Monday, October 4, 2010

New Rules

The financial outlook is grim across the nation for arts organizations. One glimpse at recent headlines for Washington Ballet and Detroit Symphony will serve as a sobering reminder. Citing financial constraints, the Washington Ballet will substitute the canned music for live orchestra, at least for the duration of the 2010/11 season, beginning with the opening production of "Romeo and Juliet" at Kennedy Center Theater, and later, to include "The Nutcracker".

The Detroit Symphony is on Day One of a strike, and as I see it, plunging headlong to its own demise. Detroit, a financially beleaguered city with a population of 800,000 can no longer sustain a "top-tier symphony" (translation: overpaid) with a 52 week season. And the players, refusing to accept a broader job description which would include outreach performances and teaching opportunities in schools without extra pay, demand to be "compensated what they're worth" regardless of Detroit's bleak, economic outlook. What they're worth has been a base salary of $104, 650 with most musicians earning around $120,000, and what they've been offered by management is a pay cut of 30%. As I've stated in a previous post, and without meaning to beat a dead horse over the head, the time is now for classical musicians to recalibrate their methods of survival.

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in early 1980s
Rules need to change. Examine, for example, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra's new strategy. The NJSO has reconfigured themselves as a state-wide group that gives concerts in seven different cities. I'm reminded of the years spent as first violinist for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble that continues to thrive under the leadership of its Music Director, Jeffery Kahane. Back in my days, the orchestra performed in multiple venues in Southern California. (An aside: In the mid-1980's LACO's board realized that the budget was over-strained by the programming of large-scale works, and the hiring of  very expensive soloists. The ensemble struggled to stay afloat, but was fortunate to have succeeded in negotiating a contract with L.A.Opera, thus offering its players steady work).

Might the formula of regional concerts by a smaller "classical" orchestra, augmented by extra players when needed, make sense here as well, in the entire Puget Sound area? From this perspective, why not create an ensemble in the style of New Jersey Symphony Orchestra that regularly performs in multiple venues around the region, not just an occasional run-out? After a near-death experience, NJSO has been able to accumulate nearly 80% of the $32 million in capital that is its fund-raising goal. Wouldn't it be more cost effective for, let's say, the communities of Bellevue (with its proposed 2,000 seat concert hall), Everett, Bellingham, Olympia and Tacoma to serve their music hungry public with a top-tier, touring ensemble as well, enabling every city to share ownership?

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