Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Cleveland Orchestra in crisis

Even such an eminent institution as The Cleveland Orchestra has been affected by the combination of deep recession and waning interest in Classical music.

In the wake of those circumstances, management and conductor Franz Welser-Most have taken reductions in salary of between 10 and 20%. Visiting artists, such as piano soloists, have also taken reductions in pay. Management has asked the players' union to accept a 5% pay cut for the rest of this season, with a restoration of pay in late-2010, and a 2 1/2% pay raise the following year. The players' union has terminated the month-to-month contract they've been under since September, and proposed an eight month contract with a pay freeze.

Base pay for musicians at the Cleveland Orchestra is $115,440. This is compared to $129,585 for Los Angeles, and $128,180 for Boston, both of which have a much higher cost of living. L. A. and Boston are also much larger cities with more potential to draw audiences. On top of the base pay, Cleveland’s players also receive benefits such as: 10 weeks annual paid vacation, 26 days paid sick leave, and a health insurance plan which calls for an employee contribution of only $12. Management points out this is for a 20 hour work week, which is like saying major league baseball players (who obviously make much more) only work 15 hours per week. Calling the players part time workers is incredibly disingenuous -- a great deal of time is spent practicing and maintaining instruments.

I realize that orchestra players utilize rare talents and skills, which cost time and money to develop. Tuition at music institutes is not cheap, and it takes years to pay back student loans. But I know people in specialized fields who’ve paid similarly for their education, and would kill to get benefits like the Orchestra's players enjoy. The concept of sacrifice in times of crisis is that it is shared. That was part of the reasoning behind rationing during World War II. And let’s face facts, The Cleveland Orchestra, whatever propaganda their marketing team spouts, is not the same institution it was in its heyday (roughly 1955-1990) and does not play on the same level as it did then -- but neither do most orchestras.

I’d also like to take a moment to comment on the orchestra’s blog. It is, in effect, a marketing tool by the orchestra's management. But what can be said for a blog that is not open to comments – even moderated ones? Communication is a two way street.

I’m reminded of a something George Szell said (and orchestra players in his time received only a fraction of the pay and benefits their counterparts get today, even accounting for inflation):

“Is the purpose of a symphony orchestra to make music? Or is the purpose of a symphony orchestra to guarantee to its members a comfortable and unchallengeably permanent job?”
-George Szell

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