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Who’s going to lose in Chicago?

Our prediction that six US orchestras will be unable to open their 2012-13 season is starting to look over-cautious. Musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra downed instruments this weekend in the course of negiotiations for a new, three-year contract. They are officially on strike.

Chicago is where the present inflationary cycle started when Henry Fogel, the former manager, caved in to a union demand for a $104,000 starting wage for a 20-hour week. It kicked in eight years ago and obliged other top orchestras to  break the six-figure barrier in order to stay competitive. Even if they didn’t, Fogel – who left Chicago with a deepening deficit – undermined other orchs that were trying to maintain balance in their age bill.

As a result, CSO musicians have enjoyed good wages and conditions ever since. The current average salary of $175,000 looks wildly generous in recessional times.  However, to blame the musicians for the present dispute, as the organisation’s president is now doing, is both disingenuous and unlikely to yield a quick or satisfactory resolution.

‘The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association is extremely disappointed that the musicians have decided to strike. Looking around the country, it’s clear that the more prudent path would be to work with us to ensure their future, rather than engage in this action,’ said CSO president Deborah Rutter.

True, up to a point. But you have to ask why the organisation allowed talks to drag on as the season-opening deadline drew so near. Nobody negotiates well with a gun at their heads and musicians under pressure act no differenly from any other human species.

The problem here is not the intransigence of musicians. It is the language of orchestral management in the US that has to change before there can be peace, a commonality of interest and the prospect of renewal. Ms Rutter needs to talk soft and put away that big stick. UPDATE: Ms Rutter’s people say she has been doing just that, for several months.

If she wants tips on conciliation, and on getting on with musicians, she should listen to the recent Lebrecht Interview with her music director, who (I expect) will be much distressed by this turn of events.


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  1. Any chance of a Lebrecht Interview with Deborah Rutter?

  2. Conciliation? The musicians at La Scala in 2005 didn’t seem to think so?.

    I’ll conduct Chicago Symphony for $50 a concert.

  3. David – that’s a great idea. It would make for an especially interesting interview in these troubled times if Norman could get a couple of top orchestra CEOs together – one from USA and one from GB.

  4. I agree with most of what you said, Mr. Lebrecht. However, the CSO musicians have shown nothing but contempt for their adoring audience by striking at 6:30PM the night of a concert. Couldn’t they have at least given a days notice (Italian style) so that their fans could plan accordingly?

  5. another orchestra musician says:

    People like to have the feeling that their condition is improving. Failing this, they want to be able reassure themselves that although their condition isn’t improving just yet, it will soon.

    Symphony musicians in our top-of-the-line orchestras sometimes win their jobs in them straight out of conservatory, and sometimes only after a protracted climbing of the orchestral ladder that began with pickup ensembles, and progressed through minor and mid-level groups before finally arriving at the summit. In either case, it is almost inevitable that, after a certain number of seasons of life at the top, the musician will begin to wonder: to where from here?

    Amongst themselves, the players can debate the merits of music director X and concert hall Y; they can recount their discomfort at sitting in front of a raw-meat-eating brass section; they can engage in the petty squabbles that humans working in close proximity to one another commonly enjoy engaging in. Entertainment, and occasionally even tangible progress is obtained hereby. Yet all the agitation and all the navel-gazing tends to but slowly bring home a basic reality, which is that once you’re at the top of your profession, there’s nowhere further upward to go.

    Cue: salary negotiations.

    Mr. Lebrecht alludes, above, to an inflationary spiral that began, some years ago, when the CSO negotiated starting salaries of 100k. Myself, I still remember the moment – as, I suspect, many among us do. It took our breath away to think that we, humble musicians, might someday join the six-figure club. It certainly stunned my own parents when I told them that I, myself was now a member of it. Professional musicians paid like professional people? Who would have thought?

    There was a catch. Our improved salaries were made possible, not by an increase in the economic value of our product, or necessarily by an increase in its artistic quality (although many symphony orchestras, even famous ones, have improved conspicuously in recent decades), but by the fact that our employers were either sitting on very large endowments (in a handful of major cities in the US) or were already paying high salaries to other government servants of similar skill level (in Europe).

