A Bad Situation Ends Badly In Detroit

The brouhaha sounding violinist Sarah Chang’s recital at Orchestra Hall in Detroit came to an end when the soloist announced that she was cancelling due to private email messages that she characterized as crossing a line into physical threats and career intimidation. The Detroit Free Press reported the news in an article by Mark Stryker in an article published Sunday evening…

The article reports that there were no direct quotes from Chang but details surrounding her reasons were provided in a written statement and through Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) officials. Chang’s manager and DSO president Anne Parsons reportedly declined to comment although an orchestra official was quoted as saying they do not know the source of the private email messages that upset Chang. Her statement makes it clear that she ended up dealing with more than she bargained for.

“My original intention to bring music to the community has been derailed, and I have been unwillingly drawn into an inner dispute that does not appropriately involve me,”

You can get a good feel for just how deeply Chang was drawn into the labor dispute vortex by the sheer volume of outrage and pleas for her to cancel the performance in public formats which are all freely available. Here’s a breakdown of what was being said throughout the social media landscape as of Sunday afternoon. Since the content below, there has been a landside of thankful comments expressing gratitude for her decision to cancel the recital.


At Facebook, a Sarah Chang page the first comment of disapproval was posted on Friday, 10/8/2010 and since then there have been more than 200 comments, all of which urging Chang to refrain from performing at Monday’s recital. Within all of those comments, there isn’t a single message encouraging Chang to move forward as planned. Out of those comments, a few of note stand apart, including personal messages from DSO concertmaster Emmanuelle Boisvert, American Federation of Musicians (AFM) president Ray Hair, and International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) chairman Bruce Ridge.

Sarah, we would have loved nothing more than to have had the privilege to perform all together again on the glorious stage of Orchestra Hall, finally open our season, honor our commitment, and dedicate our life’s work to our faithful, wonderful and knowledgeable subscribers. Decision to strike is not made lightheartedly, rather a painful, calculated process to address an otherwise dire situation which you can read about on our web site at detroitsymphonymusicians.org. Please read management’s last, imposed Proposal B, and other features. By doing so you will realize that offering your recital proceeds to our pension fund is pointless and rather a lie on a few fronts.

Proposal B imposes a freeze on our pension while it is being closed. All contributions to AFM pension have stopped. So unknowingly, you might be procuring management some proceeds to cover the cost of closing our pension. Also unlikely there would be proceeds at all since the recital has an underwriter, PVS chemicals, to help defray the cost. Most concertgoers would already be subscribers of ours having already purchased their season’s tickets and exchanging during the strike to your recital. Maybe the Tweeter feed should have been to donate entire compensation and fee to musician’s member fund. I implore you to have a look at our web site to comprehend the philosophical divides between the parties before you make your decision.

Meanwhile you are more that welcome to attend our Detroit Symphony Musicians concert, at Temple Beth El, Sunday night. It would be a nice gesture. In the near future you are more than welcome to volunteer your participation in our upcoming concerts to promote and provide visibility to our fight and our cause.

Emmanuelle Boisvert
DSO Concertmaster

To Sarah Chang – On behalf of nearly 90,000 members of the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada and on behalf of musicians throughout the world all who are watching your actions with profound interest, we hope you will make an honorable and just decision and refrain from performing in Detroit until the current labor dispute between our organization and the orchestra’s management is resolved.

Thank you for your courtesy and cooperation in this matter.
Ray Hair, International President, American Federation of Musicians of the US and Canada

TO: Ms. Sarah Chang
FROM: Bruce Ridge, Chairman, International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM)

Ms. Sarah Chang
Opus 3 Artists (New York)
470 Park Avenue South, 9th Floor North
New York, NY 10016

Dear Ms. Chang,

I write on behalf of the members of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM), who are 4200 orchestral musicians from America’s top 51 orchestras, many of whom you have performed with throughout your wonderful career. The musicians of ICSOM are deeply distressed that you plan on performing a recital in Detroit on Monday evening, thereby effectively replacing the musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra as they take a courageous stand to preserve their great institution.

The orchestral musicians of America prevail upon you to please cancel your appearance, and instead join the musicians outside the hall as they spread their positive message of advocacy for their orchestra and their city. Please do not stain your illustrious career by replacing musicians as they seek to serve their community and feed their families.

