With Strike Over, Detroit Symphony Looks to Mend Fences

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra is back in business. With two free concerts this weekend, the orchestra members brought to an end a bitter six-month strike that resulted in the cancellation of dozens of performances, the departure of some key musicians and an at times vicious public relations campaign that played out in the news media and over Facebook.

On Friday afternoon, the musicians' union, the American Federation of Musicians Local 5, ratified a three-year contract that cuts the minimum salary to $79,000, down from about $105,000 last year. It will rise slightly over the course of the deal. The new contract preserves the musicians' health benefits and the pension plan for retiring members. They will not have their jobs redefined to require teaching, coaching and other forms of community outreach but they will allow their music to be widely distributed through downloads, recordings, streaming, television and radio.

Orchestra management initially sought a 30 per cent cut in pay and more flexibility in scheduling outside appearances by musicians at community events and schools.

Considerable challenges lie ahead, with a projected yearly deficit of $3 million and a $54 debt involving its concert hall, the Max M. Fisher Center. What's more, raw feelings remain. “There are definitely going to be some loose ends here,” said Haden McKay, a cellist in the orchestra who was a spokesman during the strike. “Number one, we do feel that there was some bad decision-making in the staff. Those people are still in place. We’re a little leery that we’re going to have more problems. We lost some people during the strike and there are some people we’re going to have trouble holding.”

Orchestra spokesman Elizabeth Weigandt presented a more upbeat picture of the musicians’ return. “There were lot of hugs and a lot of smiles and talk of ‘good to see you again,’” she said. “We weren’t exactly sure how musicians would feel coming into the hall again. But we made an effort to reach out to each other and greet each other. I’ve heard that there are some people who have some lingering feels of concern and that’s understandable.”

Sixty-seven concerts were canceled during the labor stoppage that began on Oct. 4. Patrons were offered refunds for the missed concerts, and they were given the option of exchanging those tickets for future concerts. In February, the DSO suspended the remainder of its 2010-11 season, releasing soloists and guest conductors from their contracts through June. Since last week, however, the orchestra has reconstructed the remaining three months, adding guest soloists like pianists Olga Kern and Jeremy Denk and guest conductors like Peter Oundjian and Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos.

In interviews, musicians spoke of a bittersweet return to the stage for the weekend concerts, which featured Dvorak’s New World Symphony. “It was a pretty emotional week for me,” said Alexander Hanna, the orchestra’s principal bass player. “Obviously I really love what I do and I hadn’t done it in a while, at least with the DSO. When I first walked out on stage it was pretty hard to hold back the tears but also with a little sadness but I also know that the DSO is never going to be the same again.”

During the strike many of the players worked on solo projects or substituted in other orchestras, and over the weekend about 20 of the 81-member roster were absent. “Being locked out of our job for the past six or eight months has scared a lot of people off,” Hanna noted. “We lost a lot of players during the strike. For example, we no longer have a percussion section; we no longer have a timpanist. Thankfully my section is all there and still intact. But I was meeting a lot of people for the first time because there are so many subs.”

Despite the departure of three percussionists, Weigandt noted that in any given season a handful of musicians will retire or leave for other jobs.

Both of the weekend concerts, led by conductor Leonard Slatkin, played to capacity audiences, with dozens of patrons turned away after tickets were given away in 48 hours. An overflow room with a live video feed was set up in the adjacent, 500-seat black box theater. When the musicians emerged on stage all together in the manner of a European orchestra, the audience burst into four or five minutes of applause and cheers, said Weigandt. Yet whether the orchestra can fix the strained bond with its audience, particularly in a city beset by a devastated economy, is just one of the many long-term challenges that lie ahead.

“Whenever there’s a strike in any industry, there’s always that potential for the loss of your customer base during the shutdown,” said Roland Zullo, a research scientist at the University of Michigan's Institute for Research on Labor, Employment, and the Economy. “If management and labor need to get together on something right now it would be to bring to back the customer base."

Zullo predicted public support should eventually return, if only because the orchestra is providing a "discretionary good." Yet, for musicians, “something like that doesn’t heal quickly. There’s a certain way to go about working with unions on concessions and this was a far more contentious process than it probably had to be. What that means for the next round of negotiations is the union will probably regroup and recoup.”

Hanna, who has been substituting with the Philadelphia Orchestra during the strike, said the reception over the weekend was a refreshing break from the negative publicity the strike engendered. “There were a lot of blogs on how they should replace us with high school students,” he said. “To have a couple thousand people yelling and screaming was really cool.”

He added: “Hopefully this whole contract thing can be like rebooting the computer and starting over.”

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