with management. Lansing-born violist Michael Barar, chair of the orchestra committee, says the system was at first met with skepticism but that most players find the experience rewarding.
Several leading conservatories have already embraced the ethos that orchestra musicians of the future will be expected to do more than play traditional concerts. Outreach programs, residencies and interdisciplinary studies have been integrated into the curriculums at Julliard, Eastman and the New England Conservatory, which also opened a department of entrepreneurial musicianship this fall. The result is a new generation of musicians whose priorities and goals differ from veterans shaped by careers in major orchestras with acculturated expectations concerning pay and working conditions.
Recent graduates say that many of their peers — though certainly not all — see advocacy and outreach as central to their identities and part of the job of all classical musicians. Ross Holcombe, 22, a trombonist and graduate student at NEC, hopes to land a principal position in a major orchestra. He says that money is important, but it isn’t everything; an inspiring music director, friendly colleagues, interesting repertoire and institutional stability also matter.
He says he would be more attracted to an orchestra if he were also expected to play chamber music, teach, etc. “The main consideration for me is that the organization that tries to incorporate those things into its mission is going to have a healthier future,” he says.
Barry Johnson urges a little closer examination of some of the assumptions made in Stryker’s article in his own: arts dispatch: The Detroit Symphony and the ‘top-down’ community. Johnson emphasizes quite reasonably that the musicians themselves have not been invited as equalsto the process of redefining the role they play in their community.
An orchestra as a “community of musicians,” in the construction of the late Ernest Fleischmann, quoted by Stryker, may sound like a good idea. But an undemocratic, top-down management system that imposes duties and obligations on the musicians without their central participation in the process is not.
“DSO president Anne Parsons says that the orchestra has a large menu of artistic, education and community program ideas — some of which have already attracted the interest of funders — that are too expensive to initiate without a new contract. They include a chamber music series in collaboration with a community partner, contemporary music concerts, extensive in-school mentoring and adding chamber music to this season’s Beethoven festival.”
The “orchestra has a large menu.” But that presumably does not include the musicians — who ARE the orchestra. If a load of new responsibilities was about to land on my plate without my consultation, I’d resist, too, even if I thought they might be critical to the success of the organizations. That sort of change takes careful, detailed, even individual discussion: a general agreement to change the nature of the orchestra and a simultaneous discussion about what form that orchestra might take. That’s a living, ongoing creative process, not a union v. management negotiation. And the musicians should be driving it, not having it imposed on them.
These issues are difficult, of course, but they are exacerbated by our inability to behave democratically — not the voting part, but the discussion part, the time we spend trying to find the best ideas wherever they may occur and then sharpening them in debate and disagreement. We may agree with this approach theoretically, but in practice it rarely happens in American life, at least from my experience. It requires open-mindedness, and that’s in very short supply in the culture right now.
I think the improvements will outweigh the problems in the long run. Musicians will have to adapt, and quality of performance may suffer some. However, musicians are already highly adaptable to be able function in perfect collaborative harmony while playing in an orchestra. My hope is that they will tap into those rich and subtle skills to creatively collaborate and benefit from the changes taking place in the traditional model.