The musicians of America’s orchestras would view your refusal to perform as an incredible show of solidarity, support, and friendship. You can truly affect the future of symphonic music in America in a positive way by cancelling your Detroit recital. Perhaps no one has a greater opportunity to be a true advocate for the arts than you do at this moment, as your show of solidarity would receive praise from musicians across the world.

Bruce Ridge, Chairman
International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM)

At the DSO Facebook page, there are far fewer comments about the recital but all of those urge Chang to cancel. The DSO Musicians’ Facebook page contains comments of similar nature and volume as those at the Sarah Chang page.


Sentiment at the bite-size social media platform can be followed by searching for tweets that reference Sarah Chang; i.e. @sarahchang or searching for “Sarah Chang.” Due to the fluid nature of Twitter communication between source points, discussion threads are a bit harder to follow but the general sentiment is one of surprise at Chang’s decision to schedule the recital while the work stoppage is in place.


There’s a good bit of discussion going on at one of the largest hubs for violin oriented shop talk. Violinist.com’s founder and editor, Laurie Niles, posted a blog entry on 10/9/2010 that states Chang’s decision to schedule the recital while the DSO musicians are on strike has significant meaning.

Does this matter? Does it matter if Sarah Chang plays a recital, while Detroit Symphony musicians are out on strike?

Yes, it matters. A lot. If she plays the recital, she will be crossing the Detroit Symphony musicians’ picket lines. This is a major action with lasting symbolism. Instead of standing in solidarity with her fellow musicians, she would be standing against them, working in place of striking workers. Instead of taking the opportunity to defend the actions of these musicians, she would be subverting those actions and sending the message to the audience: it doesn’t matter, I’ll play for you anyway.

Comments to Niles’ article have been more reflective than those at Facebook and Twitter and although the discussion board thread at violinist.com on this issue contains more outright support for Chang and her decision, the majority opinion is not dissimilar from what is expressed elsewhere throughout social media outlets.

One discussion board comment goes so far as to not only support Chang’s decision but to levy blame on the orchestra musicians and their union.

From Frank-Michael Fischer
Posted on October 10, 2010 at 09:19 AM

I wonder who asked Sarah Chang for permission to betray her by walking out and leaving her alone with the concerto? If she gave permission then her recital would be questionable. If not and being in her – hopefully enlarged – shoes I would hire the best available conductor-pianist and perform the original program. Then I’d establish a foundation to start a fund raising campaign to establish either union free orchestras or orchestras where all players would be fired automatically the moment the orchestra goes on strike letting down a musical partner.

Who is Bruce Ridge not finding a world of apology but demanding certain behaviour from Sarah Chang? He may be heading a legal organization. But a decent one???


Traditional Media

Lest we forget that not all discussion takes place online, the Detroit Free Press published an article by Mark Stryker on 10/9/2010 that predates the cancellation and examines Chang’s decision to perform the recital. At the time this article was written, there were more than 50 comments to the article’s online version.

Unlike the social media outlets mentioned above, these comments can be submitted anonymously via pseudonym and the majority of opinions focus more on traditional and stereotypical labor/management arguments than the particulars of the situation.


Clearly, the bitter tone in Chang’s statement is a strong indication of how much emotion is involved in these matters. It comes as no surprise that the situation ended badly as soloists usually avoid this sort of conflict.

Alleged physical threats aside, the potential for career intimidation against Chang are clear: there’s very little orchestra musicians can do to directly influence her livelihood as a violin soloist. Chang isn’t a member of the AFM and I can’t think of a single collective bargaining agreement that provides musician stakeholders the authority to reject or effectively black-ball any guest artist (but someone correct me if I’m wrong). Consequently, musician stakeholders won’t be able to employ any direct influence in that fashion. At best, they’ll have to be content with channeling any ire by being callously professional in their orchestra related interaction with Chang.

At the same time, we all know that things in this business are not so black-and-white and the realm of political influence can be substantial not to mention vary wildly from one institution to the next. As a result, the dynamic impact of Chang’s decision will likely unfold in ways no one can predict.

