an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me | Advertise | Follow me:

Breaking: major US orchestra ‘will go part-time’

Time is running out for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. After sacking its British boss Simon Crookall in February and six more executives in July, the Indy now plans to cut its players’ contracts from 52 weeks to 36 a year, a 30 percent reduction, and reducing the  playing force from 87 to 63.

The players’ contract ends next week and the orch joins several others on Skid Row. It is, or was, one of 17 US full-time orchs. All the latest here.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


  1. michael endres says:

    I do prefer the German model where the state takes the lion share in providing for these institutions,as this seems to secure their existence and integrity. 16 full time orchestras ( and some in malaise as we are speaking ) in a country of the size of the US documents a failing system.

    • No, it’s endemic of a simplistic mindset that has now also infected America: ‘spend money you do not have ad infinitum; consider it an ‘investment.’

      Do you honestly believe that orchestras in the United States now have the same system and approach that were in place pre and post WWII up until the era of ‘irrational exuberance?’

      • To see one of the differences; open up the program for any large US orchestra and count how many musicians there are. Then count the number of executives and their administrative staff. If there are nearly two administrators for every musician, what are all these people doing? If each President and Vice President, etc. takes a salary several multiples to an order of magnitude higher than a musician’s salary, what is that money buying, other than decisions to take on more debt and grow the administration ever fatter? How can an orchestra survive when its management’s self-interested goals are at odds with the organization’s original mission of presenting concerts? If the orchestra spends 20 to 25% of its budget on actual music-making, is it any surprise that these organizations are going belly-up? They could survive and thrive on their current budgets if they used their resources to make music rather than feed administrative bloat.

        • Roughly speaking, American orchestras generally have about twice as many administrative personnel as European orchestras because they have to have huge “development departments” — i.e. people to raise funds every year from the rich. European orchestras are funded by the government so such departments are unnecessary. The top adminstrators in orchestras in the US are also paid about twice their European counterparts because American orchestras are so dependant on the administrators raising funds. The American system is thus incredibly inefficient.

  2. Tamara Meinecke says:

    Classical music is going extinct in the US. Maybe everywhere, I don’t know. It is an incredibly cruel, discouraging time.

    • I would suggest that this glass half empty attitude is misplaced. Yes, classical music is changing. It will no longer be structured exactly as it has been. But cries of extinction have been happening for decades if not centuries. And there is more to “classical music” than full time orchestras. I am not suggesting that the situation is not perilous, or that I don’t wish it were different, but times change. Bemoaning this accomplishes nothing, while shifting with the changes in order to find new ways to deliver the product accomplishes quite a lot.

  3. I’m very sorry for the professional musicians who have invested their lives and treasure in performing music and expecting, and deserving of a commensurate professional wage.

    But America is the not the place where this level of artistry can be maintained. My prime example is that many of these orchestras play “pops” programs with non-symphonic pop bands and singers, or even circus acts. The justification for this is to pay the bills and make the payroll for 52 weeks plus benefits. These pop acts do not need symphonic orchestras , it’s rather the reverse. I think this financial arrangement is little better than prostitution..

    Full time orchestras have outgrown their market and contributor base. It’s unfortunate but this is life in a capitalist society such as the USA and it will only be getting worse regardless of which party wins the 2012 election.

    • another orchestra musician says:

      It will get worse much faster if the Executive Branch of the country’s government promulgates the idea that the arts are not worthy of government support – and that the administrative executives of a given organisation, not the workers actually producing its product, are the ones deserving of a generous paycheck.

  4. The beginning of 2011 and the perilous condition of the western economy brought great difficulties to orchestras and arts organizations everywhere. In the USA, orchestras had been dependent for many years on private donations, and the consequences of that dependence were becoming increasingly difficult in times of economic restraint. There was a wide debate that was taking place in American society, as to the importance of the “difficult” arts

    Detroit Symphony Orchestra
    Michigan 55/6 Waterfront Avenue

    28th March 2011

    Dear Friends

    We are nearly in the month of March and near the end of the long Scottish winter. The snow, wind and rain from the Forth estuary, have been growling and moaning outside my window for months. This morning, sunlight filled the room as I opened the door, and the breeze from the sea, gently lifted the curtains and my spirits. I don’t take part in the rough and tumble of orchestral life any more but your predicament is, of course, a familiar one that is becoming more widespread in these troubled times.

