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The Detroit Symphony, Service Exchange, and “Full-Time” Jobs

About a week ago I received a phone call from a reporter from Detroit Public Radio inviting me to comment on the Detroit Symphony strike. I told him I had no special knowledge of the Detroit situation, but was amenable to commenting on some of the general issues at hand.
“Service conversion” is something I have long thought, spoken, and written about – e.g., in my blog of Jan. 29, 2010, on how the Memphis Symphony has succeeded in prioritizing musician “services” beyond rehearsing and performing. This seems to me an idea long overdue. It addresses the surfeit of concerts, outstripping demand, bedeviling many American orchestras. It also addresses the insularity of orchestras as cultural institutions, by inviting musicians to engage with the community in new ways.
To my surprise, I was then quoted saying that orchestra musicians “should no longer expect to work full-time.” I in fact opined that they could expect a more varied work menu – one of the sticking points of the current Detroit negotiations. Drew McManus picked this up on his “Adaptistration” blog – and I offered a response. In response to that, Brian Bell of WGBH Boston – who’s done fascinating research into the early seasons of Henry Higginson’s Boston Symphony – contributed some historical perspective. I then offered a further comment, as follows:
Yes Henry Higginson invented the Boston Symphony – and the full-time American “symphony orchestra.” By 1900, the BSO was giving 100 concerts a season and more. Nothing in Beethoven’s or Brahms’ Vienna predicted an institution remotely of this kind; then as now, the Vienna Philharmonic was essentially a pit orchestra. The template fit Boston – its singular appetite for Beethoven and other symphonic masters. It was not then and is not now self-evidently a universal template.
A useful point of reference may be Dimitri Mitropoulos’s Minneapolis Symphony (1937-1949) – one of the most impressive American music directorships of the twentieth century. With Stokowski’s Philadelphia Orchestra, this was one of two American orchestras with an instantly recognizable sonic signature (listen to the edgy recordings and broadcasts, more remarkable than what Mitropoulos later achieved with his “full-time” New York Philharmonic) – it sounded like no other. In Minneapolis Mitropoulos regularly purveyed important new and unfamiliar music. He was trusted and beloved. The orchestra magnificently fulfilled Theodore Thomas’s credo – it both challenged and embodied “the culture of the community.” Though it toured ambitiously, its subscription season was exceedingly modest by today’s standards. I have no doubt that the musicians did not earn a “living wage” as members of the Minneapolis Symphony – but they had ample spare time to earn money in other ways.
It seems to me merely self-evident that frequency of performance cannot be predicated on the number of rehearsals and performances necessary to amass a full-time salary for the instrumentalists. An orchestra’s chief beneficiaries are not its member musicians – fundamentally, it serves others first.
If I sound unsympathetic to the musicians, it’s because I’ve heard one too many times the strident union litany blaming ignorant boards and incompetent managers. Running an orchestra is a thankless task. I’ve done it.
PS – The Mitropoulos/Minneapolis recording to hear first is his scorching Schumann Second Symphony (1940) – a work to which he felt exceptionally close, and which he radically reconstrued. This ranks with Furtwangler’s famous studio recording of Schumann’s Fourth as one of the two most galvanizing Schumann symphony performances I know. On youtube, you can sample his Minneapolis Symphony in Franck’s D minor Symphony. You can sample his Minneapolis Mahler First on my website. These performances are unique, unforgettable.


  1. microbug39 says:

    You are forgetting two things. Firstly that we don’t live in the early 1900’s anymore where arts were valued as a part of society, but rather that we live in a capitalist era where you get what you pay for. And secondly that it’s the musicians who create the ‘signature sound’ for an orchestra. Not a music director, and certainly not management. In this world of competition for earning a living wage, the best all end up where they are wanted and treated fairly. So, skip the union busting comments please, you and I both know that the unions don’t spend hours in the practice room making the best the best, they dont spend the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on the instruments for the best, and they dont pay the musicians anything. Let’s focus on the real issue at hand, the fact that a musician’s “work” is not limited to rehearsal and concert time, and that being a musician means to be a specialist in your field and all of the hours of dedication it takes to remain that specialist BEFORE you ever set foot at the workplace.
    You can take your union busting comments and put them somewhere else.

  2. CurtisGrad says:

    Dear Mr. Horowitz,
    You say “running an Orchestra is a thankless task. I have done it.” You seem hell bent on setting the institution back 100 years. Perhaps it is because you have little talent for the task. And if you were so emotionally uninspired and obviously had no sense of mission why in the world did you do it?”
    I read your biography. It cites only your employment history, not where you got your ear training. May I suggest solfeggio 101 to you. Without disrespect to our predecessors, Orchestra playing like professional athletics has evolved way beyond the technical prowess of 70 to 80 years ago. Just a hint. Intonation is more than just a lot better even in the recording you cite.

