Changing fortunes of orchestras

Classical groups are greatly affected by the amount of support they get from the communities they are in

Musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra on strike (above) over pay issues just before their season-opening gala concert in Philadelphia last Friday.
Musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra on strike (above) over pay issues just before their season-opening gala concert in Philadelphia last Friday.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • The orchestra world's Black Friday began last Friday with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra going on strike in the morning and ended across Pennsylvania that evening with the Philadelphia Orchestra walking out as patrons gathered for its opening night gala.

The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra musicians, who were already on strike, sent their support on Twitter.

But three strikes should not be taken to mean that classical music is out.

While orchestras across the country face endemic challenges - rising costs and weakening demand, along with difficulty raising money as classical music's place in the broader culture fades - each ensemble has its own obstacles and its fortunes are often closely tied to its community's.

That is why some orchestras, including the mighty Los Angeles Philharmonic and the small Grand Rapids Symphony, which announced this year it raised US$40 million (S$54.5 million) for its endowment, are able to thrive while others struggle.

"I think orchestras are fundamentally local businesses," said Mr Thomas W. Morris, who has led both the Cleveland Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

He added that while the unions representing musicians tend to look at what their peers are paid at comparable orchestras across the country, management typically focuses on what it thinks the local area can support.

That is the case in Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia Orchestra is one of America's best ensembles, known even to people who do not listen to much classical music for its playing in Walt Disney's classic, Fantasia (1940).

Seven seasons ago, its base pay was higher than at the New York Philharmonic or the Boston Symphony Orchestra, both in cities where the cost of living is substantially higher than in Philadelphia.

Then the ensemble, facing a fiscal crisis, sought bankruptcy protection five years ago - betting that the ability to get rid of some of its pension obligations would outweigh any hit taken by its reputation.

The musicians saw their pay cut by 14 per cent and, in the fiercely competitive orchestra world, fell behind those peers and dropped to the eighth best-paid group in the nation, where they remain, according to Adaptistration, a website that tracks orchestra compensation.

"Does it matter to us that last season our base salary was more than 18 per cent less than the Boston Symphony, and over 24 per cent less than that of the San Francisco Symphony?" the Philadelphia musicians asked in a statement released when they went on strike. "Yes, it does. In order for us to remain a great orchestra, we must be able to attract and retain the best players."

The strike action is likely to direct renewed attention to the orchestra's decision to seek bankruptcy protection in 2011.

In an e-mail to supporters of the orchestra, Ms Allison Vulgamore, the ensemble's president and chief executive, said: "The talents of our great musicians must be recognised while also balancing the need for the kind of careful financial stewardship that will keep the Philadelphia Orchestra strong and viable for years to come."

The financial challenge has grown as orchestras that could once count on support from business leaders and industrialists - when the Pittsburgh Symphony was founded at the turn of the last century, Pittsburgh was a booming steel town and businessman Andrew Carnegie helped support the ensemble - now must struggle to raise money in a very different kind of economy.

"It used to be understood that there was a group of good community citizens, usually associated with the big companies in town who had deep ties to the community and a sense of civic responsibility," Mr Morris said. "Now companies are changing, they're owned by holding companies, their headquarters are elsewhere and CEOs move around."

Pittsburgh's musicians went on strike after rejecting a management proposal that they said would cut their pay by 15 per cent in the first year, freeze their pensions and reduce the orchestra's size.

The chairman of its board, Mr Devin McGranahan, said in a statement its deficit and debt had put it on track to "run out of cash and have to close the doors" by spring.

But it has not all been doom and gloom in the orchestra world this year.

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, which had a lockout four years ago, agreed to a contract with raises this spring. The Minnesota Orchestra, which recently went through a gruelling 16-month lockout, has new labour peace and new board leadership, and went on tour to Europe this summer. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, which had a successful recent fund-raising campaign, is adding musicians to its roster at a moment when many ensembles are shrinking.

Still, real tests remain. The old subscription model that orchestras relied on to fill seats is on the decline as audiences now prefer to make last-minute decisions about their leisure time.

Some orchestras are struggling with attendance. Cincinnati is renovating its Music Hall and plans to reduce its capacity by roughly 1,000 seats from the 3,417 it once held.

But even in shaky economic times, the unions representing orchestra musicians hold power because without players, the show cannot go on: Their product, live performance, cannot be outsourced. That has made it difficult for orchestras to curb costs.

Emeritus professor Robert J. Flanagan at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, who wrote the 2012 book The Perilous Life Of Symphony Orchestras, said that the recent labour unrest showed that the challenges facing many orchestras had not disappeared with the end of the Great Recession.

"From the point of view of the musicians, they've spent a long time developing their skills, so they tend to look at what people with similar skills are being paid at other orchestras," he said in an interview.

"On the management side, they're basically stuck with what the community they're located in is willing to pay. And those two perspectives have very little to do with each other."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 03, 2016, with the headline 'Changing fortunes of orchestras'. Subscribe