Category Archives: Detroit Symphiony Orchestra

DSO: Making Them an Offer They Can’t Accept?

After months of mutual finger-pointing occasionally interrupted by actual negotiations, attempts at a resolution of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra strike collapsed Saturday. Management made its final offer last week, which the musicians turned down, accusing management of a last-minute bait-and-switch ploy in which the final written proposal  was different from what was agreed to in the negotiations. The rest of the season has been “suspended.”

Check out the DSO management and DSO musicians‘ statements if you haven’t already. They seem to be written from different planets.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who was checking Twitter feeds all afternoon Saturday waiting for the vote results to be announced.  (It was the first time I ever really used Twitter.) The DSO drama is riveting; when everything is over, there’s an extensive New Yorker in-depth feature just waiting to be written.  So many conflicting (and complimentary) points of view, so many observers projecting so many interpretations.

Drew McManus has been offering the best reporting and analysis of the situation; his latest post is here. Drew links to a Detroit News report which offers support to the those who’ve suspected that what the DSO management and board have really wanted was to get rid of the current players and hire a new band:

A very different Detroit Symphony Orchestra could emerge in the coming months unless the DSO musicians reverse themselves and agree to terms even more stringent than the offer they rejected over the weekend.

The DSO administration is prepared to move forward with a newly assembled group of players that would include only those members of the current orchestra who agree to unilaterally presented terms, DSO Vice President Paul Hogle said Sunday.

Without setting a date, Hogle said the time has come for a new symphony model to emerge, an ensemble that not only plays traditional concerts but also fully engages the community as ambassadors, educators and performers.

Retired DSO violinist Ann Strubler’s February 16 post imagines a DSO management approach to negotiations which could have built trust and resulted in a contract agreement, and explains, from her point of view, what went wrong.  Then she speculates that things weren’t supposed to work out:
Now all of this is assuming that management has good intentions. Unfortunately, their actions appear to convey that their intentions are to get rid of the current musicians and use inexperienced replacements at a much lower salary.

Is this what’s really going on?  An inversion of Vito Corleone’s “an offer he can’t refuse“? Make them an offer they can’t accept?

I had dinner last night with a violinist friend who is taking orchestra auditions.  The DSO situation came up, and I told him about the sabotage-the-negotiations-to-hire-a-new-orchestra hypothesis. My friend has been around for a while.  Even if that’s their idea, it would never work, my friend said.  “It would be a scab orchestra.  Nobody would join it.”

Why not? Back to today’s Detroit News article:

Professional orchestras are highly unionized; any musician taking a replacement job risks career suicide.

Hogle said any restructured ensemble would be professional and open to young musicians as well as veterans.

Career suicide. Maybe, but only in the unionized orchestra world of the past and present.

Open to young musicians as well as veterans. Who, absent any career to kill off, and perhaps foreseeing a weakened-union or non-union future, may leap at a chance to work for a living.

So it just might be able to work, this hire-a-new-orchestra thing.  Not that I’m in favor of it. But I’m looking at the realities.  And everyone is fully aware that as the DSO goes, so, probably, will a lot of other orchestras.

There’s virtually universal agreement that something has to change for full-time symphony orchestras to survive in the 21-st century.  People who love orchestras the way they are (especially the ones playing in them) think that what needs to happen is better PR and marketing, better fund raising, better outreach, and, especially, more and better classical-music education in the public schools.  In the opposite corner are the classical-music-must-change advocates who have concluded that symphony orchestra must undergo radical transformation to survive and grow.

The DSO situation is a  symbol for the larger struggle.  The musicians, deeply frustrated by what they see as incompetent management, fighting (evidently to the death) to preserve  intact a great symphony orchestra (and by proxy all traditional symphony orchestras).

Then there’s the vision of change.  From Mark Stryker in the Detroit Free Press:

DSO executive vice president Paul Hogle said the musicians appear out of touch with the realities facing U.S. orchestras and the desires of a younger generation of entrepreneurial musicians.

“This isn’t about financial issues versus work-rule issues,” said Hogle. “It’s about the survival and looking forward, not lingering in the past.”

A “younger generation of entrepreneurial musicians.” What about them?

I’m living in New York this semester, and have met a number of young free-lance players, some of whom are graduate students at big conservatories.  Guess what?  Most have little if any sympathy for the DSO players (who have not managed to successfully reframe the conversation and are losing the PR war, even with music students). They love all sorts of music in addition to classical music.  Plenty find traditional symphony (and other) concerts boring.  There are plenty of classical-change advocates, in various stages of self-awareness, among them. Right now, they have little or no work.  Student and, in many cases, instrument loans to pay.  Fantastic players.

Many see the union as the problem (even if they’re not going through one of those college-age Ayn Rand phases).  The players have been successfully characterized to/construed by them as greedy, selfish, and/or out of touch.  A lot of these incredibly-accomplished young players (and I bet there are bunches more in Baltimore, Bloomington, Cincinnati, Cleveland, LA,Miami,  etc.) seem excited at the idea of going to Detroit to work in a “new model” symphony.

They aren’t horrified by the idea of service conversion and the “Memphis Model,” as is, for example, longtime DSO clarinetist Doug Cornelsen. They find it appealing.

So that’s the bad news for my friends colleagues in the DSO. Given the economy and the over-supply of unemployed excellent young (and not-so-young) players, there may well be high-level musicians who would line up to take their places.  And that may well be what the DSO management is not just gambling but counting on.

Are there really enough high-level, out-of-work musicians to constitute a new DSO?  Sure.

Would enough of them cross picket lines and actually go to work for what the DSO will offer?  I don’t know.  Big if.  But probably.

If yes, would the new orchestra have the same depth and sophistication as the current orchestra?  Obviously not.

Could it be technically brilliant and enthusiastic?  Very possibly.  Take a listen to, say, the Juilliard Orchestra. It’s awesome.

Could anyone in the current DSO stay on at whatever management’s next, even-less-lucrative offer turns out to be, joining the “scabs”? Seems like it would mean resigning from the union and giving up many of one’s friendships.

Would the community and the current subscriber base support a “scab orchestra”? Big, big, big question mark. It will depend on who frames the conversation and wins the PR war.  So far, the musicians haven’t been effective at making their case.

So some of us stay glued to the blog and Twitter feeds.  Is what the DSO management and board really want a new set of non-traditionalist players?  Are they using union-busting tactics, making offers they know the players won’t accept, even reneging on terms they verbally agreed to, as the musicians say?

What a mess.  We’ll see.

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Filed under crisis in classical music, Detroit Symphiony Orchestra, future of classical music