Invasion Of The Job Snatchers?

Over the course of last week, a couple of regular readers pointed out two separate labor but related labor disputes. Both issues surround hiring practices and first up is the Fresno Grand Opera (FGO) where musicians recently went on strike hours before a scheduled event featuring soprano Renee Fleming. The other situation is on the other side of the country in Florida where the Palm Beach Symphony (PBS) is catching grief from local musicians over the decision to bring in current students and recent graduates from The Juilliard School for concert event and in-school services.

I’m still in the process of learning more about both situations but you can get caught up on details via the respective newspaper outlets at each location. Nonetheless, here’s a quick overview of what’s going on.


Musicians are displeased with FGO hiring practices; in particular, what they define as a regular practice of 11th hour work offers. The musicians assert that their employer routinely makes offers for services with anywhere from a few days to a few weeks before the first scheduled service. Moreover, the musicians also assert that the FGO is hiring musicians outside of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) approved roster. The FGO claims that timeframe is what they require as they don’t always know what instrumentation they need until “right up to the performance day.”

Granted, not knowing the orchestra pit instrumentation until a day or two before the first performance (set aside the first rehearsal service) is an unusual practice for most professional opera groups; in fact, I can’t recall a CBA regulated opera that maintains such a practice. If anyone is aware of one (outside the FGO), please leave a comment or get in touch, I’d love to hear more about it. Consequently, it will be interesting to learn more about why the organization employs this practice.

As reference, there’s an excellent and very detailed article in the 5/5/2012 Fresno Bee by Donald Munro which provides a comprehensive overview of the dispute’s history and responses from musicians and management.

Palm Beach

This situation is particularly interesting because the rostered musicians do not have the same sort of collective bargaining agreement as compared to the FGO musicians. Consequently, their disapproval is coming from sources other than the traditional focal point of union representation.

For example, an article in the 5/2/2012 edition of the Palm Beach Daily News by Jan Sjostrom which detailed the Juilliard residency garnered more than 30 comments, many of which are from local musicians and supporters taking issue with the program. It’s been pointed out that for an orchestra with an annual operating budget of $600,000, the $100,000 residency program takes a substantial bite out of artistic expenses that could have otherwise mostly gone to rostered musicians, a number of which were trained in traditional conservatories, for those services.

To that end, the final paragraph of Sjostrom’s article is interesting in that a Juilliard representative is quoted saying that one of the real benefits for their students related to a residency such as this is that it helps provide an income the students can use to help pay college debts.

Equally important are the paychecks that come with such services. Nine out of 10 Juilliard students are there on scholarships. But the scholarships often don’t cover all their expenses, [Janet Kessin, The Juilliard School Associate Vice President of Communications] said. “These jobs they take become important,” she said. “The debts they leave with are huge, and the arts are an uncertain career.”

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 “Invasion Of The Job Snatchers?”

  1. In regards to the proposed Juilliard program and the quote you provide, I cannot help but read between the lines.

    Is the implication that this program might function as an aspect of financial aid or tuition support? As if an institutional policy to pirate jobs from local Florida musicians is not enough, this would add a whole new layer to the cake.

  2. I’m not certain this is the case in Palm Beach, but it seems possible that it is much easier to raise donations to cover the Julliard residents’ pay–donors could consider their contributions to be something like scholarships–than to cover rostered musicians’ pay.

    It’s always easier to raise money to support poor students, even if those students already share in all the privileges that make a Julliard education possible.

    • That’s certainly possible; donor creep on mission based activity is a long standing double edged sword. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard from donors “I like the idea but why not do this with it instead…” Chasing donor dollars can quickly turn into a real Wonderland sized rabbit hole of a headache.

      But the issue then becomes whether or not that new activity will produce diminishing results thanks to dynamic consequences. The mission related complications alone are enough to complicate things for months on end.

      In smaller budget orgs, there’s another issue of time management and allocation among limited administrative resources. The sort of activity described in the article aren’t exactly easy to plan and implement, so the ratio of administrative resources allocated to those activities as opposed traditional activities is a good example of dynamic variables.

      One element not explored in any of this yet is what sort of communication existed between the orchestra’s existing stakeholders when the program was in still its formative stages.

  3. What have those managers in Fresno been smoking? Don’t know what the instrumentation will be *right up until the day of the performance*?! No, I’ve never heard of such last-minute practices in any other orchestra. How do they expect anyone to prepare their parts, anyway?

    • The preparation question is particularly poignant since most ensembles what musicians to have the music as far in advance as feasible (barring rental music issues) in order to provide ample preparation time; the results of which are usually improved ensemble rehearsal efficiency (and lower overtime).

  4. The claim of Fresno Grand Opera that they don’t know until the last minute what musicians are required is, of course, ludicrous. Once they decide to program, say, La Boheme, it’s a matter of about 15 seconds to find out what the instrumentation is. FGO is not commissioning and presenting world premieres at last report, and even if they were, orchestration is agreed upon between composer and presenter at the outset. Perhaps what they really meant to say is that they don’t know until the very last minute how many musicians they’re willing/able to pay for, which also reflects poor business practice. “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show in the barn” is all very well in the movies, but it doesn’t translate particularly well to the professional world.

  5. There is the possibility that not every orchestra with a CBA will perform all operas with the full orchestration. And even if they do, determining string section sizes might possibly take more than 15 seconds. “Up to performance day” is a bit extreme though!

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