In Detroit, The Battle Is Over But What About The War?

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) has reached a settlement but that shouldn’t be confused with conclusion. Even before the orchestra enjoyed a weekend reveling in a pair of free concerts back in Orchestra Hall, public statements from both sides indicate that although the strike is over, the war continues…

The Detroit Free Press and Detroit News published a battery of articles over the past several days with statements from both sides. Multiple musician spokespersons have made it crystal clear that they believe the DSO needs changes among the current leadership and more accountability.

But in a sign of the bitterness engendered by the strike, [Karl Pituch, principal horn and chairman of the musicians’ negotiating committee] also aimed a dart at management and board leadership: “The problems which led to the strike, and those who were responsible for those problems, continue.” (4/7/11 Detroit Free Press; article by Mark Stryker)

Despite the vote for approval, violinist Joe Goldman said bitterness runs deep among the musicians.

“We’re excited to be performing for our audiences once more,” he said, “but the problems that caused this strike are still there. We need some changes in leadership, people who can solve problems of marketing, development, the summer season and financing of the hall.

Goldman said the musicians “were forced out on strike by terms that were totally unacceptable. After 26 weeks it would be unusual if there weren’t a sense of discontentment. It’s going to take changes as well as time before the wounds are healed.” (4/9/11 Detroit News; article by Lawrence B. Johnson)

Although it isn’t unusual for a labor dispute this bitter to result in musicians accepting concessions beyond their minimum acceptable level, it is typically accompanied by the proviso that the organization institutes a change in leadership (board and/or executive). When this happens, public statements associated with the agreement certainly don’t reference the deal while announcements regarding the departures are made a month or so afterward so as to minimize public attention.

Given the musicians’ statements above, it seems unlikely that any sort of handshake deal along these lines was ever achieved. I asked Elizabeth Weigandt, DSO Director of Public Relations, if the organization has issued any reply to the musician statement about the need for leadership change and although the request was acknowledged, at the time this article was published they have yet to reply.

On management’s side, public statements focused on continued accumulated debt without a plan for recovery, exactly the sort of scenario they claim put the institution into trouble to begin with.

DSO Vice President Paul Hogle said the new pact would require $40 million in contributed income and $18 million in ticket sales over the next three years. He said both goals are ambitious but that even if both are met, operating costs still would result in deficits of $1 million to $3 million each year…”Here’s a picture for you,” Hogle said. “We currently have subscribers to fill about 125 seats per concert for our spring concerts — in a hall that seats 1,972.” (4/9/11 Detroit News; article by Lawrence B. Johnson)

So, the reality of the DSO’s situation is most of the problems that both sides defined over the course of the dispute are still in place. Management portrays bleak projections while the musicians focus on the need for change at executive levels of the administration and board. Do you think this is a platform for success?

Postscript: After completing this article, I came across a video produced by the guys over at who attended Saturday evening’s free concert. What’s fascinating is they brought a camera and mic along with them to talk to patrons, Elizabeth Weigandt, and DSO bassist Rick Robinson. Of particular interest is the segment with Robinson 13 minutes into the video where he expresses joy at being back in the hall but he also reiterates some of the musician sentiment Pituch and Goldman expressed to the papers. Clearly, labor relations continue to be every bit as stained (strained?) now as they were going into the dispute.

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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0 thoughts on “In Detroit, The Battle Is Over But What About The War?”

  1. Drew,
    I think anyone who has closely watched this saga would probably conclude that some leadership changes are desperately needed, preferably soon.

    Also, a question- I know that several DSO musicians found other work during the strike, but have not resigned from the DSO. What is the policy in the new agreement regarding those musicians potential conflicts with the DSO schedule? In other words, are they expected to drop everything and come back to the DSO right now?

    • Regarding the musicians who have accepted jobs elsewhere, I don’t know. But I’m sure there are a number of variables to consider, not the least of which are the starting dates for the other positions. Nonetheless, if their starting dates aren’t for awhile, they should simply be able to continue playing with the DSO until then.

      Beyond that, the only typical matter to resolve is arranging for the leave of absence.

