Regrettable Indifference In Detroit

The 11/20/2010 edition of The Guardian published an article by Ed Pilkington that examines the ongoing labor dispute at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO). For the most part, Pilkington’s articles covers the typical back story points but one item in particular is very new and has the potential for lurching the conflict to a new level of antagonism…

The article reports that musician concerns center around the inability of management’s current proposal to maintain artistic excellence and musical standards:

The players believe that management wants to replace the traditional classical orchestra and replace it with a second-rank version. They say that lower salaries and flexible working would dissuade the top players from coming to Detroit, and the orchestra’s world-class status would quickly be squandered.

What’s new is the tone adopted by the DSO management’s response, which is perhaps best summed up in the article’s original version as regrettable indifference:

To which management replies: leave if you like. There are plenty of other good players in lesser-paid orchestras or straight out of college who would love to join the DSO, even with the 40% pay cut.

Since management’s sentiment was not encapsulated in quotations or blockquote formatting and it was not attributed to any individual, I contacted Elizabeth Twork, DSO Director of Public Relations, to inquire about the legitimacy of this sentiment and if the DSO had any reaction and/or statement on that part of Pilkington’s article.

Twork replied with the following statement.

“The statement attributed to the DSO definitely needs to be corrected – we have requested a correction with the Guardian and they have admitted that we did not make that statement in our interview – and, moreover, that is not our position,” wrote Twork. “We do not want our players to leave and we hope they will stay. Period.”

When asked for confirmation about whether or not they acknowledge what Twork defined as something that needs to be corrected, Leslie Plommer, The Guardian associate editor, replied that they have updated the article to include additional content from their interview with Anne Parsons, DSO President and Executive Director, that supports the newspaper’s original summary.

“After a request from the DSO, I’ve reviewed Ed Pilkington’s story, and updated it. While most readers would likely infer from the lack of direct quotation marks that the line in question (To which management replies: leave if you like etc.) was a reporter’s summary of the management’s stance, this should be made explicit for the avoidance of any misunderstanding.

The story therefore now specifies this.

At the same time, the actual quotes do establish that the paraphrase is a fair rendering by the reporter of the view expressed at interview. So the updated version now includes the speaker’s direct quotes. This also puts readers in a position to weigh and test the paraphrasing against the original quotes.

An explanatory footnote has also been added to the article, which is our standard practice when an online article is amended.

My concern is to ensure that Ed Pilkington’s story is a fair and accurate account of the views he heard from different quarters in the orchestra dispute. I am satisfied that this is so.”

The updates mentioned in The Guardian’s reply are as follows:

BEFORE: To which management replies: leave if you like. There are plenty of other good players in lesser-paid orchestras or straight out of college who would love to join the DSO, even with the 40% pay cut.

AFTER: To which management’s reply can be paraphrased as: leave if you like. There are plenty of other good players in lesser-paid orchestras or straight out of college who would love to join the DSO, even with the 40% pay cut. Asked if Detroit can support a first class orchestra, Anne Parsons said: “Isn’t it up to every [player] to answer that question: will they stay or will they go.”

“That’s their choice not mine,” [Parsons] added. “If they choose [to go] because they are making less money temporarily, I respect that. But then the question is who is going to take the job? Will we be able to fill those jobs? I don’t want to do this, but were I to analyse, is there enough talent out there to replace players who leave, I would have to say given the number of orchestras that haven’t been hiring and the number of musicians coming out of Juilliard, Curtis, New World, China and elsewhere – and the number of talented musicians in great orchestras in the smaller cities in America who pay less than we are offering – I would have to say sadly: I don’t want to do this but there are talented players out there.”

What seems to be in question is the juxtaposition of the DSO’s clearly stated desire to retain current musicians against the well documented position presented by The Guardian that although retention is preferred, it won’t supplant other goals. As the labor DSO dispute progresses, details such as these become increasingly vital in helping the Detroit community form opinions and take whatever action they find necessary.

