A Chorus of Musicians' Complaints ; the Broadway Strike Ends, but a Wider Discord Persists

By Ron Scherer and Stacey Vanek Smith writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 12, 2003 | Go to article overview
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A Chorus of Musicians' Complaints ; the Broadway Strike Ends, but a Wider Discord Persists


Ron Scherer and Stacey Vanek Smith writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Cellist Nick Dargahi loves to play Mahler because of the swing in moods. "There is joy, abject sadness, pending death - it runs the gamut," he says. But these days, instead of performing Mahler, he's back in school, studying for a degree in electrical engineering.

The reason: He was a member of the San Jose Symphony, which packed up its baton in January when it went into terminal bankruptcy.

"I thought it was time to go into a different field," says Mr. Dargahi, who has watched three orchestras go bankrupt.

Dargahi isn't the only musician playing a sad tune. Other orchestras are in bankruptcy, performance seasons are being canceled, and violinists are holding strike signs, not a Stradivarius.

Indeed, in Houston, the orchestra went out on strike Sunday as management tried to cut costs. Broadway musicians did the same last week, although their strike was settled by Tuesday morning.

"These are challenging times," says Jack McAuliffe of the American Symphony Orchestra League, a professional association.

Not that it's ever been easy to be an arts organization.

After relatively flush times in the 1990s, the current problems of the economy are taking their toll. Ticket sales are down for some orchestras; corporate sponsors are withdrawing some support; and foundations, after watching the value of their portfolios drop for several years, are reducing the size of their grants.

It's not helping that state and local governments facing large budget deficits are cutting back on their help for the arts.

But some of this also says something about the viability of orchestras in mid-size cities, where there is no great tradition of attending the symphony. To attract listeners, many of these orchestras have had to pay large sums to get superstars such as Yo- Yo Ma or Emanuel Ax. This means there is less money to pay their own professionals. As a result, labor and management are butting heads.

The San Antonio Symphony, which has already cut its musicians' wages by 20 percent, has been unable to meet its payroll. The Savannah (Ga.) Symphony canceled the rest of its season when it couldn't pay a $1.2 million debt. Even in cultured Boston, musicians are expecting cuts in the face of reduced state grants.

And Houston musicians declared a strike after five months of negotiations failed to yield a compromise. The orchestra is expecting to lose $3 million this year. "We cut staff. We cut the salaries of the remaining staff," says Art Kent, senior director of public affairs for the symphony.

Mr. Kent says the orchestra asked the musicians to take an 8.

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