    Few among us troubled ourselves with the notion that we ought to be anchoring our financial standing with more than just irreproachable service from behind the music stand. Our responsibilities, we felt, began and ended on the concert platform. Money was for management to worry about. Thus, we didn’t tell ourselves, “Look, we’ve got real salaries now, and enough free time to be able to enjoy them. We’ve no longer an excuse for entrusting our cause to Marketing and its glossy flyers alone. Let’s go out into the world and help people understand why art music is valuable to society. Let’s build cross-disciplinary institutions. Let’s get non-enthusiasts involved. Let’s get ghetto kids hooked on violins. Let’s show people that live music is better than iPod. Let’s become visible outside our concert halls, and make sure the media report about us. Let’s make ourselves indispensable – lest our newfound prosperity prove short-lived.” Instead, in too many cases, we concentrated on keeping up with the Jones’s. Boston just got 110k? “We’re better than the BSO. We should get at least 112k.”

    It can’t come as a surprise, today, that people are questioning why top-level symphony musicians, in the US, earn starting wages fully triple the national median. Although some of America’s symphony musicians and symphony orchestras have been very proactive in their communities, most, emphatically, have not. Consequently, few Americans understand the rationale for such largesse. And what argument is to be made for paying concertmasters and principal players more than we do police chiefs and family doctors? Or for paying (nonprofit institution!) music directors, soloists, and administrators superstar fees? The salary figures, readily accessible in our Internet age, reveal a lack of solidarity not only within orchestras themselves, but between musicians and society as a whole.

    I don’t know the answer to Mr. Lebrecht’s title question, Who’s Going to Lose in Chicago? Were I inclined to bet, though, I would place my money on: Everyone.

    • yet another orchestral musician says:


    • That seems to sum it up well.

    • Yet another other orchestra musician says:

      I especially agree with paragraphs #4 and #5 (beginning with, “There was a catch.”)
      As a member of a major US symphony, I have repeatedly heard colleagues rant about “parity” with other major orchestras, regardless of tickets sales, major gifts, endowment strength or, as “another orchestra musician” says above, “increased economic value of our product.”
      As committed as all of us have been to our art (many of us since pre-school years), I believe we all deserve every penny we earn as we continue to strive for excellence, inspire our communities and enrich cultural relations worldwide. Those at the top of the field are the best of the best – no less deserving of acclaim and reward than anyone who is the best at what they do.
      But….our entire economy is experiencing a realignment. People in all sectors have been suffering layoffs, pay freezes and decreases, increased health care costs, reduced retirement plans, and shrinking private assets.
      For symphony orchestra musicians to idealize that these conditions do not apply to them because they have “practiced countless hours since childhood” is out of touch and foolish. This ignorance is even more evident as cuts to school music programs are seriously reducing the number of Americans who are growing up exposed to the arts of any kind.
      “Another musician”, I agree with you! We all need to be helping people understand what art music is about and why it is crucial to civilized humanity. We need to be getting non-enthusiasts involved, getting instruments into the hands of at risk kids, and showing (or reminding) audiences why LIVE music trumps an ipod. We need to prove ourselves indispensable!
      I wish the Chicago Symphony musicians AND the organization itself all the best. I hope they will emerge from this impass unscathed in the public eye, but considering the struggles most Americans have faced in the past decade, I am doubtful.

      • Wonderful comments from both “orchestra musicians.”

        The difficult fact is that the environment for music has changed. In actuality, the environment for many industries has changed. Those that change and evolve will survive; others will not.

        I believe the criticism of orchestras that do not reach out to the community is misplaced here, however. The CSO does that with gusto, while also working with numerous other Chicago arts institutions.

        I am curious as to Yo Yo Ma’s opinion. As their consultant, he has worked hard to increase the CSO’s community outreach, in particular with schools. I imagine this is an extremely difficult issue for him.

        I remember first viewing this video and being very pleased with the CSO’s progress in the community (as well as the LOC). I only hope this strike won’t undermine all the good work already done.

    • musician in NYC says:

      well spoken. we really haven’t been running with the torch,and we all need to wake up.
      yet,I am so disturbed to see that the orchestra managements are playing a different level
      of hardball this year.they are imitating each other with the “corporate model”,down the line, and the frail relationship between musician and management is worse than ever.
      this isn’t what we want,is it?

    • William Safford says:

      You make some very good points.