  3. The arts are in trouble. Our country, and potentially world doesn’t value the history, or understand the expertise and training needed to accurately recreate that history. Communities are disconnected from classical music, and we are living in a generation where classical music is not valued or not a part of young peoples lives at all. Musicians need to be a more present part of our community, our education system to touch the lives of many and teach the unaware how to understand and therefore value classical music. And it all needs to be done in a way that can reach out to all regardless of class, race, gender, or age.
    However, by changing the job descriptions of orchestral musicians in top tier orchestras, we are depriving our communities of the very ideal that we strive to celebrate, and more importantly replacing those hundreds of non-orchestral musicians in the community who work tirelessly day in and day out to make a difference, as well as a decent living. No, the answer is not to dilute the talents of those in our ‘specialty’ role. The refinement and structure of a classical symphony orchestra MUST exist in order to 1) keep history alive and 2) perpetiate the art form. True, many of the countries top professional orchestral musicians teach, play chamber music, perform solo recitals, however it is often at the expense of a week of work at their full-time jobs. I know no member of a major orchestra who will play a concerto appearance on Friday with a community orchestra and still work the rest of the week sitting in their job with the [Boston, Chicago, Detroit, NY,…] symphony. And that is the crux of the issue. To ask these specialty musicians to do something that is not inherantly in their specialty (i.e. teach in the public schools vs. play a Mahler symphony) is to take away some aspect of their focus. The ones who are capable, able, and willing to donate themselves to their communities already are and do. And often, without asking for any compensation at all.
    And what happens to the hundreds (if not thousands in bigger cities)of musicians who are not in top tier orchestras? What happens when their students are gone? When their gigs are given away? Are they forced to make music an “after 5pm” hobby just because they specialized in education? or chamber music? and they don’t happen to have an employer, but work tirelessly to be self-employed and self-sufficient in the field of their study? And how rude and insulting to them and their hard work that you assume that just because a full-time top-tier orchestra doesn’t “teach in the public schools” means that the community is lacking in opportunities for musical presence!
    No, the answer instead lies in building a platform for the arts throughout the community and engaging those musicians who are already sucessfully installed and making a difference. We need to find a way to gather funds to support them, so that they can continue to do their work in the community and be visible. One person can make a difference, but it takes many in order to accomplish big things.

  4. Robert Berger says:

    I reject the notion that orchestras today play”too many concerts”. How many are enough?
    Musicians should be able to earn a decent or better living.
    Yes,the Vienna Philharmonic was and is primarily an opera orchestra, but the Vienna Symphony orchestra was founded in the early 20th century to provide a larger number of concerts for Vienna,and still exists,as well as the Vienna Radio symphony orchestra.
    The longer seasons of today enable orchestra to play a much wider variety a repertoire.
    How can this be a bad thing? Orchestras today will play anything from the great oratorios and other choral works of Bach and Handel, the symphonies and concertos of Haydn,Mozart, Beethoven etc to the latest works by Adams,Ades,Corigliano,Saariaho,
    Rouse,Carter, and many other living composers in the course of any given season.
    Their strength lies in this great variety.
    The orchestral repertoire is in no way”ossified”,as many wrongly claim. on the contrary,it is in constant flux,as it should be.

  5. Vienna might not be the best example for justifying part-time orchestra. The Vienna State Opera Orchestra has 149 members (almost double the size of an average orchestra) so that they can rotate the services. Among other things, this allows them to run the VPO on the side and give that orchestra a fairly active season. In addition, the VPO’s tickets are sold out about ten years in advance and are distributed with a lottery system.
    The city also has two other symphony orchestras that are both fulltime ensembles: The Vienna Symphony Orchestra, and the Vienna State Radio Orchestra. And on top of that there is the fulltime orchestra of the Volks Opera. That makes four fulltime orchestra for Vienna, or five actually, since the VSOO orchestra is double the size of a normal orchestra.
    Meanwhile, Detroit with a metro population of 5.5 million can’t even pay for one orchestra. The difference, of course, is that we are the only developed country in the world without a comprehensive system of public arts funding. I wonder if there might be a correlation between your misleading presentation of the facts about Vienna and your highly partisan view of public arts funding.

  6. “You can take your union busting comments and put them somewhere else.” Like a personal blog, perhaps?
    I’m continually amazed that the “What we do is important, trust us” and “I’ve put a lot of time into this and am entitled to compensation” arguments are still the best ones we musicians can muster for supporting our orchestras. If our cities don’t value what we do enough to support us, then perhaps we should take a hard look at ourselves and consider how important we really are – not to ourselves or our peers, but to our communities.
    The DSO musicians may be concerned about losing ground to Cleveland, Philly, and Chicago, but few in Detroit seem to care, and that’s what they should be worried about.

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