Reeling From A One-Two Punch In Phoenix

Local and national news outlets hammered the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra last week by openly challenging the institutional image portrayed in a recent organizational press release. In particular, both articles report on the string of recent labor problems…

What about the labor problems?
What about the labor problems?

The first article was from the 6/2/2009 edition of the Phoenix News where Stephen Lemons writes about former Phoenix Symphony principal cellist turned restaurateur Richard Bock’s recent appearance on the Food Network show Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives. Lemons provides a significant amount of back-story related to Bock’s problems with the Phoenix Symphony in addition to reporting on similar labor issues with former principal violist Peter Rosato. Lemons uses this material to segue into a current interview with Phoenix Symphony executive director, Maryellen Gleason.

Asked about the settlement, Gleason had no comment. (Rosato’s lawyer, Guy Knoller, indicated his client has also taken a settlement from the symphony instead of returning.) However, the symphony musicians recently accepted a 17 percent pay cut, supposedly because contributions are down, according to a recent symphony press release. But when Gleason and I talked in March, she argued that the decisions to demote or dismiss veteran players such as Bock were contributing to the symphony’s well-being, which she portrayed in relatively rosy terms.

“I don’t think I ever said that,” Gleason sputtered when I reminded her of this. She acknowledged that she might have said ticket sales were doing well but not donations, which have been down since October, she stated.

Fortunately, I have a record of our conversation.

“We only want to have the best artistic product we can get,” Gleason said at the time. “And all of the decisions were made in the spirit of making the orchestra sound better. And we’re getting more donations, and we’re selling more tickets.”

Lemons concludes the article by purporting “Gleason won’t cop to mistakes in the way the symphony has treated its musicians, but perhaps she should.”

Shortly after Lemons’ media blast, Musical America published a piece by Dimitri Drobatschewsky which expands on labor problems stemming from reported actions of the orchestra’s music director, Michael Christie. The 6/5/2009 article focuses on the Bock and Rosato lawsuits along with subsequent settlements (special thanks to Musical America for providing a free access link to ®Copyright Commonwealth Business Media 2009 material).

However, Drobatschewsky’s article goes on to mention additional problems related to music director/musician interaction.

Thus far, eight musician have lodged complaints about Christie with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In addition, the National Labor Relations Board has filed a formal complaint against the Phoenix Symphony for denying the musicians the right to freely assemble for the purpose of collective bargaining and related protective measures.

Drobatschewsky also puts forward the notion that the music director is at the core of recent labor and financial unrest.

Certainly cutbacks in arts organizations are nothing new, even in the best of times. The difference here lies in what preceded them. With all those glowing reports, why was it necessary for the musicians to take a 17 percent pay cut, especially when their base pay is nearly the lowest in the country ($35,000) for orchestras of comparable size? Since the arrival of Michael Christie, now in his fourth season as music director, the atmosphere among the musicians has been miserable. With his proclaimed mission of innovating and “improving” the orchestra, his attitude toward the older, long-respected musicians has been consistently hostile; he often replaces them with younger and more compliant players. His implied and even expressed threats have, by all accounts, created an impossible and highly insecure working environment.

In addition to these statements, Drobatschewsky references the Phoenix Symphony press release from 5/19/2009 which details recent, and sizeable, pay cuts. According to that press release, the organization’s troubles are the result of the economic downturn but Drobatschewsky questions that assertion by wondering whether or not the organization was insured for settlements paid to Bock and Rosato.

Although one might imagine that this isn’t the sort of press attention the Phoenix Symphony welcomes, it is good to see public scrutiny into the inner workings of a local orchestra. It indicates that the public cares about more than just the artistic output of their respective orchestra. More to the point, they care about whether or not local arts organizations are governed and managed by standards and practices that meet minimum levels of community approval. Ultimately, it allows the community to have an even greater level of pride in their cultural environment.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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10 thoughts on “Reeling From A One-Two Punch In Phoenix”

  1. Bravo, Drew — the Phoenix story needs as much light shone upon it as possible. It also needs to be said how VARIOUS orchestra managements are using the financial meltdown as a convenient smokescreen to cover-over their various managerial or financial missteps which preceded the downturn.

  2. Ms Gleason stated to both the orchestra and the New Times that Richard Bock was fired because he broke the law. Michael Christie repeated this charge in a meeting to the orchestra. The implication was that Richard was some sort of criminal. A memo to the orchestra stated that, even though it is not covered in the master agreement, you can’t break the law and work for the Phoenix Symphony. She went on to give the example of someone who shoots someone not being able to keep their job even though shooting someone is not covered in the master agreement. What was the allegedly broken law? A.R.S. 12-2238- which governs the admissibility of evidence. According to the NLRB regional director, this is merely a rule of evidence, not a criminal law. “It simply guides how the court looks at evidence, essentially.” Ms Gleason and Mr. Christie seem to have interpreted this rule of admissibility of evidence as saying that you can’t tell anyone what we did to you. NLRB regional director Overstreet says that this violates the National Labor Relations Act. It is clear that Ms Gleason and Mr Christie were in the wrong, leading to the rightful payments to Richard Bock and Peter Rosato.

