Message to symphony orchestras in troubled times: Think positive

Bruce Ridge

ICSOM chairman Bruce Ridge. (Michael Zirkle Photo / August 21, 2012)

Fifty years ago, a group of 30 musicians from a dozen different orchestras in the U.S. and Canada met at Roosevelt University here to discuss how they could save their beleaguered profession.

It was a terrible time for symphony players. In 1962, most musicians in major symphony orchestras were employed little more than six months annually at an average salary of $5,000 that was barely a living wage back then. Health insurance and pension benefits were virtually non-existent. Musicians had no voice in the business or artistic affairs of their institutions. Battles with employers were rife, and job security was tenuous. Union representatives were little or no help in fighting for musicians' professional dignity and equity.

Thus was born the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians – ICSOM, for short – a musicians' advocacy group dedicated, according to its charter, to "the promotion of a better and more rewarding livelihood for the skilled orchestral performer and to the enrichment of the cultural life of our society."

That both goals, and more, have been met over the intervening decades no doubt will drive many of the speeches and workshops by guest speakers, orchestra and union representatives this week when ICSOM holds its 50th anniversary conference in the city where it all began. More than 200 delegates from ICSOM-member orchestras are expected to attend the four-day event, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel has designated Wednesday, the first day of the conference, ICSOM Day in Chicago.

"It's going to be very much a celebration of the past, but at the same time we are keeping our eyes squarely focused on the future," says Bruce Ridge, a double bass player in the Raleigh-based North Carolina Symphony, who for the past six years has served as chairman of ICSOM. The organization currently numbers 4,200 members nationwide.

Certainly there is plenty for ICSOM to celebrate. The average season length of the 51 ICSOM-member orchestras is more than 40 weeks, and 18 of those orchestras have year-round seasons. Wages, working conditions and pension benefits have risen considerably over the years. Orchestras now have bargaining representation in contract negotiations and may hire their own legal counsel. Contract provisions protect symphony musicians against immediate and arbitrary dismissal, along with discrimination on the basis of age, sex, race and union activity.

Largely because of ICSOM's relentless efforts to achieve a living wage for symphony musicians, orchestras have been able to attract consistently higher levels of the best conservatory-trained players, which in turn has spurred a record number of applications to the top music schools. And better musicians means that the artistic quality continues to rise even at orchestras several tiers below the so-called Big Five of Chicago, Boston, New York, Cleveland and Philadelphia.

According to Ridge, ICSOM's big push is to increase public awareness of the enormous benefits – cultural, social and economic – symphony orchestras bring to their communities. Accentuating the positive is vital at a time when, in his view, the media too often paint a scenario heavily larded with pessimistic and, worse, inaccurate, pronouncements from management and board people as to how the recession will affect U.S. orchestras in the short and long term.

But managerial hand-wringing over declining attendance, contributions and endowments – combined with the unspoken (and fallacious) contention that the musicians' hard-fought victories as to salaries and health and pension benefits have worsened the fiscal crisis some orchestras are facing – only confuses matters and is counterproductive to creating constructive dialogue moving forward, Ridge contends.

"The constant drone of negativity doesn't accurately reflect what's happening in the field, and only breeds more negativity," he says. "The story that needs to be told on a national level is not that some orchestras, such as Philadelphia and Syracuse, have had difficulty, but, in fact, how well so many other orchestras have done. When prominent people in the managerial field say things like, 'Attendance everywhere is falling,' we get frustrated, because we know that's not true – the situation varies from locale to locale. In those places where attendance is rising, we need to ask, 'Why are they being successful when others are not?"

(Earlier this month, the Philadelphia Orchestra announced it had formally emerged from operating under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code. The Syracuse Symphony collapsed in Chapter 7 bankruptcy in April 2011, although some 40 of its musicians soldier on as the self-managed Symphony Syracuse.)

One example Ridge cites of an orchestra whose fortunes symphony members played a key role in turning around recently is the Colorado Symphony.

A $1.3 million deficit provoked a very public brawl between musicians and management, along with calls from the board to shut down the orchestra. When a move to make 20 players part-time failed, scores of board members quit. Musicians agreed to sizable pay concessions, new board members were installed, and a new management team was hired. The orchestra finished its 2011-12 season in the black.

"Symphony musicians believe that in order to thrive financially as well as artistically, an investment must be made toward maintaining quality," Ridge observes. "When too many drastic cuts are made in orchestra budgets, these directly affect attracting and retaining the best talent; so quality suffers. And no business ever solved a financial problem by offering its public an inferior product."

What's more, as he points out, the arts continue to be an important economic engine in this country despite the economic tailspin. A study released last month by Americans for the Arts, a national organization that supports the arts and culture through public and private resource development, found that the arts racked up roughly $135 billion in economic activity in 2010. In Chicago, the arts represent a $2.2 billion industry; while the city's three major orchestras – the Chicago Symphony, Lyric Opera and Grant Park – exert a considerable impact on the economy of the region as well as on its cultural and educational well-being.

"When we look at the economic environment, there's a tendency to ask, 'Can we continue to afford to support orchestras?' To which musicians reply, 'How can we afford not to?' We must ask ourselves what will be lost if we lose our orchestras. When musicians perform, cab drivers work, parking garages and restaurants are full, the economic impact on our downtown communities is real. Musicians, moreover, play a critical role in the arts education of schoolchildren. We must continue to ensure that."

As ICSOM moves into its next 50 years, its challenge, in Ridge's view, will be not only to continue improving labor relations and ensuring musicians continue to get the professional respect they deserve; it also will be to find new ways symphony members can increase their presence in their communities and present more classical music to more people. That theme already resonates strongly within the CSO, one of the conference's host organizations.

"When I travel to various orchestras around the country, the places I see in trouble are places where walls have been built between the musicians and the boards, where there are chasms between the musicians and management," Ridge says. "What's really needed is for everybody to sit down together, talk through the problems and come up with solutions in an environment that fosters positive debate. We need to end this doom-and-gloom atmosphere, for everyone's sake."

jvonrhein@tribune.com

Twitter @jvonrhein

The highs and lows of symphony wages

Here are comparative salaries for selected U.S. orchestras at the top and bottom of the pay scale. All figures are for base musician compensation and do not include over-scale, electronic music guarantees, seniority pay, health care benefits or retirement. Unless otherwise noted, salaries apply to the 2011-12 season.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Weeks: 52
Weekly salary: $2,785 (as of March 13, 2012)
Annual salary: $144,040

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Weeks: 52
Weekly salary: $2,755
Annual salary: $143,260

Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Weeks: 52
Weekly salary: $2,039
Annual salary: $106,028

Louisville Orchestra (2012-13 season; orchestra was dark in 2011-12)
Weeks: 30
Weekly salary: $925
Annual salary: $27,750

Virginia Symphony Orchestra (salaried musicians only, 54 of the 77 musicians)
Weeks: 35
Weekly salary: $730.51
Annual salary: $25,567.97

Florida Orchestra
Weeks: 24
Weekly salary: $1,007
Annual salary: $24,168

Source: Drew McManus, Chicago-based arts consultant, author of adaptistration.com.

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