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Musicians' Strike: The L.A. Connection

Commentary: The Philadelphia Orchestra may be paying a price for remaining a bastion of tradition, but a stalled concert hall project (sound familiar?) isn't helping matters.

September 21, 1996|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

The Philadelphia Orchestra is on strike. Even though it is the orchestra's first walkout in 30 years, there is nothing particularly unusual about musicians taking to the picket lines. They do it all the time. Surveys about job satisfaction, such as one done at Harvard University a few years ago, have shown that members of American symphony orchestras are a famously unhappy lot, and contract negotiations tend to be disputatious.

This time around in Philadelphia, though, the situation is a little more interesting than most musical labor disputes. Of course the musicians, like workers everywhere, want better pay and benefits. But the demands they've put on the table seem to be as much a lashing out at the state of musical life today as a plea for higher wages.

The hard truth is that orchestras everywhere are under increasing pressure to better respond to the world around them, and Philadelphia and its musicians may be paying a price for remaining a bastion of musical tradition. The Philadelphia Inquirer music critic, Lesley Valdes, put it in perspective by suggesting that what is needed in Philadelphia is an orchestra management with the imagination of that in Los Angeles.

The most telling of the Philadelphia players' demands is that they continue to get a "media guarantee" of $6,000 a year as compensation for broadcasts and recordings by the orchestra, even though the orchestra lost its record deal with EMI and its radio sponsorship as well.

The players are interpreting the loss of the guarantee as a loss of wages. Management counters that it is an unrealistic bonus when there is no income from media, and that its salary offer, which raises the minimum wage of $75,400 to $83,200 over the next three years, places the orchestra among the three best-paid in the country.

In fact, what is at issue here seems to be prestige as much as wages. Musicians who play in orchestras are forced to sacrifice a great deal, as individual artists, for the good of the orchestral society. They are commanded to follow a leader with whom they may or may not agree. The members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, moreover, do that better than most, producing a unified sound that is really remarkable. So it is not easy for one of the world's genuinely great orchestras to accept that no one wants its records or its concerts broadcast.

But no one, at the moment, does.

Great as it is, Philadelphia happens to be one of the more out-of-touch orchestras, and its appeal seems to shrink with each passing year. Its music director, the 73-year-old German conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch, is a masterful no-nonsense interpreter of the German classics from Mozart to Strauss and Hindemith. He gave his audiences a lot of Beethoven last year; once the strike is settled, he will give them a lot of Brahms this year.

That may be fine for the audiences who attend concerts at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia or its smaller series at Carnegie Hall in New York--that audience is the oldest and stodgiest I've seen anywhere in the world. But it is entirely unrealistic to think that there is a market for recordings or broadcasts of more colorless renditions of classics when those works have already been recorded hundreds of times.

The players are passing the buck to management, and they have ammunition. This is a management that lost $1.5 million last year buying into an arts pyramid scheme in a scandal that involved the Foundation for New Era Philanthropy. And it has been struggling for years to build a proposed new Postmodern concert hall designed by the famed local architect Michael Graves, a hall it desperately needs since the Academy of Music is an acoustical disaster.

With a current deficit of $2.2 million, management, competent or not, can hardly hope to continue to raise money for the hall while meeting the musicians' demands. Having no faith in management's ability to ever build a hall, some musicians have suggested in interviews that it is necessary for the orchestra to make its commitment first to the players, even if that means forgoing the hall altogether.

But the Philadelphia Orchestra got into the sorry situation it is now in large part because the city did not properly support the cause of a new hall from the start. It is widely believed that its former, far more dynamic and charismatic music director, Riccardo Muti, left Philadelphia because he grew discouraged that the hall would ever be built. And that seems to have started a vicious cycle of pessimism at the Philadelphia Orchestra that has now reached the level where the musicians are willing to sell out their future altogether.

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