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
"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
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. …