The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Three strikes — music lovers are out

What didn’t happen: on Friday, Yannick Nézet-Séguin was all set to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Kimmel Center (as he did in this 2013 picture) when the orchestra musicians went out on strike. (Photo: Chris Lee)

On Friday night, as audience members entered the Kimmel Center for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s opening-night gala, the orchestra’s musicians announced that “we … have decided to withhold our services and strike.” Meanwhile, across the state, the musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony were already picketing their hall, having called a strike on Friday morning. And in Texas, the Fort Worth Symphony is finishing the third week of their strike, with no end in sight. Here we go again.

The national story might well be, “But it was going so well.” And indeed, the national stage has seen little reason for hand-wringing about the future of classical music in recent months. Two of the most bitter orchestral labor-dispute stories — the Detroit Symphony strike of 2010-2011 and the epic 15-month lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra through all of 2013 — have turned into unexpected, improbable and happy renaissances; the Minnesota Orchestra’s latest stories are of new recordings and being the first American orchestra to travel to Cuba after President Obama announced the start of more normalized relations in 2015. A couple of weeks ago, Douglas McLennan, founder of and a leading pundit in the cultural field, wrote an article titled, “Some of our orchestras seem to be thriving. Is this a new trend?” Now, of course, we can look forward to a whole new round of “is it curtains for classical music?” articles from the usual suspects.

The real answer lies somewhere in between. It’s no secret that it is a tricky time for large arts institutions, as it is for many other large institutions, like newspapers and publishing companies and record labels, in this age of technological development and explosive growth of leisure-time options. Some institutions have found creative ways to marshal energy and excitement and tackle huge hurdles, like the Arizona Opera, which brought itself from the brink of collapse to financial health within a couple of years (the executive director who led this transformation, Ryan Taylor, was snapped up last year by the Minnesota Opera).

But other institutions have consistently struggled — and the Philadelphia Orchestra has been one of the most troubled, going so far as to file for bankruptcy in 2011. It emerged from bankruptcy in 2012, but not even the arrival of a popular and aggressively populist music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, has been able to significantly boost ticket sales and donations, and there was still a budget deficit of several million dollars. Musicians, who have taken a number of pay cuts and freezes, have been playing without a contract for a couple of weeks, trying to negotiate a new contract to replace the temporary one-year contract they signed last year, which expired in mid-September.

In a public statement, the musicians said they were concerned that the decline in their base pay was compromising the orchestra’s ability to attract top talent. “Over the past nine years, we have endured multiple cuts to our wages, pension, and working conditions in the hopes that our sacrifices would give the Association time to rebuild and restore us to our proper status,” the statement said. It later added, “We can no longer remain silent while we continue in a downward spiral.”

Pittsburgh, too, has been facing long-term challenges, including a decline in ticket sales and the threat of a growing deficit. With a gifted but micromanaging music director in Manfred Honeck, the orchestra has seen significant administrative changes in the last couple of years; when the new management assessed the orchestra’s current situation, it discovered, the orchestra’s board chair told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “that we were facing an imminent financial crisis.” The musicians argue that the situation is not as bad as management claims. Given that running one of these large nonprofits is always a slightly seat-of-the-pants enterprise, and that a lot of large classical music institutions are increasingly dependent on the kind of financial bailout known as “heroic giving” from a handful of loyal donors, one can see both sides of the argument: The money is there but harder and harder to get.

It’s common, in these labor disputes, to see management and some members of the public demonize the musicians for their cushy salaries and alleged greed. The Pittsburgh Symphony’s base salary is $107,000 a year, according to the Post-Gazette; the Philadelphia Orchestra musicians’ base salary, about $128,000. Well-paid, yes; but also, as musicians point out, demanding high-pressure jobs that require years of training and experience, with irregular hours including night and weekend work — and, in both these cases, an attendant chipping away at their incomes. These are two of the best orchestras in the country by reputation, but they are not the highest-paid. For reference, the base pay at the National Symphony Orchestra is $139,260, according to an NSO spokesman — which gives credence to musicians’ arguments about what it takes to remain competitive for top talent in today’s market.

There’s no happy ending in sight for any of these situations. One can only hope that everyone has learned from the bitterness of other recent disputes to try to minimize the collateral damage and work hard for a swift resolution. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are two of the country’s leading orchestras, and while they are out, there is a lot of great music not being made. Will Simon Rattle be able to lead the Mahler 6th on Oct. 6 in Philadelphia? Cross your fingers — but don’t hold your breath.