Detroit orchestra’s clash between musicians, management raises questions about national status

By Jeff Karoub, AP
Monday, August 30, 2010

Budget woes sowing discord at Detroit orchestra

DETROIT — Despite all of Detroit’s woes, the city has always been able to boast about one thing: its nationally recognized orchestra.

But even the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is now in turmoil, with musicians and management battling over a tight budget and the union authorizing a strike to try to avoid steep pay cuts. Though the orchestra has fought hardship before, some are questioning whether it can survive at a time when the city itself is facing such economic instability.

Acknowledging the hard financial times, the union had offered to take a 22 percent pay cut to $82,000 for most musicians in the first year of a three-year agreement and increasing that salary to $96,600, but management said the cuts needed to be deeper. On Saturday, the musicians voted to reject management proposals including 29 percent first-year pay cut and authorized a strike should contract talks fail.

“Hands down, this is the most dramatic proposal for cuts than any 52-week orchestra I’ve seen. It’s not even just a benchmark in cuts being proposed by management — it’s even a benchmark in terms of the degree of cuts proposed by musicians,” said Drew McManus, a Chicago-based orchestra management consultant.

The orchestra has been down this road before. The musicians endured two strikes in the 1980s — the last in 1987 while under the baton of maestro Gunther Herbig. His departure in 1988 to the Toronto Symphony was seen as a serious blow to Detroit’s cultural community.

Another blow nearly came in 1970, when the orchestra’s original home, Orchestra Hall, was about to be demolished. The group was playing at an inferior facility across town by that point, but a musician formed “Save Orchestra Hall,” which raised funds for its renovation.

The DSO returned in 1989 to the hall, which went through a massive expansion and restoration project earlier this decade and became part what’s now known as the Max M. Fisher Music Center.

This time around, though, the stakes — and obstacles — are higher. The orchestra has seen its donations fall, endowment shrink and ticket sales soften as the state’s auto industry shed jobs and plants and experienced bankruptcy reorganizations.

“This is a watershed moment in their history — no doubt about it,” McManus said.

Symphony officials contend the economy is bad in the Detroit area and the organization cannot spend more money than it takes in. But musicians say the proposed cuts for new members would keep the orchestra from attracting top talent.

After the union authorized the strike, management left only one proposal, which musicians previously rejected, on the table. The proposal is deeper and calls for a two-tier wage system for the first time: A 33 percent pay cut for current players and a 42 percent cut for new players, putting the entry level salary at $61,200, according to cellist Haden McKay, a 27-year orchestra veteran.

The ensemble’s strong reputation alone isn’t enough to overcome Detroit’s image as a place of high crime and joblessness. To attract top talent from around the world, McKay said, the orchestra, which is now led by world-renowned conductor Leonard Slatkin, also must offer competitive salaries.

McKay said six musicians have left in the past two years for orchestras in Cleveland, Boston, Philadelphia and elsewhere. If the salaries fall that far, he said, the orchestra can’t replace others like them with musicians of equal quality.

Orchestra spokeswoman Elizabeth Twork said officials are not commenting beyond a statement that expresses disappointment that musicians have rejected proposals, and the organization is considering next steps.

Musicians will work until at least Sept. 23 under terms of the old contract and no new talks are scheduled. The season is scheduled to start in October.

On its website, orchestra officials say they recognize they are proposing “dramatic cuts,” but “these changes are necessary for the fiscal health and survival of the organization.”

Although it may seem counterintuitive to the approach of automakers and other corporations in tough times, McManus said arts organizations have to find a way to keep from cutting budgets too deeply — lest they lose even more funding.

“When you start making substantial cuts, the dynamic impact … is continual erosion. The support will start to fall away if they feel all of a sudden that it’s not the same organization,” he said.

“People are attracted to winners.”



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