    When I was a young man, I travelled with a chamber group to give a concert in a village in one of the affluent southern counties of England. Having finished our afternoon rehearsal, we all went into the church hall for a pre-concert meal that was meant to have been organised by the local music club. The trestle tables were bare and the room was empty except for a dramatic scene that was being enacted in the corner, in which the central tragic character was a lady, in cashmere, pearls, and considerable distress, who was being attended to, and consoled, by a small group of people. Eventually her sobbing incoherence, and anxiety to communicate the reasons for her disquiet, culminated in the loud anguished cry, “ But what sort of food do musicians eat!!!”

    This hapless lady, sobbing and squeezing her sodden handkerchief in the heart of rural England, had been too frightened and bewildered to perform the relatively simple task allotted to her, of providing food for us, apparently because it would have involved some understanding of the mysterious and unknown dietary requirements of itinerant musicians.

    Mistrust and semi anonymity have been constant companions in our countless disputes with managers, critics and agents for many years here in Britain.

    At one point in the sixties, the Royal Philharmonic orchestra officially did not exist, having been excluded from performing at the Royal Festival Hall and deprived of its Royal status. On the death of Sir Thomas Beecham the RPO’s players were informed that they were not entitled to any benefit from his musical legacy, and that the orchestra should disband. The British Arts Council, the Royal Philharmonic Society, the music critics of the London newspapers, the heads of the major record companies, and the international agents were by and large in agreement with that view.
    That was the beginning of a long winter for us, and there were to be many more to come, and I was reminded yesterday of those unhappy times, whilst reading about your current and depressingly familiar travails. Our enemies did retreat eventually, but that did not happen without a protracted struggle accompanied by a torrent of libel, slander and antagonism that was directed at us as a penalty for daring to ask for some degree of control over our own lives.

    During one newspaper exchange about players’ salaries, a retired army major from Cirencester was infuriated to discover that orchestral musicians got paid AT ALL! and somehow managed to connect the whole thing with the battle of El Alamein! But embattled as we were then, that eminent orchestra is now still very much in existence, as you will know, and entertains the public of most countries of the World to this day, having control of its own affairs under the guidance of a board of directors, elected from and by the orchestral players themselves. This is of course, by no means a perfect system, but it offers the players SOME degree of autonomy. How else can music be made?

    We are the music makers
    And we are the dreamers of dreams,
    Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
    And sitting by desolate streams; -
    World losers and world-forsakers,
    On whom the pale moon gleams:
    Yet we are the movers and shakers
    Of the world forever, it seems.

    The doors and windows are wide open to the sea. The sun is shining at last, and the gulls are cheering you all on to victory.

    Very best wishes, huge admiration and good luck.

    Terry Johns

    P.S Every orchestra here in Britain, has at one time or another in its history been crippled by the excessive fees charged by conductors, agents, and management, and they have been threatened, cheated, misrepresented or lied to, but I can only say that for myself that this has been a small price to pay for the glittering gift that I was given.

    But we, with our dreaming and singing,
    Ceaseless and sorrowless we!
    The glory about us clinging
    Of the glorious futures we see
    Our souls with high music ringing:
    O men it must ever be
    That we dwell, in our dreaming and singing,
    A little apart from ye.

  5. Germany has over 130 fifty-two week season orchestras while the USA has only 17 for a country with four times the population. The difference is that the USA is the only developed country in the world without a comprehensive public funding system for the arts.

    Germany has 83 fulltime opera houses while the USA doesn’t have any. Our longest season is at the Met which is only 7 months. We only have about six real opera houses in the whole country. We only have 3 cities in the top 100 for opera performances per year. Most companies only do a few performances a year with pickup groups in rental facilities.

    Americans are inured to this pathetic situation. There is no American political party or even a single politician who advocates a comprehensive public funding system for the arts like all other developed countries have. We are not given a choice.

    For more information comparing the European and American arts funding systems see:

    My best wishes to the colleagues in Indianapolis.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      While I agree about your observations on the situation in the US, I am confused about your statements regarding Germany. Can you please define “fifty-two week season” and “full time”? Are there really orchestras and opera houses that play week after week? If yes, can you please name a few examples?

