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.



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

9 responses to “DSO: Making Them an Offer They Can’t Accept?

  1. This is more riveting, to me, than any sporting event!

    Gah, you and Drew McMagnus have said far more and far better what I could have said about all the issues here, but I am intrigued (if only a bit saddened) by the whole situation.

    But same as what you said about many of the musicians over there “Most have little if any sympathy for the DSO players” it’s a similar sentiment once you get out of the unionized orchestral musician communities. And I’m not so sure the general public sympathizes much with the DSO players either.

    I’ve obviously been keeping tabs on the situation with the Louisville Orchestra down here who are doing things a bit differently though I’m not sure how it will work (granted, some of the circumstance are different, especially with the Chapter 11 bankruptcy as well as the court order for the LO to pay the musicians ).

    The DSO situtation is very likely going to to be the test case for how many other orchestras start to follow suit. Disinhibitory Contagion is what they call it cognitive psychology–where all it takes is for one person to exert his or her preference against a majority preference which then triggers the fence sitters or those who are too afraid to make their preference known.

    And as Derek Sivers has said in his TED talk–all it takes to start a movement is for a second person to join the first!

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  7. Was just talking with some local young musicians about the Louisville Orchestra and its bid to replace the musicians. They are relatively unsympathetic to unions though they seem to understand the power that the organizations hold. I got the sense that the only thing really holding them back from taking the audition is that they are local and therefore know many of the orchestra members.

    But the conversation reminded me of this post of yours, especially regarding the attitudes of younger freelance players towards labor disputes in orchestras. I’m beginning to wonder if this might “work” down here, and if it does, how it will affect the field due to the ramifications.

  8. I had an interesting conversation with a member of the Indianapolis Symphony and a colleague who subs with the ISO a couple of days ago. I was surprised that they did not think that the threat of being blacklisted from future union work would keep people from applying, and that they seemed to expect that this will actually come to pass. So it will be very interesting to see what happens.

    • I’m not entirely surprised. There are a handful of orchestras in the US that aren’t Union orchestras, so the AFM will have no sway over musicians getting a job in those. And hell, there are orchestras all around the world for those willing to make the move.

      I’ve heard that there have already been some applications/resumes sent to the LO, so it’s only a matter of time. I think the biggest obstacle will be the inevitable picket lines outside of auditions/concerts and other events that will be the biggest deterrent but as to filling the orchestra, that may already be well on the way.

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