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What an Atlanta musician thinks of the forced surrender

Musicians in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and singers in the chorus have opened a blogsite for local responses to the crushing settlement that gave the players back their wages and their healthcare. The site is, in part, a response to the lamentable failure of the city newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, to report the dispute fairly and objectively. Here’s a sample submission:

Letter to the AJC from retired ASO musician, Patrick MacFarland.

As a proud former player with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (after 47 years) I must respond to the recent contract.

This orchestra has been a world class orchestra, having toured Europe to packed houses with wonderful receptions and I am proud to have been part of the successes of Atlanta’s fine ensemble.

However, the new contract between the musicians and management will be devastating to the quality of  the group. With such huge wage concessions, reducing the size of the orchestra and the number of weeks of playing, the effect will bring the lowering of the usual high quality of the music that we’ve come to expect from our fine ensemble.

The heavy handed treatment of the musicians, beginning with the termination of their health insurance and lockout is inexcusable. It is the job of management to create opportunities for financial gain Yet, they have failed to do so and the musicians have to sacrifice, and that they have dearly.   According to the article in the Atlanta Journal/Constitution, CEO Stanley Romanstein earns $314,000.00 a year with $291,000.00 for Donald F. Fox, 2nd in charge in management. According to the same article, they have offered to take a 6% pay cut which comes to $18,840.00 for Mr. Romanstein, while the average musician will be losing around $20,000.00, or about 17%. Is this equitable?

The orchestra will take several years to again become the same proud group that I knew when I played with them. From the world class status to a local group of demoralized musicians is thoroughly devastating to me. This is the death knell of a great orchestra.

Congratulations to you, Mr. Romanstein, you must be a proud man!

Patrick McFarland
English horn player

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  1. Contrast this with the arguments used by Chicago Symphony musicians in their recent contract negotiations. One of the arguments used by the Chicago musicians in defense of competitive wages was the need of the orchestra to always be a magnet for the top players, and thus maintain its competitive edge.

    One of the underlining consequences which can be perceived in Pat McFarland’s letter is that Atlanta will henceforth be less competitive, attract fewer top players and keep them for a shorter time or until a better job becomes available. The Atlanta Symphony which so far has attracted players who would stay 47 years in a solo position like English Horn may now lose the ability to form a cohesive sound, as their solo players may re-engage the job ladder every few years. One of the building blocks of a great orchestra is exactly that: the continuing work of dedicated players who are at the top of their field, doing intricate and detailed work for decades, creating what we now know as the “Chicago sound”, and those of Cleveland, Boston, Philadelphia, Berlin, Vienna and so forth. These “sound traditions” are passed on to newer members but strengthened by the permanence of a significant number of older members in top positions. With this contract, Atlanta is on the verge of losing membership in orchestras which develop their own traditions, as top players will most likely from now on use it as a trampoline job to a better paying orchestra, or one that works on a 52-week basis.

    Look at Chicago again, famous for its “Chicago brass” sound: principal trumpet Bud Herseth remained there for nearly 50 years. Principal horn Dale Clevenger arrived in the 60s, and not far from the arrival of Principal trombone Jay Friedman. Arnold Jacobs stayed in the tuba chair for many decades and his top replacement Gene Pokorny has been there for over 20 now. My predecessor in the principal oboe chair, Ray Still, stayed there for 40-some years, and so did the principal flute Don Peck. They stayed there and created a marvelous, cohesive, musical unit because Chicago is an “arrival job”, something you aim to get and keep for the rest of your life. This is how we elevate the quality of an orchestra: you not only attract the best players, but you do what you can to keep them as long as possible, allowing them to pass on their traditions to newer members. After replacing Ray Still, I remember not feeling completely part of the Chicago sound for a good two seasons. This shows how strong that tradition is, and new players need to devote themselves and adapt to the way of the orchestra.

