Don't kill Detroit's orchestra

Alexander Billet reports on a strike by musicians at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and what it means for orchestras everywhere.

Musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra on the picket lineMusicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra on the picket line

DETROIT. THE one-time home of John Lee Hooker, Berry Gordy, the Supremes and Hitsville USA. The industrial mecca that helped give rise to the MC5, P-Funk and house music. Seminal hip-hop groups like Slum Village have emerged from the city, and Eminem's continued connections merely cement the link. It's undeniable that without the Motor City, music in America would sound nothing like it does today.

Lately, though, that legacy seems to be overshadowed by some depressing imagery: shuttered auto plants, foreclosed homes and block upon block of urban decay. It might be easy to overlook that, in the midst of so much blight, Detroit has long been home to one of the country's premier orchestras.

For over a hundred years, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) has been a key part of the city's makeup; its annual concert series is viewed by almost half a million people every year; it has toured the world, garnering praise and awards along the way. It is, as one member of the orchestra says, "a cultural gem."

All the more reason to defend it, says cellist Haden McKay:

For better or for worse, around the world, what people know Detroit for are decay, social problems, economic problems. The Detroit Symphony, for many decades, has been one thing that carries the name of Detroit around the world in a very positive connection. Whether we're on tour or whether our CD is being played on the radio in Asia or Europe, this is one time when you can hear the name Detroit in a positive connection. You can't put a price tag on that.

Which is why on October 4, McKay and the rest of the orchestra walked out. The DSO has canceled all orchestral performances through November 7, including its season opener. World-renowned violinist Sarah Chang, who was scheduled for a recital on October 11, also canceled under public pressure.

The orchestra members, represented by American Federation of Musicians Local 5, haven't been unreasonable. On the contrary, the DSO board of directors has offered a contract stunning in its draconian demands. A 33 percent pay cut for current musicians, a 42 percent cut for new hires, the elimination of tenure and drastic restructuring of work rules to force musicians to perform well past regular concerts. Even for the "new normal" of the Great Recession, that's deep.

For their part, the musicians' counteroffer was an already substantial 22 percent cut. Management wouldn't budge though. In late September, negotiations broke down. And the strike--having already been authorized by the musicians in August--began a few days later. There have been no announcements of a return to the negotiating table.

Currently, veteran musicians make approximately $104,000 per year. Management's proposal would slash that figure to $77,000, and the elimination of tenure puts a big question mark over whether musicians would ever be able to get back to their former salary.

DSO Chief Executive and President Anne Parsons has pointed to the administrative cutbacks that the staff and others have had to make in recent years. What she hasn't been as public about is her own yearly income.

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WHAT'S AT stake isn't just the musicians' ability to make a living, though. Management's intransigence puts the orchestra's very integrity on the chopping block.

Orchestral musicians are well-known for spending years honing their craft, often sacrificing untold sums for sake of their training. The DSO's reputation and ability to offer a competitive salary has allowed it to attract some world-class talent. Management's proposals make that no longer feasible.

As McKay explains:

It's a very simple line to draw. We're competing in an international and national talent pool for top players. We can pay a little bit less than the other ones because once people come, they love the quality of the orchestra, they tend to put down roots, and they stay. To get them there in the first place, though, you have to offer at least a competitive package.

If we go down the way that management wants us to go down, we're not going to be able to offer that. What we've seen these past couple years has been people leaving for other jobs. They've seen the writing on the wall and sensed that management was going to go after us.

In short, what management is offering is an orchestra destined for a decline toward a third-rate existence. If Parsons and the rest have their way, then it won't just be the musicians who are deprived, but the access of Detroit residents to world-class art and the community's ability to take pride in their orchestra.

Perhaps this is why public support for the strike has been broad. This past summer, well before negotiations began, the musicians began reaching out to the community and explaining their position.

"A lot of people in the public are saying that this doesn't sound right," McKay recalls. "When we're picketing, a lot of the unions come down, whether it's the Teamsters, the UAW, they'll show up because they see us very much as fellow workers."

That's not to say this picket isn't unique. Pictures and photos show the musicians walking the line in full coat and tails; French horns held aloft right alongside placards reading "DSO Unfair."

But the musicians have also sought to use their own art as a platform for their cause. As in previous strikes, the orchestra has gone forward with its scheduled season--just not under the sanction of management. The musicians' Web site features a section for purchasing tickets to concerts not in their normal home of the Max M. Fisher Music Center, but in the nearby communities of Bloomfield Hills and Grosse Pointe. Proceeds from the concerts will go to benefit the strikers' contingency fund.

Their Bloomfield Hills show will also feature about a dozen members of symphony orchestra of Cleveland, who went on strike for one day this past January. Indeed, the strike seems to have captured the attention of symphonies around the country.

McKay is straightforward in why this is the case: "If they can make a major orchestra take this kind of pay cut--if they can open that door in Detroit--then you can be sure that when they go to the negotiating table in Baltimore or Dallas or Philadelphia or Denver, they're going to hear the same demands."

And therein lies the reason this fight is important. The economic crisis and the onslaught it's provoked from employers have already taken a toll on our homes, our jobs and our livelihoods. It's no surprise that our access to art and music should be in the crosshairs, too. If we don't defend it, then it won't be sticking around either.

First published at the Society of Cinema and Arts Web site.