      Your point about “largesse” makes sense on the surface: non-musicians may wonder about high salaries of Chicago Symphony musicians. Then again, they may not be focusing on the fact that these musicians are world class (or may not care). If the orchestra wants the top players, it will have to pay for them, just as is done for the Chicago Bears or the White Sox (or…the Cubs?)

      One argument supporting this is that the musicians will otherwise go to other orchestras. But what if other U.S. orchestras cut back as well?

      Frankly, in such a scenario, many musicians just would move away, or wouldn’t bother playing at that level any longer.

      I met a former member of one of the Big Five orchestras who is now a stockbroker. I know other American classical musicians who now work in Europe or South America. Cut the wages way back, and it would not surprise me to see defections from the U.S. or even from classical music. Most people can earn a lot more money with a lot less effort doing something else than making classical music, even those in a Big Five orchestra; or can do well elsewhere.

      For every Chicago Symphony musician, there are countless other classical musicians who do not earn a living wage. For that matter, for every, say, run-of-the-mill CPA, or librarian, or family doctor, there are world-class examples of each who receive wages far above the norm (and, for that matter, ones who receive far lower wages than the norm, for various reasons).

      I know I’m preaching to the choir.

      I am concerned about this strike. I want to know more about the facts before commenting in much detail, but I wonder about the wisdom of calling a strike in this fashion at this time.

      • another orchestra musician says:

        I worry a bit when we attempt to monetize artistic quality. As a sales tool, the formula ‘pay the most = get the best’ is easily misused. Often it is an outright lie. Given that many concert-goers and orchestra donors are business-savvy people, soliciting their patronage with an untrustworthy sales pitch seems to me a potentially self-defeating effort.

        Big CSO donors, for example, may include some well-traveled, musically knowledgeable individuals. Those among them that are familiar with the world’s leading orchestras may find the claim that the CSO is the ‘best’ somewhat dubious. They may listen to recordings from the Reiner era and wonder why these sound so wonderful – when, by rights, they should have been awful, considering that Reiner was often nasty to his players, the Orchestra Hall artist facilities were spartan, and salaries were much lower. They may ask themselves why the many millions poured into the CSO over the years have not successfully led to a larger social project – to a broader concept of a symphony orchestra’s function.

        No doubt that top-of-the-line musicians should be well paid – very well paid. But in music, as in sports, past a certain point, adding more money does not improve the event. Is baseball, for example, a better game today than it was 50 years ago? Myself, I would argue that a symphony orchestra should focus, not on being better than the symphony orchestra 100 miles down the road, but on effectively serving its community – and that the musicians’ compensation should be primarily a function of this service.

        • William Safford says:

          Re monetization: a problem we musicians face is the idea that we should just play for fun, and not for money.

          As “bratschegirl” wrote elsewhere: “One major difference between orchestras and the car industry is that nobody has ever seriously advanced the argument that those who work on car assembly lines shouldn’t be paid anything at all for what they do. Sadly, there are members of the boards of even the highest-level orchestras here in the US who genuinely don’t understand why playing an instrument in an orchestra should be a profession at all, let alone a well-paid one. And sadly, until that changes, we musicians can’t afford to stop looking at management and board as ‘them.’”

          Re baseball, why do baseball players warrant receiving millions of dollars of income? Because their actions bring in billions of dollars of incomes for television executives and team owners. Alas, the same cannot be said for most classical musicians. The justification for professional salaries for orchestra musicians has to come from elsewhere.

          As for old recordings, I often find the playing of current orchestras is at quite a higher level of proficiency than evidenced on those old recordings. (Quality of interpretation is another issue.)

          Some of the best orchestras I’ve heard live are European. They’re state-supported. Perhaps the answer is that our orchestras should be state-supported as well. Alas, it’s not going to happen anytime soon.

    • another administrator says:

      Wow. You, sir, win the comment of the day award.

  6. Interesting to see how long this goes on. They are set to open the Carnegie Hall season on oct. 3 and then play a weekend of programs there. Will a strike endanger that Gala? Could make them very unpopular.

  7. Makes you wonder what happens to the money that comes in from that long list of donors & sponsors you see in the back of the programme booklets.

  8. I also enjoy your thought-provoking columns. But it would be helpful to fact check some statements before asserting them.

    The CSO Association was ready months ago to begin negotiations. The musicians union did not agree to start negotiations until two weeks ago, i.e., one week before the contract expired.