      • All of the major state opera houses in Germany play “week after week”, except for a few weeks when the state has summer holidays, but then they still host guest performances.

      • It’s not so confusing. Fifty-two week seasons are generally defined as institutions that pay their musicians for 52 weeks. In Germany, this usually includes about 4 weeks of paid vacation. All of the opera houses in Germany work year-round except for the paid vacation period (e.g. Munich, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne, Dresden, Leipzig, and so on.) The orchestras in smaller houses also double as symphonic ensembles, so operas might not be performed during the weeks when there are heavy symphonic programs.

        The number of opera performances per week varies based on the size of the city, ranging from about 2 to 8. Big houses like Munich, Hamburg, Berlin, and Vienna (Austria) sometimes do 8 a week – one every night and a matinee on Sunday. That’s why their orchestras are so big, e.g. 149 positions in the Vienna State Opera. They have to rotate the services to keep from over-working the musicians. Little houses like Pforzheim sometimes only perform about twice a week because the city only has 119,000 residents – and yet they maintain a year-round opera house.

        The effects of these long seasons are obvious. While the Met is shut down for the summer, the Munich State Opera puts on one of the world’s major opera festivals. Similar story in a number of other European cities.

        The best measure is to rate cities by opera performances per year. A table can be found here:

        We see only three US cities in the top 100: New York 6th, San Francisco 74th, and Chicago 77th.

        Note how Ulm, Germany, with a population of only 120,000 comes in at 40th and thus beats out San Francisco by 34 positions and Chicago by 37. And even though those two cities have populations 6 times and 23 times larger respectively. If one calculated the metro population of the Bay Area, the number would be off the charts. Put that in the context of Oakland which has one of the largest and most violent ghettos in the world and then think about American social concepts.

        The US government spends enormous sums supporting science. The yearly budget of the Los Alamos National Laboratory is about 2.2 billion. The latest Mars probe cost 2.5 billion. We could easily support the arts on a scale similar to the Europeans. And like the Europeans, we could build a culturled public for it.

        It makes an interesting statement when one considers that the principle function of Los Alamos has been science devoted to the instantaneous evaporation of entire cities – a task made much easier when people avoid the kind of thought created by the arts. Seeming correlations begin to appear. We Americans are strange people.

  6. I have a rather simplistic view of why classical music is failing in America: It doesn’t own it in the same way Europe does. The Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and post-Romantic eras happened in Europe. Therefore, Europeans own the music composed during those eras. They love their home-grown composers. What is the name of Budapest’s airport? Franz Liszt Airport. Warsaw? Chopin Airport. Parma, Italy? Giuseppi Verdi.

    America needs to OWN its home-grown Reich, Glass, Adams, Copland, Bernstein, Carter, et al., and great jazz musicians and composers as well. How about Aaron Copland Airport instead of La Guardia? How about Leonard Bernstein Airport instead of Dulles? America has only one airport named after a musician: Louis Armstrong Airport in New Orleans!

    If public officials feel ownership of something quintessentially American, they’ll be more willing to support it. At this point in history, it’s obvious they don’t want to throw any money towards the music of dead Europeans. The pop music machine has tons of money because it’s managed like the sports industry. If classical music (and jazz) were managed and promoted like sports and pop music, orchestras wouldn’t be biting the dust.

    But there’s one more critical piece of the puzzle: kids. If kids had music and art in school as required subjects, the whole arts scene would turn around within one generation.

    • Europeans name their concert halls after famous composers. Americans name them after the rich person who donated the money to build it. Our halls are thus named after artistic nobodies. Little cultural pride is found in that, to say nothing of the tackiness of the practice.

    • Alexandra, you should tell us a little about the state opera houses of Turkey. Even Turkey, a developing country, has a wonder system of state opera houses, so why can’t we Americans with all our wealth and power?

    • William, German arts are well-funded but it is deceptive to speak of a “comprehensive funding program for the arts.” Funding and organization is highly decentralized, largely concentrated in the cities and, for music, the regional radio stations, with federal support only for a limited number of institutions of national importance (in music, this means aid to Berlin and the Festspiel in Bayreuth).

