United we stand: IOC Montreal 2017

May 30, 2017, 6:06 AM · The front line at the 4th International Federation of Musicians (FIM) International Orchestra Conference (IOC) that took place in Montreal 11-14 May 2017 might seem to be an unlikely subject for a violinist.com blog. Aside from interlude music provided by excellent local instrumentalists and splendid Ghanian vocalists as well as a gala concert showcasing Montreal International Music Competition winners with the renowned Montreal Symphony Orchestra in its splendid La Maison Symphonique, no single instrument took center stage at the latest edition of the triennial symposium.

No single instrument but instead, the orchestra, its celebrations, challenges, trials and tribulations was placed in the limelight. More than 300 participants from six continents shared information on subjects as diverse as the public value of orchestras, changing business models, bullying at the workplace and ways and means for unions to serve musicians’ interests. A substantial number of North American representatives added to the mix of orchestral musicians, managers, and union representatives from every corner of the globe. Lively panel discussions and thought-provoking interventions enhanced the comradeship between the ‘brothers and sisters’ in attendance.

Opening with a clarion call for watchfulness and solidarity, keynote speaker Allison Beck, former US Director of Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service under President Obama set the tone in a tour-de-force speech replete with vivid illustrations to sound the message loud and clear: “good labor management is a port in your storm.” Benedictus Acolatse, a representative from the Accra Symphony (Ghana) pleaded for the FIM to act like FIFA and “step in when African orchestras are put on the sidelines.” His universalistic message imbued with the hopes for increased musical solidarity rang true as musicians from orchestras large and small contemplated ways to sway public opinion and place their orchestras firmly within a contemporary context of diversity and engagement.

As world discourse takes a frightening fall back to acquiesce to racist agendas, an organization that embraces the positive values of musicians’ rights worldwide should be applauded. In 2018, FIM will reach its 70th year of campaigning on behalf of musicians in international fora. A strong player on the NGO scene, FIM collaborates with unions, professional associations and international organizations including UNESCO and major European movers and shakers at the European Commission and Parliament. Within the past two decades, casualization and cheaply contracted out gig labor have become increasingly commonplace in the orchestral sector. FIM seeks to navigate these and other changes to find legitimate solutions to the problems that musicians share, from Kwazulu Natal to the South Bend.

The seemingly enviable position of solidly subsidized orchestras such as the Bergen Philharmonic (Norway) and the Bamberg Philharmonic (Germany) stands in contrast to the fragile finances for many US regional orchestras and symphonies in Africa and South America. Although the differences appear to be significant on the surface, even the most established orchestral representatives admitted to the need to learn from all segments of the sector as orchestras seek to find strong answers to questions that go to the core of our very existence.

The learning curve crossed into new territories with significant contributions from host-country Canada and cogent commentary presented by Australian, British, Danish and US union reps and musicians well versed in the ins and outs of finances and collective bargaining. Déborah Cheyne, Brazil’s spirited representative and a FIM Vice-President raised consciousness with her descriptions of the vicissitudes of orchestral employment in her homeland enunciating the need to “review our meaning and responsibility and narrow the divide between musicians and management.” The appeal to develop new forms of dialogue with boards and management took on new dimensions as participants presented examples from their home orchestras. Orchestra Canada’s eloquent spokesperson Katherine Carleton avowed, “musicians are not a placid group of people playing on a Sunday, these are extraordinary people who give us the gifts we call concerts. Our live performances are ornaments for public celebration. Get that message out there!”

Participants pondered question such as: how much are we artists and how much are we entertainers? Greece’s Grigorios Lamprianidis posed the question, “why should the general public embrace the idea of cultural spending when politicians inform them that this subsidy is given at the expense of other social funding?” Robert Massey, President/CEO of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra offered Yankee pragmatism with examples on how to market your organization when you are compared to organizations that feed the poor. Taking on the helm at an orchestra with a thorny past in terms of musician contracts and community recognition, Massey grabbed the proverbial bull by the horns: “we created exciting programs from scratch that focused on what the community needs. We worked with the local science museum, gave concerts at the Mayo Clinic, worked with Violins of Hope and rebuilt our image. Always remember, no one will ever buy a ticket to see a manager play.”

Tino Gagliardi, President of Local 802, the world’s largest local union of professional musicians, shared concrete examples as to how the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra averted a crippling protracted labor conflict in August 2014 by moving ‘out-of-the-box’. A neutral financial auditor was hired to ‘study the books’ to present coherent financial information that would lead all sides in the bargaining process to ‘get to yes’. A situation was created in which the equality of sacrifice became synonymous with the equality of success.

For orchestral musicians engaged in the status quo of stressful performance schedules, getting involved in other areas of orchestral activity is often synonymous with committee-related actions on a local level. A link to the international scene, the bigger picture is more often than not, missing. The IOC promotes that ‘bigger picture’: support, solidarity, a belief in “our language, our real universal language.” Back at you Benedictus.

Benoît Machuel, General Secretary of FIM and his team are planning ahead to welcome the orchestral world to its next IOC, location to be determined, 2020. Keep track of the IOC and its activities (https://www.fim-musicians.org/), raise your voice, use your creativity to forward compelling collective aims and join in the discourse. United we stand.


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