      As for the leadership change, this has, historically speaking, been one of the most common solutions. At the same time, the process usually involves some sort of saving face process and with regard to administrators, the organization can even wait until said individuals have found employment elsewhere before making the announcement.

  2. Drew,

    What steps might the two parties take in order to rebuild trust and focus on their common goal of keeping the DSO alive? Should they begin informal reconciliation talks now, while the spirit of settlement is still in the air, as well as the positive vibe from the triumphant concerts of the weekend? Or do you think that they’d be wiser to wait for some of the emotions surrounding the strike to cool down before they attempt to move forward with such an initiative?

    My concern is that if they don’t sit down and begin talking now, the issues that divided them for so long will continue to erode whatever trust there may be. I don’t want to sound like the voice of doom, but I don’t think these problems will simply disappear if left unaddressed.

    Since a settlement was finally reached, the desire of the two parties to preserve the DSO must have been strong enough to overcome their many differences. Perhaps that energy could be harnessed now, with the near-demise of the DSO still fresh in everyone’s mind.

    What do you think?

    • Until more is known, it doesn’t look like any prescribed step by step process will have much impact so long as both sides have a fundamental mistrust of one another. Given the musician sentiment on public display since last week toward the board and executive leadership, that would have to be addressed before any trust building measures can be employed.

      In light of the continued financial problems and diminished revenue performance capability, I tend to think that the organization doesn’t have enough time to get over that first hurdle (as it requires a prolonged period of trust established by actions, not words). If that’s the case, then any other activity would be moot.

      Consequently, the best thing the organization can focus on at this point is either accelerating the trust via actions approach or weigh the pros and cons of leadership change (which isn’t as simple as “let’s replace the CEO”).

  3. I am so happy to see the musicians back at work and the concert season resuming.

    However, it does remind me of the time when I shared a house in college with a room-mate going through a relationship breakup.

    His girlfriend couldn’t afford to move out for several months and for myself, every moment in that house was like walking on eggshells. Both of them were damaged goods for a long, long time.

  4. While excellent that the orchestra is back onstage, the “war” in this case is going to be trying to replace entire key sections of the orchestra while maintaining artistic quality. I don’t really know how an orchestra could feasibly find a new Principle Flute, Tuba, a few violinists, and of course an entire percussion section in short enough order for next years or even this summer’s season. And when you add in that the DSO was already down a few spots when the strike began….well it’s a recipe for disaster.

    • For Adam, the sad truth is that statistically speaking (not to mention intuitively speaking), there are loads and loads of well-qualified and underemployed classical musicians in the US who will probably flock to take auditions for open positions in Detroit, as a step up from what they have now. Another factor, admittedly, is how selective Slatkin and the musicians’ audition committee wants to be in hiring new folks. It’s true that new folks won’t have the institutional memory of the departing musicians, so there will be growing pains in adjusting the new people into the Detroit SO. But there are plenty of people to be found.

      • The “sad truth” is that for any given audition – despite the alleged “load of well-qualified and underemployed classical musicians…” – is that very rarely does the situation exist where more than a handful of those auditioning have the “goods” to be passed on to the next round. Sad, but true. And since the DSO Musicians mantra is that of quality, why would anyone think that standards would be lowered? In terms of seeking out the highest level musicians, “well-qualified” is as subjective as it gets.

        Anyway, it’s not the just the “new folks” that will be sitting on audition committees – but those same new folks – when hired – will integrate themselves into the orchestra, absorbing the sound and style that makes the DSO the DSO, therefore making that institutional memory of what you speak their own.

        And that is how traditions endure.

      • I have to agree with Larry in this case. Especially in the case of the percussion section, the new section will take months, if not years to truly acclimate into the DSO’s sound. And to simply say that there are “loads and loads” of well qualified, incredibly talented musicians may be accurate to a certain degree, finding a player who will fit into Detroit’s unique sound. Additionally, sections are used to only losing a single member and when replacing a sole musician, it is much easier to acclimate with the existing tradition of the section in terms of sound. But in a situation such as this, where an entire section is lost, makes it even worse. That and more are the reasons that you can’t just select anyone for an orchestral audition.

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