    It is the Trustees, the management and the audience who had a gun held to their head. When the strike was called less than two hours before the concert, the majority of disappointed ticket holders who went to Orchestra Hall made it clear who they thought was to blame. See for instance this local coverage:,0,5585573.story

    In being disappointed and frustrated with the musicians, the audience were right.

    • David Sanders says:

      Actually, negotiations started in July, not two weeks ago.

      Here is a link to the CSO musicians facebook page. It offers a completely different point of view of the situation.

      • Civil Civilian says:

        Are you implying that you’ve been negotiating continuously since July? Not at all what I’ve heard.

        • David Sanders says:

          I’m implying that we obviously had enough negotiating sessions to discuss what we needed to discuss. The strike was ended at about 6:30 tonight and a new contract was agreed upon. Thank you all for your support.

  9. CSO Subscriber says:

    Here’s the Association’s press release:

    After reading the release, it seems to me that the musicians are doing quite well indeed.

    I wonder if they’ve noticed that there are many, many empty seats in the hall — even on opening night with Muti conducting.

  10. Kevin Smith says:

    El Sistema here would solve a lot of problems.

    • You mean training a truckload of kids to play classical music, for which there are virtually no employment possibilities?

      • William Safford says:


        I’m pretty sure he means exposing a truckload of kids to classical music.

        This will help them learn life skills that can serve them well in the real world, such as how to focus on a task, and how to work productively with others.

        Maybe they would bring their love of classical music to the concert hall as audience members, which is very relevant if there are many empty seats in the concert hall at concerts.

        If a few become professional musicians, that’s icing on the cake.

      • Classical music as life school, not as employment opportunity. Are there still people out there, who are able to see beyond the dollar figures in everything?

    • Petros Linardos says:

      What problems and how?

  11. I think the CSO musicians should be given whatever wages and benefits to which they feel entitled. If this results in a fiscal deficit above current earned and contributed income then the endowment should be used to fill the gap. When the endowment runs out then the CSO can file for bankruptcy and dissolve. This would leave the musicians free to seek employment elsewhere with other orchestras who can offer them more. Their unfunded pensions could be turned over to the PBGC. Staff could go to work in other fields of professional employment. Wealthy trustees could serve on boards of other charities, go to the club or travel to another city for symphony performances when in the mood. Why tap the brakes when speeding down the highway, red tail lights clearing flashing in the distance? Fasten your seat belts! Full speed ahead!

  12. NotAJournalist says:

    The $175,000 number is subject to no independent verification here and I imagine that it includes benefits at the very least, perhaps like the Minnesota Orchestra’s $135,000 salary claim for it’s musicians. Call me old fashioned, but I remember the day that your salary was your salary and benefits were more than a number managements used against you during a battle for public opinion for how good you have it.
    Regarding “trustees, the management and the audience who had a gun held to their head”, until there is some statement from the players, do we really know what they are striking over, and how dire or frivolous it may be? Let’s not assume entitlement in every case guys.
    Speaking of entititlement, why are Mr. Muti’s and Ms. Rutter’s salaries not mentioned, nor their work hours? Are those at the top somehow more deserving of there hundreds of thousands, not to speak of millions regarding Mr. Muti?
    Parity with other orchestras is relevant when an orchestra wishes to attract and keep the very best. Not just the trained or the competent, but the best. It is not an egalitarian enterprise.

    • Istvan Horthy says:

      There are thousands of orchestral musicians around but Muti is one in a million. How stupid to put at risk the chance of returning the orchestra to the status it had during the glory days of Solti.

    • This is the press release from the CSO players…..

      • Paul D. Sullivan, Arlington/Boston US says:

        From the last line of Mr. Greenlees CSO players post:

        “and to get back to the stage and in front of our loyal patrons, where we belong.”

        As if any of the top orchestras and managements gives a hoot about the audience (outside of our money).

        Out of this entire overblown hand wringing thread it haven’t seen anything about audience members, patrons and ticket buyers. Where the hell do they think their wages come from!

    • Civil Civilian says:

      According to the musicians on their Facebook page, the $175,000 number is an average that includes principal musicians, who get paid a lot more than their “brothers” in the union.

  13. Henry Peyrebrune says:

    Since ‘Henry Fogel broke the $100,000 barrier’ in 2002, the median starting salary for the top 40 American symphony orchestras has gone from $54,600 to $57,708 – a 0.56% annual rate of increase, over a period when inflation was 2.2%.

