Clock ticks on Chicago Symphony contract talks

One of the rituals of the US concert season is the nerve-biting tension as to whether the Chicago Symphony will play, or stay home. The musicians’ contract expires in the week of the opening concert. Negotiations are always last minute.

As things stand, the players have agreed to rehearse the opening concert with Riccardo Muti, despite the contract ending last Sunday. The opening concert is tomorrow (Thursday).

riccardo muti

The orchestra has a new president, Jeff Alexander (pictured), and he is being put to the test.

Who blinks? We’ll know tomorrow.

jeff alexander

Either way, the two sides need to change the negotiation mechanism. It ain’t easy to play with nails bitten down to the knuckle.

UPDATE: Here’s the official statement:

Since early July, the Musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, represented by the Chicago Federation of Musicians, Local 10-208 A.F.M., and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association have been engaged in negotiations over a successor agreement to the labor contract expiring at midnight on September 13, 2015. Although the parties were unable to reach an agreement before the contract expired, negotiations are ongoing. The parties are scheduled to meet again on Tuesday, September 15.

There will be no further comment at this time.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association

Chicago Federation of Musicians & CSO Members’ Negotiating Committee

 

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  • The problems isn’t that Chicago isn’t generous, it’s that Hollywood-rich and Hollywood status-conscious LAPhil is always reader to pay more, which creates a vicious cycle that affects all other American orchestras…

    • As far as I know, LA Phil is not “Hollywood-rich” at all: very little money comes from the people in screen industry to their main local symphonic competitors in the fight for “entertainment dollar”. If you have different information based on reliable figures, please share.

  • Here we go again. When will the Americans wake up and realise that their entire system of managing their orchestras is so totally archaic and built on all of the wrong principles? Everything there works on an “us versus them” principle. We have seen this scenario before, with most of the major and less major US orchestras. Always letting negotiations go down to the wire, to the last minute, in order to put pressure on both sides.

    Musicians are pitted against management and each has one objective in mind, GREED, with a capital ‘G’. Their overpaid CEO’s and their overpaid musicians only want to preserve what is theirs, with the management always trying to reduce costs and benefits of the musicians and the musicians faced with senior management earning bankers and hedge fund managers salaries, often in the seven figures. It is all absurd and soon the party will be over, as it all depends on the generosity of rich patrons and donors, who are less interested in perpetuating European culture, as were their ancestors, freshly arrived from the ‘old country’ and prefer to spread their wealth elsewhere. So, in my humble opinion, the US orchestra model, and they way it is funded and managed, with its stultifying greed and rival factions, is destined to the rubbish bin and the sooner the better. In today’s world, it all looks and feels so absurd and wrong.

    • The problem is not that Americans don’t realize that the current way of financing orchestras is “so totally archaic and built on all of the wrong principles.”

      The problem is that large swaths of America are controlled by politicians who reject state subsidy of the arts.

      I do not approve of this. I do not vote for such politicians. However, in the big picture it is what it is.

      The closest thing we have to state subsidy of the arts is the charitable tax deduction. It is an indirect subsidy, which is better than nothing.

      We play the hand that we’re dealt.

      I also reject your assertion that orchestral musicians are “overpaid.”

  • Total absurd! The best America’s orchestra, probably the best symphony in the world, national treasure, with greatest living conductor, what a stupid thing not to find enough money for them!
    can’t believe

  • I fully expect that within 20 years there will be no more than five full-time professional orchestras in the United States. The rest of the country will have to make do with student, part-time, community, or semi-professional orchestras. The system is indeed broken.

    (1) Orchestras, in their principal enterprise, that of making music, cannot avail themselves of automation and computerization that have enabled a great deal of labor saving, cost saving, and time saving in other areas of the economy. It still takes the same number of players, nearly 100, and the same time, roughly 55 minutes, for an orchestra to play the Mahler First Symphony as when Mahler premiered the work in 1889; you cannot do it with two guys with laptops in five minutes.

    (2) With a few exceptions, American orchestras are designed to provide safe, familiar, ultra-comfy programming to an aging and increasingly small slice of a metropolitan area’s social and economic elite and are really not part of the cultural and intellectual life of the community. Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Dvořak, rinse, and repeat.

    This leads to some very difficult choices that will have to be made if these orchestras are to survive at all.

