So orchestras can no longer depend on the same solid financial support from audience members — at the same time that musicians’ salaries, the lion’s share of an orchestra’s fixed costs, have followed the normal cost-of-living increases. A 2012 list of the top 20 orchestras, ranked by salary, goes from the Chicago Symphony, with a base pay of $144,000, down to the San Diego Symphony, with a base pay of $57,708 (for a 42-week season; most of the top 20 orchestras have 52-week seasons, but this, too, may start to change). These salaries, says Minnesota’s Henson, “are not sustainable in today’s economy.”
(The NSO ranks sixth on the list; the orchestra has the signal advantage that, as a constituent of the Kennedy Center, it doesn’t have to worry about deficits. “We still face many of the long-term challenges of other orchestras,” avers Shapiro, its executive director, but she concedes, “We’re lucky to have the Kennedy Center balance our budget” — meaning the NSO doesn’t have to face what is effectively the single biggest challenge for most orchestras.)
What does a musician do?
But there’s more to these labor disputes than just money. The other key issue in developing the 21st-century orchestra involves redefining what a musician does. Are educational programs and community concerts part of the deal, or are they extra work that should be rewarded with extra pay? This is at issue in Minnesota, as it was in Detroit and Baltimore, where some of the orchestra’s new activities, such as the summer “Academy” of workshops and lessons for adult (and paying) amateur musicians, came about as the orchestra, playing fewer concerts, sought new ways to make use of its musicians’ contracted services.
Some players are eager to find new ways to connect with audiences. Others are concerned that the orchestra’s main mission, playing great music, may be diluted by all the other activities, or they simply feel that they trained to be musicians, not educators.
“I was hired and vetted very seriously to play in the orchestra,” says Jennifer Mondie, a violist with the NSO. “I feel very qualified to play in the orchestra. I don’t necessarily feel qualified to do a lot of outreach. . . . I barely have enough time to do my job in the orchestra as well as I can possibly could. Adding that aspect to the job for me would be difficult, and for the orchestra could be detrimental. We need to practice as an ensemble; the orchestra as a whole needs to practice all the time, together.”
The new music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, doesn’t ask players to do anything he won’t do himself. The orchestra emerged last year from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and is still struggling financially; Nézet-Séguin, 37, is the kind of young, dynamic conductor the classical field these days is so eager to embrace. In addition to the high-profile subscription concerts and run-outs — such as the orchestra’s Kennedy Center concert last week — he has conducted a children’s concert and the annual Martin Luther King Day concert, and he will also conduct some of the orchestra’s summer programs, all events usually entrusted to other members of the conducting staff. “I feel it’s important to show as a signal to the Philadelphia community and musicians,” he says, “that we can be the same people, [the same musicians], in all different places.” In other words: the concert hall alone doesn’t define the quality of the music.