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Laurie Niles

Lockouts, Strikes and Shutdowns: a Very Bad Week for Musicians

October 2, 2013 at 9:40 PM

Between the government shutting down, the New York City opera going broke, the year-long-locked-out Minnesota Orchestra's conductor resigning and now finally Josh Bell's huge opening night at Carnegie Hall being canceled -- I'm feeling extremely bummed out today!

Joshua Bell
Photo by Eric Kabik

Here are some of my thoughts on this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week.

On Tuesday in Minnesota, conductor Osmo Vänskä resigned from the Minnesota Orchestra, followed quickly by the resignation of Aaron Jay Kernis, founder and director of the orchestra's Composer Institute.

It was a huge blow to the orchestra musicians, whose ranks have been getting thinner and thinner as musicians seek work in other cities. The picture below illustrates who has left the orchestra -- and that has usually meant they have left the community. The picture gets more ghostly every time I visit the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra Facebook page.

Minnesota Orchestra

Looks like they're going to have to get the Wite-Out again to erase one more from their community: their conductor.

I asked member Emily Hogstad if she'd like to bring us up to speed about it -- she lives in Minnesota and has been writing passionately about the situation (and accurately, I was told by a Minnesota defector who had served on the negotiating committee). But she was having a hard time with this bitter pill, she told me. She admitted, it brought her to tears. That's because the decision to decimate an institution it not a game, it's a decision that has a real and lasting affect on people in the community, not just the players involved.

In this case it's pretty clear that Minnesota Orchestra management was going for a union bust and absolutely did not/does not care about the effect this radical "cost-saving measure" of kicking the city's professional musicians to the curb will have on the city's cultural and musical life. It goes far, far beyond lacking a basic respect for the musicians, who are professionals at the top of their game, both physically (yes, playing an instrument at that level requires astonishing physical dexterity) and intellectually. Not only don't they respect them, they seem to feel they are easily replaced with cheaper labor.

A symphony is considered an "institution" for a reason: it serves as a center of gravity for the musical life of a city. It allows symphony patrons can come to hear live music, yes. But it's a lot more. The symphony allows history gets a hearing. It also has the capacity to try a broad range of musical experiments, to reach out to new frontiers. It can help a community celebrate an event; it represents the city's culture to the rest of the world. It brings community together for the sake of music -- everyone together in the hall, whether it's the Friday night subscribers or busloads of children from all over the city who sit together to hear music unfold.

The very existence of that group of incredibly talented musicians and their leader has a profound affect on its community. Musicians teach music lessons to children in their community, they lead workshops and help with the youth orchestra. They also talk to adults: they fan the passions of amateurs, they help everyone who touches them see a little something new about music in the world.

Yes, you pay the musicians you employ, you allow them to have a life in your community. And no, you won't easily replace them. When you tear down a tree that has been standing for 110 years, do you expect to plant a replacement that will immediately have the majesty, strength, size, history in the community, and frankly the love and recognition that the old one had?

Ain't gonna happen!

As for tonight's cancelled Joshua Bell concert that would have opened the season for Carnegie Hall: I haven't found a similarly compelling argument to support labor on that one, though here is their argument. The fact of the matter is that somehow, no one could resolve this in time to prevent the cancellation of a concert that would have both filled the house and brought in a lot of money. (Last year's raised $2.7 million, according to the New York Times).

But it isn't just the money that upsets me. The basic reality is that this great zing of tremendous energy that would have fed New York City's cultural life -- the part of its cultural life that loves and supports violin-playing, Joshua Bell, Esperanza Spalding, symphony music -- just got lobbed into the ether.

It zaps me, too. It's about all I can say. Even from all the way across the country, I feel the fizzle.

From Jim Hastings
Posted on October 4, 2013 at 4:20 PM
So depressing. With Minnesota Orchestra and NYC Opera, it's clearly poor management. With the JB cancellation, the union is plainly being unrealistic and unreasonable.

Since the government shutdown has come up here, I will voice one of my views on it. If we could shrink the federal government back to its constitutional limits and get it out of so many areas of our lives for which it has no constitutional warrant, this would eventually put a big dent in the national debt and likely go a long way toward avoiding these impasses.

Unfortunately, though, government programs are a little like tattoos. Once in place, they're not easy -- or cheap -- to remove.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on October 6, 2013 at 6:50 AM
I would agree about the mismanagement of the orchestras involved.

I don't agree that the Republicans shutting down the U.S. government is any kind of responsible or thoughtful step toward shrinking government. (I also don't agree with the idea that it needs to be shrunk, but that's for another discussion.) The fact of the matter is that the health care law passed, and it is a law. Period. The small group of Republicans who are behind this action are simply throwing a tantrum; they are certainly not following any legitimate Constitutional process. They perhaps don't think government is necessary and don't see how it's a problem to shut it down. I call that "dereliction of duty."

From Jim Hastings
Posted on October 6, 2013 at 11:19 PM
Laurie, I know where you're coming from. Yet, from what I've heard so far, the House leaders and Senators Cruz and Lee didn't want the government shutdown but saw this result as the short-term lesser of evils. Since the lower chamber holds the power of the purse, the initial move to de-fund Obamacare, as it's known, and risk a shutdown, rather than dereliction of duty, is really a case of these men and women upholding their constitutional duty to represent their constituents. Most of these voters, it seems, never wanted the law as it currently stands; but now that it's here, they want it repealed -- or substantially reworked.

Callers last week jammed the Capitol switchboard to tell their representatives: Hold the line and don't cave in. The opposition has offered concessions -- i.e., reopen the government but with a 1-year delay of the individual healthcare mandate. That sounds sane and prudent to me. It appears that the administration and the majority party leaders are the ones throwing the tantrum. The last radio and Net updates I caught, about 6 PM CDT, reported that the administration and the Senate majority leader still refused to negotiate on this point.

True, the health care law passed, albeit by the Senate's pulling an end-run and railroading it through -- ramming this unpopular legislation down the throats of the American people. Segregation, too, was once the law; but "We the People" -- or a good portion of us -- have recognized segregation and discrimination for the evils they are and have aimed to help defeat them.

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