Friday, November 6, 2009

Unnecessary Losses

In the past several days, a few of our acquaintances outside the field of music have been victims of recessionary lay-offs. With every fresh casualty, a wound reopens in my heart. I'm reminded of our own personal struggles not too long ago. I detect the strain on peoples' faces who have been cut off from their livelihood, the quickly wiped-away tears, and the look of helpless panic in their eyes. Of course, when one is a public figure, such as a concertmaster, the media swoops in to help stir the pot. A person who sits in a cubicle all day, or sells behind a shoe counter, does not have to face public scrutiny the same way as an artist on stage. Perhaps one can sell shoes elsewhere, or work for another tech firm, but to start life anew as a concert artist is pretty tough, especially in the over fifty age group. I seem to recall the labor lawyers during a mediation session innocently asking my husband, "What about other orchestras in the area? Can't you just make a switch?"

At that time, I served as concertmaster for the Northwest Chamber Orchestra, but with only thirty to forty services per year, that could hardly have been considered full-time employment. Besides, NWCO folded a few months later. And yet, during my twenty something years with the group, although the chamber orchestra offered a generous health insurance package and other benefits, my coworkers would routinely opt out of rehearsals and performances whenever more lucrative engagements came their way, costing the organization additional expenses in the hiring of extras. Loyalty didn't exist. When the subject of a tour to Finland was put on the negotiating table, these same individuals, perhaps expecting a Daddy Warbucks to step in and offer unlimited sponsorship, made unreasonable demands for per diem rates, and derailed the entire tour. With the unnecessary loss of the tour, there went the entire organization.

There is a heartbreaking video of Honolulu Symphony musicians in their continued struggle for survival. The players are owed months of back pay, and face the potential of bankruptcy filing this week. Whenever I hear about fellow musicians being forced to eat through their savings, it acts as a trigger, like post-traumatic stress. Honolulu Symphony experienced a turnover of more than a quarter of its musicians as a result of the back pay issue, according to Local 677 of the American Federation of Musicians. I ask you, dear readers, what will this country do with all its unemployed and under-employed artists?

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