If there’s a lesson to be learned here it is one that reinforces why soloists and conductors stay away from situations like this. If there was any doubt about this, we now know it was misplaced.

As Chang declared in her statement, the DSO labor dispute did not involve her but the only way for her and any other guest artists to make sure it doesn’t is to follow the traditional tried-and-true path of going out of the way to accommodate short notice planning in order to reschedule canceled concerts. Likewise, they may donate some or all of their fees for a benefit or other type of special post work stoppage concert event.

This sort of win-win activity serves to heal the fractured organization in more ways than one.

Postscript: I stopped by Arts Journal this morning (10/11/2010) and noticed the following headline they wrote in conjunction with the Detroit Free Press article announcing Chang’;s decision to cancel the recital: “Sarah Chang Cancels Detroit Recital, Claiming Intimidation by Striking Musicians.” I want to point out that this is a gross misrepresentation of the facts as reported by the Detroit Free Press. Nowhere in Stryker’s article does he write that Chang or DSO representatives claim that the email messages Chang received via her website were from any of the Detroit Symphony musicians. Arts Journal should immediately revise the headline and issue an apology to Stryker, the Detroit Free Press, Chang, the DSO, and the DSO musicians.

Update: Arts Journal has since edited the headline to read “Sarah Chang Cancels Detroit Recital, Claiming Intimidation” but there is no apology or other form of mea culpa acknowledging the change.

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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22 thoughts on “A Bad Situation Ends Badly In Detroit

  1. I feel bad for Sarah Chang and the people of Detroit. From reading Sarah’s tweets, it seems her only motivation was to bring some music to the people of Detroit during their time of turmoil. Although I sympathize with the DSO musicians, this whole affair will leave a bitter taste in the public’s mouth. If “The Max” remains silent for too long, will audiences remember what a great experience classical concert-going is, or will they learn that they can live without it?

    • Thanks for the perspective Jared, I think you bring up an interesting point about the desire to simply bring some music to Detroit. What seems to have fallen apart in this case is the process by which that goal was being achieved. Perhaps the larger lesson for soloists to learn in this sense is that goal would be better served by implementing it via neutral outlets; meaning, a sponsorship and production element outside that of the DSO and at a venue other than Orchestra Hall.

      For example, it would have been interesting to see what would have happened if the recital were sponsored by the University Music Society at U of M and produced at Hill Auditorium.

  2. Thanks for your postscript Drew. Something that never seems to get mentioned much during these events is that any kook can write a threatening email and sign it anonymously or falsely. They don’t have to be a member of the AFM or any Union group.

    The Internet is a vast playground for Trolls who enjoy stirring up controversy for kicks and attention.

    Kirsten G. James
    Business Representative
    Musicians’ Association of Seattle, Local 76-493, AFM

    • You’re welcome and I do hope that Ms. Chang has contacted the authorities to investigate any messages that made her fear for her safety. This is why the authorities exist and anyone unbalanced, disturbed, and foolhardy enough to deliver a threat of physical violence should be dealt with swiftly and accordingly.

  3. The following message to Chang was characterized as “intimidation” on the Detroit Free Press website:

    “You should know that professional musicians throughout the country are highly incensed that you would cross a picket line and perform a recital while your colleagues in the Detroit Symphony are on strike.” The message was signed by Barbara Bogatin, a cellist in the San Francisco Symphony and was linked to her Facebook page. “It is a slap in the face to all of us who have played in orchestras accompanying you.”


    • I have to disagree with you here Michael, I think you’re making the same sort of mistake Arts Journal did in their original, and entirely inaccurate, headline. The quote you referenced is certainly included in Stryker’s piece but in no way is it characterized as what Chang or the DSO considered intimidation. Moreover, the author makes no claim or association of that nature on his own.

      Instead, that quote is used as a representation of the other comments posted at the Sarah Chang Facebook page. So once again, I do think everyone needs to read the Free Press article carefully as this was (and still is) a very tricky situation to examine.

  4. I also feel bad for Sarah Chang for being put in this position. As she stated, she simply wanted to bring music to Detroit, and instead was pulled into the middle of a huge battle, like tug-of-war, not wanting to really take either side’s position.