    This brings up the lack of credibility that Ms Gleason and Mr Christie now have with the orchestra and community. The betrayal of trust relates not to just her claims of 5 years of balanced budgets, which are now seen as smoke and mirrors, but also to their attitude toward the musicians and resulting actions. Many musicians are suspicious that the 17% pay cut that the orchestra took is at least in part to pay for the settlements.

    The Phoenix Symphony board should take a very close look at Mr. Christie and Ms Gleason to determine if their lack of credibility is serious enough to render them unable to continue in their positions. Merely billing the musicians for management mistakes does not take care of the problem.

  3. As a former long time (42 years) member of the Phoenix Symphony I have never had the experience that the musicians are having now. Yes, there were good and not so good conductors and managers. But this is the worst I have ever heard of. My opinion- Christy is getting rid of these exceptional musicians for two reasons. One is the reason stated in the article. Hire younger less experienced musicians so they don’t question his authority and are not a threat to his musicianship, which is questionable at best. Two has to do with management and that is so they can hire these younger, less experienced musicians, and pay them much less than the musicians they have succeeded in getting rid of. I know both Richard and Peter personally and there is no question that they are the quality musicians that make an orchestra great and not just pretty good.

    As to the board. in my years as an orchestra member there were only a few board members that did any good for the orchestra. I’m not sure why the rest were there. They certainly didn’t do anything for the good of the orchestra.

  4. I’ve known Richard Bock for over 30 years. I’ve been with him in a chamber orchestra tour of Europe where he played the Haydn Cmaj cello concerto flawlessly night after night.

    I hope that Michael Christie’s shenanigans will catch up with him in his other capacities as music director of the Brooklyn (NY) Philharmonic and the Boulder (CO) Festival.

  5. Replacing older players with younger ones is not necessarily indicative of a motive to save money or squelch dissent. It could mean that the older players were not as good as their replacements or that they failed to cooperate with legitimate instructions from management and the Music Director. Improving an orchestra requires tough decisions. That is bad for those terminated but good for the public.

    I am not sure what Mr. McManus means when he writes that the public cares not just about “artistic output” but about “standards and practices that meet minimum levels of community approval.” If the latter phrase refers to complying with ethical standards and the law, I agree. The main purpose of an orchestra, however, is “artistic output,” i.e., performing music for the public, not preserving jobs. The two flagrantly biased articles quoted by Mr. McManus furnish no proof of anything nefarious; indeed, both articles fail to meet minimal journalistic “standards and practices.”

    • Thank you for the comment TeeJay. I don’t know if I would call either of the two articles referenced in this blog post as biased since there is no indication that either author has an ulterior motive or prejudice. Granted, they purport strong opinions that make their views on related issues clear to the reader but I’m not certain how that fails to meet any journalistic standards.

      I can’t claim to know much about the history of the Phoenix News but I do know that Musical America has been around for sometime, has won awards, and has a very good reputation throughout a variety of journalist circles.

      Ultimately, I agree that one of the primary purposes for any orchestra is artistic output but certainly not at any cost (especially when said topic is, at best, subjective). An orchestra is a piece of any local community, its members (staff and musicians) are neighbors, friends, and parents. As a result, my point about “standards and practices that meet minimum levels of community approval” has nothing to do with preserving jobs and everything to do with following human resource process and procedures that not only comply with the law but adhere to best practices observed in the orchestra business and throughout for profit businesses.

      I apologize if that wasn’t clear in the original article – thank you for providing an opportunity to clarify.

  6. If Michael Christie were a good conductor, then his shakeup of the orchestra might have have been construed as an attempt to improve the quality of the group. But Christie is a terrible conductor. He has taken an orchestra that was ready to enter the big leagues and turned them into a college-level orchestra. He has a phobia about musicians who know more than he does (almost all of them) and figures that younger players and conductors cannot threaten his fragile ego. Maryellen knows nothing about music. She came from Quest. She can’t tell the difference between an orchestra conductor and a train conductor. I guess you can blame the board for all of this. It is a group of people with much money and little brains.

  7. I am a Violinist and violist in NYC and have worked closely with Richard Bock for the last 40 years. I know well enough that if Richard Bock has a legitimate complaint about anything regarding his orchestra Job it is well worth serious consideration. He has always been a very laid back, consummate professional with the highest standards of both cello playing and music making in all Genres. Any issues that he would be bringing to the table are guaranteed to be rightful complaints. I wish him and all his Phoenix colleagues to stand fasr and together before the “bean counters” ruin another of our national musical organizations !!!

  8. Richard Maximoff: Richie Bock won a substantial settlement almost six years ago which included offering his principal chair back plus all backpay. Needless to say, he declined remaining in the orchestra since he was running a successful restaurant “Giuseppe’s” and playing chamber music concerts when the mood and opportunity strike.

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