I haven’t said anything here about the Detroit Symphony mess, even though it’s the leading conversation topic these days among people involved with orchestras. Or at least it is in my experience. It’s the one topic someone’s sure to bring up.
So the orchestra management, facing a contract negotiation with the musicians, wanted really large pay cuts, and also — to create a new relationship with the community — wanted the musicians to do community engagement as part of their contracted services.
The musicians didn’t like this, and fought back. The struggle now (of course a lot of readers know this) has gone on for so long and is so bitter that thee entire current season might be cancelled. And can the orchestra recover from that?
By the time you read this, the whole thing may have resolved. But I have to say — and maybe this is why I didn’t blog about Detroit before — that I think the musicians are wrong. I say that without knowing how management behaves, if they’re honorable, if they’re good to deal with, or problematic. I don’t know anything about them.
And I sympathize with the musicians. They didn’t sign up for this. When they were coming up in the music world, they had every reason to believe that, if they got a job with a major orchestra, they’d be playing satisfying, high-level concerts, and getting paid like the superbly qualified professionals that of course they are.
But times changed. Detroit collapsed. And there wasn’t so much demand for classical music anywhere, so orchestras everywhere began to have trouble. It’s not unusual to find people who’ll privately say that there isn’t money or audience enough to sustain even the most apparently successful orchestras in the number of performances they currently give.
Not surprisingly, Detroit had more trouble ,maybe, than other orchestras. And so the musicians can bravely say that their artistry would be demeaned if they played community engagements instead of serious classical concerts, and that the entire orchestra would be downgraded if pay was seriously cut, because now top-class musicians wouldn’t want to play in it.
They can also say that a healthy orchestra is essential for Detroit, if the city ever is to climb out of the pit it’s fallen into. That a world-class city, if Detroit can manage to be one again, has to have a world-class orchestra.
They can say all this, and mean it from the bottom of their hearts, and there still might not be money enough to finance what they want.
That, I fear, is the reality. But I’d take this one step further. Given the trouble Detroit is in, can anyone seriously ask for the kind of money the orchestra used to have? In a city — think about it — one-third abandoned, should the orchestra ask for the kind of money it would take to give the musicians what they want?
I don’t think it can. I don’t think it’s proper. Not seemly, not responsible. Detroit has — has to have — higher priorities than the orchestra.
So I think the orchestra — and not just the musicians; management, too — should change its priorities. Detroit should be its new focus. Instead of asking for money in a city crying out for money for very basic things (a small example: the Mayor, according to the Washington Post, doesn’t even have a receptionist; she’s been furloughed), the orchestra should ask what it can do for the city.
How can it contribute to rebuilding Detroit? That, in my view, is the question it should be asking. And it should get along as well as it can, but not asking for more than is decent, until Detroit is in better shape.
And if it does this — if it makes the rebuilding of Detroit its high priority — I can believe that a grateful city, once it’s on its feet again, will remember what the orchestra did, and will rush to support it.