    With a regular movement in important solo chairs it will be nearly impossible for any music director to establish a cohesive tradition of interpretation, articulation, coloring and style, as the minute these details begin to take shape one of its principal players will depart and in its place will arrive another player, younger, talented, accomplished, yes, but most likely too young, inexperienced and as statistics go this younger player will not be a member of the local community to know what that fledgling tradition is. And there begins all of that “sound work” again, only to be interrupted again and again every year or two. This is frustrating for the top conductors and for the musicians who remain, and leads to an eventual abandonment of the whole process altogether. Why bother? Atlanta thus would become a “passing through” orchestra, unable to create its own image.

    None of this, apparently, was calculated by Mr. Romanstein. While he may be proud that the new numbers work in his favor, he should read carefully the last few words in McFarland’s letter: “this is the death knell of a great orchestra”. Those apparently favorable numbers for a misguided and short-sighted management have sent the orchestra into a slow death march. Years, decades of work are at stake, and may vanish gradually as Atlanta begins to lose its top players and opens the revolving door of great players, feeding them with experience that will be fully absorbed by better jobs elsewhere, leaving Atlanta always with the farewell flag up, and a long list of auditions to fill every year.

    Pat is right. Mr. Romanstein must be a very proud man.

    • Even in regional orchestras with far less pay, musicians often stay in their jobs for decades and remain very dedicated to their work. So let’s not give the smug, self-congratulatory attitude that exists in top orchestras too much credence.

      Many of the ROPA orchestras where the average annual salary is around 20k also hold their first chair players for decades. Up to 300 people will apply for positions in top orchestras and often 60 to 100 even for regional positions. There are dozens of people who don’t get positions in top orchestras who play as well as the ones who do. What we see is simply the exploitation of the dedication classical musicians often have for their jobs.

      The USA only has a tiny number of the orchestras per capita compared to the Europeans. Germany has 133 fifty-two week season orchestras while the USA only has 17 for a country with four times the population. A city the of Chicago size in Europe would have at least five 52 week season orchestras. (London for example has five.) With so few jobs in the USA, musicians are ripe for exploitation. Since our orchestras are funded by the rich, they service themselves luxuriously with a few highly paid orchestras in our financial centers and let the rest of the country go to hell. This should come as no surprise. In any capitalistic society, if labor can be screwed, it will be.

      • Emil Archambault says:

        Musicians in the Top 5 London orchestras earn around 40 000 £ a year. And they’re the top. How much does a regional orchestra musician earn in England?

        Talking of exploitation is a bit much, if compared to the salary structure in England.

        • The point is that about 5 times as many musicians have jobs in London than in Chicago, even though the metro populations are similar. If you add in London’s two fulltime opera houses and compare it to Chicago’s one house with barely a six month season, the number is worse than 5 times. 40,000 pounds is a hell of a lot better than 0.

      • Kevin Watkins says:

        As a former ROPA orchestra member and current member of a large ICSOM orchestra, I can tell you that your argument is weak at best. You don’t consider the ability (on average, no offense here) of those players that stay in those jobs for a long time. Also, there is no comparison as far as turnover rate. Just look in the union paper and notice how ROPA orchestras often are advertising for multiple positions at a time, and that is usually with a core that is half the size of a major orchestra. The CSO might have 3 auditions a year. I personally took as many auditions in my 2 ROPA years as i did in my 13 subsequent years. My former position has turned over 3 times since I left. Your comparison between the German and American models is accurate, but is purely a result do the methods of funding. Not much we can do to change that, especially with the current climate on arts funding in politics.

        All of this being said, I want to be careful to search my soul and make sure what I’m saying is not a result of the smug, self congratulatory attitude you speak of. I can honestly say that I played with some really great players in my ROPA orchestra days, but I must confess that many, not all, left that orchestra eventually as well. There certainly is a tendency in our field for people to measure their ability and define who they are by the size of their paycheck. This, of course, is clearly wrong. But the bottom line is that the quality of my current and previous orchestras are not comparable. And I would urge you to be careful when accusing others of “smug self serving attitudes,” that you yourself don’t give the appearance of sour grapes.