    Among the top 10 American symphony orchestras (by budget size), from 2002-03 to 2011-12, the average starting salary went from around $94,000 to about $123,000. This works out to an annual rate of increase of 2.7% vs. inflation of 2.2% over the same period.

    While orchestras are facing real economic challenges, I don’t think you can make a viable case that the cause is inflationary musician wages. Two-thirds of the top American orchestras have failed to even keep pace with inflation.

  14. CSO Subscriber says:
  15. CSO musicians can go on and seek pay above their $175K , they can ignore that health insurance has sky rocked and demand that management pick up the increases… or they can strike. I don’t really care. With a current typical all-but nose-bleed ticket prices of $75, $90, $110 (2x, plus taxi/driving/parking/etc for the evening), surely to go up if their demands are met, they will not see me in one (two) of those seats. We can buy an awful lot of CDs for that kind of money.

    I’m with management on this one. Unless, it’s not already too late for all but commodity brokers, psychiatrists, or wealthy ticket buyers.

    • William Safford says:

      Actually, if management and/or the Board brought in more money, they could bring the ticket prices down. After all, ticket income covers only a fraction of the total budget of a major symphony orchestra. The rest comes from other sources.

      Food for thought.

      • Civil Civilian says:

        Do you think they aren’t trying?

        • William Safford says:

          I’m sure they are, but are they coming through?

          The musicians are coming through with their end of the deal every day in which they have a contract. Many orchestras are performing even without ratified contracts.

          Why, then, is it the musicians who are getting locked out, and getting their salaries and benefits slashed, in orchestra after orchestra in the last few weeks?

  16. sense of entitlement musician says:

    Final applications for payment have been submitted by the firms handling the Philadelphia Orchestra Association’s bankruptcy. Fees claimed by the seven major professionals seem to support the estimate previously given by the orchestra: just below $10 million.
    > The fees listed in court papers over the past few days only go back as far as the bankruptcy filing itself in the spring of 2011, and the orchestra racked up bills well before then as it researched the option of chapter 11.
    > The top biller (from 4/16/11 to 7/30/2012):
    > – Dilworth Paxson: $3.04 million, plus $75,000 in expenses.

    >Dilworth’s chairman is a member of the orchestra board.

    Seriously, is this rocket science? Musicians are ‘entitled’, union thugs, whiners.
    I should’ve been a lawyer….then, I coulda been contender, I coulda been somebody….

    Instead, Chicago musicians, Philly musicians, Indianapolis musicians, Louisville musicians, Atlanta musicians, damn union thugs, all of them….they get blamed for everything….ooooo, the 20 hour work week….ooooo….

    I fear that my sarcasm obscures my ‘message’. I support the musicians, and their desire to make as much money as the lawyers who try to destroy…oh, sorry…..’save’ their contracts……
    I support the CSO, Atlanta, and Indianapolis musicians, Syracuse musicians….etc. etc. etc.

  17. bratschegirl says:

    Tentative accord reached today. Ratification by the musicians pending, and expected.

  18. Somehow this reminds me of the Titanic. Classical (read “non commercial”) arts and culture are sinking in the US. I wonder why the Titanic’s band didn’t go on strike as well, after they were going down.

  19. My on-air WFMT radio discussion of many of these matters on air on Monday morning September 24 Chicago time. 18 minute audio link. The strike ended Monday night Seotember 24, about 49 hours after it started. One concert was a casualty. The musicians ratified the tentative agreement this/Tuesday morning September 25 Chicago time. A board of trustees meeting is being scheduled for later this week at which point it is expected the parent CSO Association will also ratify it. All scheduled activities — rehearsals, local performances, and concerts in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at Carnegie Hall, New York, and in Guanajuato and Mexico City,
    Mexico are on.

  20. I give up.
    No one at the CSO really gets it.
    I am part of a dwindling audience for their music,
    with ticket prices now exceeding my financial reach and without the ability to increase my contributions.
    Goodbye to the arrogance and unwillingness to face facts at the CSO and by the CSO musicians.
    This listener has left the building.

    • William Safford says:

      Helen T, I believe that you are the one who does not “get it.”

      But I hope that you will continue to attend concerts and support your orchestra to the best of your ability.

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