    I definitely agree with you when you say the Free Press article should be read carefully, as it does not pinpoint the DSO musicians as the culprits of the intimidation. However, what I am confused about is why many seem to be celebrating her decision to cancel to be directly in support of the musicians (especially on the Violinist.com entry). The fact that a world-famous soloist was forced to cancel a concert due to intimidation that she feared would affect her career to me does not seem like a cause for celebration at all, and I feel like those responsible for the emails should be embarrassed, and held responsible, though I understand the great importance placed on not holding the recital.

    It’s a good thing Southeast Michigan still has Ann Arbor for great music as this looks like it’s going to last. It’s too bad Sarah could not have played there instead, on more neutral territory.

    • That’s a good question. I have read some of the remarks at the Sarah Chang Facebook page I linked to in the article and it seems to be a mixed bag but the majority of comments following the cancellation do seem to equate her decision with support. Given the variety of sensitive issues related to this situation, the only degree of certainty available would be a direct statement from one of the key figures in all of this so I would disregard any conclusions otherwise.

      Likewise, short of any verifiable evidence or active police investigation, I would offer the same caution on concluding that the decision to cancel was “forced” by any individual or group. The only thing we can say with certainty is the volume of public negative feedback and unconfirmed private messages that have been defined as threatening contributed to Ms. Chang’s decision to cancel. How much any or all of those elements had on the decision making process is unknown.

      Anything beyond that is speculation and I have to imagine that the last thing Ms. Chang wants at this point in time is more speculation.

      As has been stated here and elsewhere, any private email messages that are considered threatening or intimidating have hopefully been passed along to authorities so they can investigate and take action as needed. If this were my client, that’s precisely the course of action I would recommend.

      Consequently, to assume or even elude that any DSO musician, manager, or board member is responsible for the content in any of the unknown private email messages would be tantamount to unfairly taking advantage of a potentially serious deed of misconduct for an ulterior motive and thereby denying Ms. Chang’s privacy.

      If Ms. Chang has decided not to pursue any issues with authorities then the matter is finished. The decision is hers and hers alone.

      Lastly, I am curious to know more about what you exactly think anyone asserting cancellation=support should be held responsible for other than perhaps a substantial case of unsubstantiated conclusions.

      • I certainly did not mean to at all suggest that those saying that cancellation=support should be responsible, as of course everyone is welcome to their own opinion. I was simply agreeing with the fact that authorities are looking into the source of the private email messages, with no speculation on my part as to the source. It’s just a shame this had to happen at all.

        • Thank you for the additional clarification and it just goes to show how much of a role phrasing plays in situations like this. And yes, I wholeheartedly agree that it was a shame all of this had to transpire.

  5. Thank you for your comprehensive overview of this very sad situation. Our (and my) friends in the Detroit Symphony are facing artistic and economic disaster, and I am relieved that the Chang recital did not go forward.

    I have a question; in the long, but generally quickly forgotten history of symphonic labor actions, is there any comparable incident that comes to mind? Have solo artists made the decision to cross picket lines in the past?

    • I’ve been thinking of that quite a bit Marc but I haven’t come up with any examples I can think of. If anyone else out there knows of an instance, please take a moment and share. In the meantime, if I come up with anything, I’ll post it here as an new reply.

      At the same time, your question sparks an interesting counter-question: are there any soloists/conductors who have performed with musician produced concerts during a work stoppage (strike or lock-out)? In that sense, I can think of a few instances over the past decade where that has happened over the past decade.

      Perhaps we’ll explore that in more detail later this week.

      • This situation reminds us of the contractual battle our quintet, the Bergen Woodwind Quintet, had with the management of the Chamber Music Society of Detroit about five years ago. Our tour to the States was arranged and the airplane tickets were purchased when tragedy struck and our clarinetist, Lars Kristian Brynildsen, passed away after a short struggle with cancer. In order to avoid cancelling the tour, we immediately began looking for a last minute replacement. We were thrilled when Ted Oien, Principal Clarinet of the Detroit Symphony, agreed to come to Norway for a couple weeks of rehearsals and to join us on our tour to the States. A few days before our scheduled recital in Detroit, we were informed by the Chamber Music Society of Detroit that our concert (and contract) was cancelled due to a clause in their bylaws. They do not allow local musicians to play on their concert series and were unwilling to make any exceptions.