        • I do consider the ability of the players. Even if ROPA orchestras have good section leaders, their chances of winning a position in an ICSOM orchestra are extremely remote. (In fact, even a position in a ROPA orchestra is not easy to obtain.) The reason is that we have so few positions per capita that auditions are practically like a lottery system for the better players. So you shouldn’t extrapulate your own luck to some general ecomonic principle.

          When good musicians leave ROPA orchestras, it is usually not for a better position, but simply because they are leaving orchestras all together due to the poor wages and the inability to get a better job. Take your hometown of Kansas City, which is one of the richest cities in the world, and yet pays its musicians an almost unlivable salary. And yet very few will ever win a better position because they hardly exist.

          We might also remember that your orchestra is not one of the top paying, and yet it is losing very few players to higher paying groups. Your first trombone even left Cleveland after a year to go back to his old and lower paying job in Minneapolis because he liked it better. This is just one example that shows how the high salaries some first chair players receive are not necessary. And yet we can show how low salaries strongly harm ROPA orchestras because the musicians just quit orchestras all together.

    • Beverly Hueter, ASOC, #358 says:

      I must note that the current principal trumpet player of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is Chris Martin. He’s a local boy, raised in Marietta, who played in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for a few years. He’s just one of the many who could be named that passed through the ASO and then moved up to orchestras in communities that really value their talents and are willing to support them.

      • And the first trumpet in Philly, who makes around 300k per year, was poached from the Dallas Symphony. This isn’t really necessary. If we had the number of orchestras per capita as other developed countries, we would have the training ground for far more musicians and it would reduce the competition for experienced players.

        And even our top orchestras could give excellent players the experience they need instead of buying off musicians from other orchestras. One of the principle motivations in this behavior is simply status. It is not enough to develop a good player, it is creates much more self-importance and prestige among the institutions to be able to poach musicians from others orchestras. (And don’t tell me about blind auditions. They’ve long since figured out how to get around that.)

        We see the same situation in opera. We only have three cities in the top 100 for number of performances per year. And yet the budget at the Met is 300 million per year, which is about twice the budget for comparable houses in Europe — and even though the Met only has a 7 month season while the European houses operate year-round. Not surprisingly, the tickets for decent seats at the Met are 4 to 5 times more expensive than in European houses — but that’s no big problem for the Wall Street crowd. And since most of the good seats are reserved for wealthy donors, average people would have trouble getting a ticket for a good seat even if they could come up with the money. New York’s wealthy must have the biggest stars and the most lavish productions. And to make matters more grotesque, the NYCO – formerly known as “The People’s Opera”—has essentially been shut down. Meanwhile, the base pay for a tutti player at the Met is 145k per year.

        This sort of behavior is inevitable with a funding system that makes our arts institutions something like cultural country clubs for the wealthy. I hope the Chicago fat cats are enjoying their 300k per year first chair players while the orchestras in smaller American cities can hardly afford to give their musicians 20k per year – a salary that not even a truck driver or mechanic would accept.

      • It seems over the pond in the “New World” everything’s value is measured in dollars. Thankfully those who understand and promote classical music and assure it’s survival even in times of crisis are not like that. They understand that value and price are two different things.

        “Really value their talents”. Oh well…

  2. Let us not forget the majority of serious artists (writers for example), who earn virtually nothing for their work, yet feel compelled (by their neuroses perhaps?) to maintain the same “high quality” that orchestral musicians strive at. Sure, the musicians have a case but, put into perspective, they will continue to be a very well-fed minority of a SERIOUS artistic world living on the edge of desperationh, We feel for you guys, but put things in perspective!

  3. Sometimes I wonder if orchestras suffer from the same problem as executive suites. Everyone needs to be “competitive” to attract the best talent, and so everyone needs to pay above the median salary. So, the median salary slips up and up and up. You choose the most generous (which maybe, possibly equates to best?) peers, and make sure your pay is always in line with them, or maybe even better.

    Just a thought.

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