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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8 thoughts on “Regrettable Indifference In Detroit”

  1. I wish I had never heard Ann Parsons’ line before, but it seems rather a popular, if not majority, view in the LAO. I believe my colleagues in the SLSO heard it under a previous administration, and I know we and the board heard it beaten like a drum when I was in Tucson.

    What is lost when there is wholesale turnover is not just top talent, but history. An orchestra’s sound and traditions are carefully crafted over decades. The sound can’t be continued with bunches of new musicians; we aren’t electronic components that can be readily swapped out. I regret that this line of “reasoning” is being trotted out again. Ms. Parsons should be ashamed.

  2. In the last decade the population of Michigan has decreased by almost 1/2 million people. A family leaves every 12 minutes.

    According to Census and IRS data, those that remain tend to be less educated and poorer. In 2007 alone, the net drop in reported income attributed to population shift was $1.2 billion. The average family income of those leaving was $20,000 more than those arriving.

    This is the reality that the Detroit Symphony must address in one way or another.

    The current position of management seems to be to accept the shrinking pie as inevitable and cut expenses sharply, leading to a likely “quantitative easing” of artistic quality, effectively creating a different orchestra under the same brand.

    This may not be their only choice. The Cleveland Orchestra recognized years ago that their local community was no longer able to support an orchestra of its quality and cost. In response to this challenge the Orchestra decided to expand its customer and donor base through repeated residencies in places like Miami.

    Admittedly Detroit, an excellent orchestra, lacks some of the historical “Big 5” cachet of Cleveland, but is there no opportunity here for something similar?

    • Those are some very good observations Chris. In general, it seems that a lack of exploration is the root of at least some and perhaps much of this conflict.

      I don’t think I’ve run across a better description of what’s being proposed by the DSO management than your fourth paragraph, bravo on that! It ties into the brand discussion here a few weeks ago.

      What caught my attention in The Guardian article is the notion that players elsewhere would be happy to play in the DSO under the contract terms currently proposed. Of course, that assumes the DSO being referenced has the same branding qualities it always has. Otherwise, what they are really talking about is the “New DSO” (think “New Coke”).

      I honestly wonder if it wouldn’t be better to engage 100% into the entire endeavor by implementing a serious re-branding campaign, including a new name, logo, etc. After all, if the only solution for a sustainable future is to move down the path currently proposed, then why not jettison all of the traditional baggage and branding association with the old name?

  3. Well,the reason they don’t jettison the old name is that it is synonymous with quality. But just like with any product, if you lower the quality, people eventually notice and stop buying it, and then you’ve got a big problem.
    There is something wrong with suggesting that current musicians be replaced with ones from China. Sounds like some kind of reverse outsourcing.

  4. I would like to know if there is also to be a reduced pay for music director/conductor, office staff, bus drivers for outrun concerts and all others involved in the presentation of classical music. How about a young CHEAP conductor to lead this orchestra into its new life? I am tired of reading about the high pay fly away conductors. Given the economic realities of Michigan think of other places to save a ton of money by having conductor pay cuts or having conductor development programs. Why should it be the musicians alone who take a 40% pay cut????????????????

  5. Remember that the reason that the DSO is in this mess, was because of lack of financial foresight back in 2003. The opportunity to pay off the Max ended with monies invested in a bad stock market. Tell me why the members of the DSO should be responsible for cleaning up this disaster, under the ‘excuse’ of a bad economy? The people that should leave should be those in management and also several board members, who ‘contributed’ to this decision, not the musicians. I truly appreciate your balanced perspective, but I’m generally astounded that other newspapers and articles have portrayed the musicians as being a greedy, arrogant group in an unstable economy. Had the Max been attended to those several years ago while the musicians were doing THEIR job, I guarantee that this would not be an issue today.
    Bottom line: Let the parties responsible for this mess TAKE the responsibility to clean it up! Don’t destroy what has been so carefully established over these last decades!

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