        When we learned that violinist James Ehnes was engaged to replace us on the concert, we called him on the phone and explained our situation. Unlike Sarah Chang, James Ehnes refused to cancel his performance and, thereby did not support the cause of his fellow colleagues.

        Since we already had our plane tickets, we travelled to Detroit and were invited to attend a Detroit Local AFM meeting. We were uplifted and moved by the full support we received from the union members at that meeting.

        Ilene Chanon
        On behalf of the Bergen Woodwind Quintet

        • Dear Ilene,
          I can understand what an upsetting situation this must have been for you. I fully agree with you that this was terribly unfortunate for your quintet. Ted Oien is a wonderful musician, and I have no doubt that the concert would have been a great success. However, I take serious issue with your comparison of this situation to that of the recent Sarah Chang/DSO fiasco, and I feel that you are describing my involvement unfairly.
          Your comment above that I “refused to cancel” is highly misleading. Yes, I did receive a call from Ted shortly before the engagement; I was certainly distressed to know the sad back story of your original clarinetist’s passing, and I didn’t like the fact that your group had been canceled for reasons that I thought were silly. But Ted certainly never asked me to cancel, or even suggested it. Canceling would have had no positive effect for anyone. That concert series has their rules about local musicians (they are well known throughout the industry), and as ridiculous as you or I may think they are, your hiring of Ted for that concert technically violated the agreement. Believe me, I think it is a ridiculous clause, and not to the benefit of the CMSD audience, but it is what it is. Whoever books your concerts and signs your contracts should have been aware of this and informed you accordingly when you were making your plans. When my manager was contacted about the engagement, nothing was brought up about your quintet’s situation; had it been, I may have felt differently about agreeing to participate. But by the time I heard about it, I was already contracted. I had no justification to violate a signed agreement. Your ensemble had unwittingly violated the terms of its agreement with CMSD; we can (and do) agree that the “no local musicians” clause is ridiculous, but I think this is a very different situation than Sarah Chang’s with the DSO. In Sarah’s case, she new full well that the DSO was ON STRIKE before she agreed to play the recital. With the orchestra on strike, her original contract was void. She came to a new agreement to play the recital knowing that she would, in effect, be a “replacement” for the striking orchestra.
          As I wrote above, I had no knowledge of your quintet’s situation before entering into my agreement with CMSD. Furthermore, and I think this is a crucial distinction, your quintet was not striking against an employer; you were simply unhappy (perhaps rightfully so, but that’s beside the point)that CMSD chose to exercise their right to cancel your engagement when you unwittingly broke a term of the agreement. If I, a violinist who had never played on their series and had no profile at all in Detroit at the time, had canceled to show solidarity with a group of people I didn’t know who had broken the terms of their contract (and were aware of this fact), do you think that would have made a positive difference for your ensemble?
          The union made their feelings clear to Sarah when she agreed to play in place of the DSO. You wrote above that you received the “full support” from the union in Detroit when you met with them about this situation; I am a proud member of the AFofM, and had I behaved inappropriately in this matter I fully expect (and hope) that I would have been reprimanded, or at least contacted, by union officials, which I was not.
          Once again, I’m sorry that this happened to you and your colleagues. I believe that the CMSD’s “no local musicians” policy is misguided, particularly considering the excellence of the members of the Detroit Symphony, and have made no secret of my feelings to the administration of CMSD. I think it is a great loss to the music lovers of Detroit that they were not able to hear your quintet; I have been a great admirer of your playing and that of your colleagues through your performances with the Bergen Philharmonic.
          I hope this gives you a better understanding of my point of view.
          All best wishes to you and your colleagues,
          James Ehnes

    • Hi Marc,

      In my career Phillip Entremont crossed our picket line during the 1979 lockout of the Tulsa Philharmonic and played a solo recital for the TPO. During our 1985 Nashville Symphony strike the Kingston Trio crossed our picket line and did an NSO concert without the orchestra. I was reminded by Laura that the Kingston Trio appeared with the Nashville Symphony 2 years, and made a joke about crossing that picket line with the Nashville Symphony on stage with them.

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