As a new concert season starts, two famous orchestras – Atlanta and Indianapolis – have locked out their musicians and three more are heading down the same dead end. Confrontation is the only game plan, consultation is extinct.
As and when agreement is reached, the two sides will resume their entrenched positions through a period of phony peace, before they go back to traditional loggerheads.
It doesn’t have to be like this. In my dealings with US orchestras, I am always disturbed by the them-and-us mentality. To the musicians, the enemy is management. To the administration, the musicians are glove-puppets in the hands of an all-powerful union with obstructive rules that date back two lifetimes.
The language of US orchestral life reminds me of the British car industry in the 1970s, when the only industrial certainty was an eventual strike. The entrenched attitudes of class warfare all but destroyed the car industry and bankrupted large areas of the country. In the folloiwng decade Margaret Thatcher changed the dialectic, for better or worse, and the country we live in today is very different from the one she ruled.
In most sectors of the economy, especially in the arts, the first-person plural pronoun is the one most commonly used nowadays. There is a sense of collective interest on the part of employers and employees. The old picket-line barriers and slogans lie derelict, irrelevant to the 21st century economic crisis.
When the dust has settled in the present disputes, US orchestras must start to realise that they need to change the conversation. They cannot carry on like this, in a state of perpetual mistrust, segregation and simmering animosity without wrecking what’s left of their industry.
Or can they?