    (1) In the absence of increasing donations from the private sector, very unlikely when younger people of affluence show little interest in classical music, or increasing support from the public sector, even more unlikely in the current political and economic climate, the orchestras will have to find a way to stabilize their finances. That means some very wrenching decisions. Unfortunately, the musicians’ union will have to go and salaries will have to come down considerably in most areas. The musicians’ union loves the status quo–high salaries and no responsibility of stretching oneself musically or learning new repertoire. That will no longer be possible. The game of one-upmanship that, for example, led to the brief strike in San Francisco will not be able to continue. The orchestras will have to be able to institute rational work rules that might make recording possible again and not have rehearsals and recording sessions governed rigidly by the clock as though the orchestra were a shirt factory. The stabilization will also have to involve the bloated, excessive administrative staffs of the orchestras, which will have to be chopped down considerably, with redundant positions being consolidated or eliminated. There will no longer be the ability to hire so-called “superstar” conductors as music directors at salaries of $500,000 and up; the orchestras will have to rely on younger, non-superstar talent. (This will have the secondary advantage that this will open up conducting jobs for younger Americans, who are generally shut out in favor of the vice-Kapellmeister of the Mecklenburg-Schwerin Philharmoniker, as well as for women and people of color.) The expensive superstar soloists (Yo-Yo Ma, Itzchak Perlman, Joshua Bell) mailing in performances of warhorses will also have to go. Many of the soloists (except for pianists for obvious reasons) should be drawn from the orchestra; for pianists, opportunities should be given to up-and-coming local talent.

    (2) The orchestras will have to find ways to become integrated into the cultural life of their communities. That means links with the visual arts, the theater, literature, and even with science and technology. This may mean formal affiliation with local universities; universities with music departments will provide a source of players and new compositions.

    (3) The repertoire will have to open up. The only way that younger people will become enthusiasts and start buying tickets will be to present a broader range of music, including music of our time, with more works by women and people of color. This does not mean pops or dumbing the orchestra down–young people with intelligence have the most sensitive bull$%#@ detectors of anyone, and will avoid anything if they feel that they being patronized or talked down to. Unfortunately, many orchestras are going in the opposite direction. A couple of years ago, my wife and I attended a San Diego Symphony concert with an all-Shostakovich program (scarily modern for that ultra-conservative orchestra). The program was the First Cello Concerto and the 10th Symphony, with no big-name soloist in the concerto. The hall was completely full, and I would say that half of the audience was under 25, unprecedented for that orchestra. (There are composers who do take cues from pop music, jazz, and world music, and this does not mean crossover or dumbing down–this is merely a continuation of a process that has gone on since the fifteenth century, when a number of composers wrote masses in which the cantus firmus was a popular tune of the day, “L’Homme Armé” (the armed man).)

    (4) There will have to be a way of getting recordings and performances out, either by physical CDs (probably not the optimum in most cases), downloading (hopefully with sufficient resolution to enable reasonably high-fidelity listening), or even streaming or podcasting. This is another area where work rules will have to change to enable this. As it stands, this is impractical for most major American orchestras because of union regulations.

    • “Unfortunately, the musicians’ union will have to go and salaries will have to come down considerably in most areas. The musicians’ union loves the status quo–high salaries and no responsibility of stretching oneself musically or learning new repertoire. That will no longer be possible. The game of one-upmanship that, for example, led to the brief strike in San Francisco will not be able to continue. The orchestras will have to be able to institute rational work rules that might make recording possible again and not have rehearsals and recording sessions governed rigidly by the clock as though the orchestra were a shirt factory.”

      It’s so easy to make the musicians’ union the fall-guy. The union has NOTHING to do with repertoire or a musician’s stretching musically. The current work rules have to do with avoiding injuries due to repetitive stress, hearing loss and the ability to have some semblance of a private life. Other work rules are there to prevent an unprepared conductor’a continuig to rehearse while he/she learns the music as musicians are falling off their chairs from fatigue. As far as salaries coming down considerably, the cost of a fine instrument keeps going up (fine stringed instruments now in the hundreds of thousands up to millions) while general costs of living are certainly not decreasing.

      Obviously, you’ve never played an instrument for a living.

  • Yes, it is true that I have never played an instrument for a living. It is also true that I have never played professional baseball for a living. However, when I watch a baseball game, I can easily distinguish those players who are playing with hustle and pride in their game from the players, all too many these days unfortunately, who are merely going through the motions so that they can pick up their ridiculously bloated paycheck for hitting .235.

    • You can “easily distinguish” NOTHING while watching musicians play. The goal of great playing is to be as effortless as possible. The hard work making that attainable is not apparent to the average concert-goer. “Ridiculously bloated?” Who died and left you the judge??

      BTW, slugger Ted Williams made it look easy.

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