      Making the comparison even more complicated, Germany’s school and university/conservatory level of musical activity is, in sum, both less that that in the US (no matter how much we lament the decline in school music in the US, there is not a single gymnasium in Germany with an ensemble comparable to the top 100 bands, choirs or orchestras in the Texas public school system and the top five or six conservatories in the US are, by and large, superior to any Musikhochschule.)

      • Comprehensive doesn’t mean centralized. It means wide-ranging, extensive, and complete. It is comprehensive exactly because it is divided between the state, municipal, and federal levels. Most of the funding comes from the state and municipal levels. Only about 10% comes from the Federal Government. Culture is by nature inherently local and should be mostly funded locally.

        It’s true that some states like Texas still have excellent public school music programs – almost fanatic, in fact. And it’s true that our university level music education is also very good. Many Germans, for example, go to the States to study brass techniques. Schools like Indiana University have opera programs equivalent to A-level German houses.

        This makes it all the more absurd that we have about 25 times less opera houses and 52 week symphony orchestras per capita than Germany and several other European countries. We train many of the best musicians in the world and then let them rot. It borders on criminal behavior.

  7. Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    I remember hearing a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra saying shortly after they went to a 52 week season over 40 years ago: “Nobody ever said we wanted to PLAY for 52 weeks, we just want 52 paychecks.” I believe that performers in countries other than the USA have “full-time” employment for which they are paid year round and receive benefits on a full year basis. This doesn’t mean that they are performing 52 weeks per year. Also the great European orchestras often have at least 120 members so that rotation and time off can be worked out while maintaining quality. In the USA, this is usually accomplished by hiring substitute musicians who are paid weekly and get no benefits. Orchestra Boards in the USA have been living in a dream world for too long and now that there are dark, menacing clouds overhead, they are running for cover and hanging their beloved ensembles out-to-dry (after getting soaked, as the metaphor warrants). Self-management would be difficult in most USA markets without significant government support but it is possible and musicians need to assume more responsibility during this crisis and not leave the choices to amateurs who only serve on Boards, in many cases, because it looks good on their professional, corporate profile.

    PS: Phila Orch now has 7 or 8 weeks of paid vacation, a level that even the French would envy!

    • All major orchestras in Germany have two principle players for each solo position who each do only 50% of the services but for full pay. The reasoning is that this allows them more time to practice and perform as soloists. Large orchestras sometimes have four concertmasters (like the Vienna State Opera/Vienna Philharmonic.)

    • Each member of the Minnesota Orchestra gets ten weeks of paid vacation a year. Minimum salary: $111,000. Average salary: $137,000 (before add-ons, received by 80 per cent of the musicians).

      The average salary at the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra: $90,000. Minimum salary is, I believe, $73,000.

      As a practical matter, both local ensembles get the summer months off, although the musicians in both orchestras are paid for 52 weeks of work (the Minnesota Orchestra performs a handful of concerts in mid-summer, the SPCO none).

      Concertizing is not a summer activity in the Twin Cities, since many persons spend summer weekends at their lake houses. If the local orchestras were to perform in the summer months, the concert halls would be empty.

      Nonetheless, the musicians are paid as if they play year round.

      Are musicians in London orchestras paid half so well? And given so much time off?

  8. The Indianapolis Symphony situation is not so difficult to grasp. The goldfish has simply grown to big for the bowl. The resources, nor ability to find them, are not readily available in the Indianapolis community for a bigger bowl, more food & water. The goldfish goes on a diet. Or dies.

    • Indianapolis Resident says:

      Hm, I’m not sure about this analogy. The resources and creative funding in fact ARE potentially there – it’s how we hosted a Superbowl, for example. We are still paying for the stadium that won us that bid in every restaurant in the county – 9% restaurant tax instead of our normal 7% sales tax. The orchestra does have an $80m endowment, but in order to keep attracting the midwest’s traditionally conservative donors and investors, they need to present a budget that will not eat into that. Let’s not forget that the most recently resigned CEO is still drawing a salary until the end of the year, either. And a couple years ago, the orchestra’s administration actually SPENT over $100,000 fundraising – one event cost over $300,000 to host, and only drew about $150,000 in donations, for example. That’s some mismanagement, don’t you think?

an ArtsJournal blog