And so the Detroit Symphony strike lumbers to an end: a six-month battle that leaves both sides bleeding heavily and faced with the challenge of figuring out how to rebuild a relationship with audiences and move into the future. Musicians and management have now reached a tentative contract agreement, and are reaching out with an olive branch to audiences in the form of free concerts, led by the orchestra’s music director Leonard Slatkin, on Saturday and Sunday.
Everyone lost in this strike. The musicians, according to Mark Stryker in the Detroit Free Press, lost about $55,000 apiece in salary. The orchestra has lost subscribers -- its numbers are down to about 125 a concert, as opposed to the 1,000 it would like to see -- and 3/4 of its season, and is still struggling with the financial woes that led management to ask for steep salary reductions in the first place. (The settlement does involve a cut in salary for players, probably of more than 20%.) The only person who might have come out ahead is Stryker, who has done a stellar job of covering the conflict in the Detroit Free Press -- and it’s certainly not a distinction he’s happy about.
Much has been said in the course of this protracted struggle about whether or not the DSO is acting as a canary in a coal mine for the field at a time when most orchestras are struggling with subscriptions, endowments, and a new definition of purpose. Figures released by the NEA as this strike dragged on seemed to indicate (as mentioned in this space before) that people do still love classical music; it’s just that not all of them are as interested in going to orchestral concerts as orchestras might wish.
But over the years, there have been plenty of bitter orchestra strikes that have raised similar questions. Milwaukee, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Houston: all had epic conflicts that seemed to indicate the end of an era and raised existential questions about their futures and the future of the field, but all have moved on, and -- perhaps most significantly -- all still survive. It remains to be seen whether, and how, the DSO can follow suit, or whether this strike will accelerate the steady pace of attrition and culminate, a few years down the line, in yet another orchestra bankrupcy. And it remains to be seen whether commitment to the music and fine performances will be enough to live and grow on in the months ahead.
Above: Just three seasons ago, Leonard Slatkin outlines his plans for the future of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.