Top 10 Best And Worst Of 2014

2014 is firmly in the rear view mirror so it seems like a good time to revisit some of the highest highs and lowest lows that help establish comparative parameter. To that end, here’s a decuplet of the best and worst from 2014 plus one more to acknowledge the sadder moments.

Best Of 2014

150x150_ITA_Guy1161) Opera America President Marc Scorca.

Simply put, Scorca would be justified if he started wearing a cape to work for demonstrating the testicular fortitude to stand up and help save a company that was bound and determined to go extinct for no good reason. Without his public participation, the San Diego Opera fiasco would almost certainly have had a tragic ending and amid a time of equally unnecessary conflict within the orchestra field, the collective leadership at the League of American Orchestras could learn a great deal from his example and realize a similar path toward worthwhile return for absorbing the risk associated with pointing out that an Emperor in their midst isn’t wearing any clothes.

150x150_ITA_Guy0922) Crime and punishment, Stradivarius style.

One of the more heart wrenching events in 2014 got a happy ending when the Lipinski Stradivarius was recovered by Milwaukee police 10 days after armed robbers attacked concertmaster Frank Almond and made off with the instrument. The ordeal played out like an off-brand soap opera complete with an “unusual Scooby-Doo-looking van” but in the end, the criminals were brought to justice and received appropriate sentences while the entire escapade was subsequently written up in Vanity Fair.

Residual Good Karma: The theft and recovery occurred at the same time Almond’s orchestra, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, was amid a $5 million emergency bridge fund campaign. It’s difficult to imagine that the Lipinski attention didn’t aid those efforts and when it was all said and done, they made their goal.

150x150_ITA_Guy1293) Leading from the front.

Marc Scorca wasn’t the only one to stick his neck out in 2014, during the prolonged Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) lockout, Music Director Robert Spano and Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles took a very brave step by issuing a joint letter to ASO’s stakeholders (board, management, and musicians) outlining the pair’s views on the intersection of artistic standards and sustainability, many of which were contrary to their employer’s positions. Typically, an artistic leader gets an axe in the neck for his/her trouble but nearly two months after a deal was reached, both individuals remain gainfully employed.

150x150_ITA_Guy0494) Logic prevails.

Although it was shaping up to be the labor storm of the century, the Metropolitan Opera’s expanded labor dispute was cut off at the knees in the eleventh hour thanks to a practical financial analysis that demonstrated the fabled institution’s financial woes were due more to mismanagement than structural deficits. Although the incident ultimately left an extra-large serving of egg on Met General Manager Peter Gelb’s face, the herculean analysis efforts from musicians (actually one in particular, you know who you are) was a welcome relief to decades old labor positions that favor emotion over logic. In the end, the analysis prompted federal mediators to push for an independent examination and in turn, that produced a swift end to the hyperbolic standoff.

150x150_ITA_Guy1085) Click, click, done.

Good god I love arts managers; down to their core, most are an ever-resourceful group of administrative creators who know how to fill a need and in 2014, they stepped up in droves to be considered as a contributor for When it was all said and done, more than one hundred arts managers applied and the ultimate group of contributors are doing a bang-up job producing wildly useful nuts-and-bolts oriented content.

Worst Of 2014

150x150_ITA_Guy0981) MN Orchestra pay disparity.

Although 2014 was barely underway, it is difficult to overlook the wildly disappointing decision by a majority of Minnesota Orchestra musicians to accept a clause that relegated substitute musicians to second class status by paying them a lower base rate than full time musicians. After withstanding a completely unnecessary and downright cruel 16 month lockout and losing an entire season, the decision to devalue colleagues that have no voting authority on the agreement did little more than encourage bad managers and bad board members to continue treating employees poorly. It was a miserable punctuation to a very sad run-on sentence. Interestingly enough, a majority of readers agreed that paying substitutes less is the wrong thing to do.

150x150_ITA_Guy1032) The death of ethics.

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra board and executive leadership did more in 2014 to scrape away the last vestiges of genuine public stewardship by brazenly flaunting the decision to thumb their collective noses at the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) executive compensation reporting requirements by way of intentionally obfuscating music director Leonard Slatkin’s compensation (even after he gave them permission to release the information). To date, they continue to wallow in their governance crapulence.

150x150_ITA_Guy1963) Crazy like a fox.

During the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) lockout, the senior member of the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC) Governing Board, Chairman Douglas Hertz, put more than just a foot in his mouth when he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he believed the ASO musicians and conductors are “a bunch of crazy people” for failing to appreciate contributors and understanding the WAC’s bargaining position. When given the opportunity to dig his way out of that hole a few days later, he opted to double down on that comment.

150x150_ITA_Guy0814) Epic PR fail.

Metropolitan Opera General Manager, Peter Gelb, set a new high (low?) after telling the Associated Press that the company “need[ed] to impose a lockout because otherwise we have no ability to make [the union employees] take this seriously. The short-term pain is something we’d have to live with in order to provide long-term survival.” The return for handling what was becoming one of the worst labor disputes in decades with the finesse of a 1960’s era fat-cat capitalist caricature was a deal that saw the birth of a permanent, independent financial observer to keep an eye on non-artistic expenses. In short, Gelb earned himself a contractually mandated fiscal babysitter.

150x150_ITA_Guy1495) Prejudice prevails.

If racial discrimination was one of the great social shames of the Greatest and Baby Boomer Generations, then sexual orientation discrimination certainly occupies an equal level of ignominy for Generation X. In 2014, that shame manifest in South Williamsport, PA thanks to a decision by local school administrators to cancel a production of Monty Python’s Spamalot by Eric Idle due to what the school’s principal, Jesse Smith, described as the musical’s “homosexual themes.”

Saddest Of 2014

150x150_ITA_Guy193Saying goodbye.

The field lost some very good people in 2014; not the least of which were Doug Whitaker, former Director of Artistic Operations at Memphis Symphony, entrepreneur composer Stephen Paulus, and Richmond Symphony Chorus founder, academic, and arranger James Erb.

So there it is. Did anything from your list fail to get mentioned?

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 “Top 10 Best And Worst Of 2014”

    • Yep, we took a look at the ICSOM level orchestra that do and do not compensate substitute musicians at the same rate of pay per-service as contracted musicians. At that time, the list of orchestras that didn’t included:
      Alabama Symphony
      Atlanta Symphony
      Baltimore Symphony
      Boston Symphony
      Cincinnati Symphony
      Cleveland Orchestra
      Colorado Symphony
      Columbus Symphony
      Houston Symphony
      Indianapolis Symphony
      Kansas City Symphony
      Los Angeles Philharmonic
      Milwaukee Symphony
      Minnesota Orchestra
      National Symphony
      North Carolina
      Oregon Symphony
      Philadelphia Orchestra
      Phoenix Symphony
      Pittsburgh Symphony
      San Antonio Symphony

  1. Hi Amy, make sure you swing by the article that describes a typical substitute musician’s duties and responsibilities. It should help correct some of your inaccurate perceptions; for instance, in most professional orchestras the only full time string musicians responsible for bowings are the concertmaster and principal musicians and they are compensated above the base rate for those services. Likewise, many orchestras do hire substitutes for outreach and education events. Ultimately, any benefits gained by the agreement don’t detract from the pay disparity decision and nor should they.

  2. Being held to the same artistic standards are the duties and responsibilities; it is just that simple, this was the point. The description for full time positions are nearly identical in that most CBA’s simply indicate that the musician is responsible for preparing his/her part and meeting the artistic standards as determined by the music director.

    Moreover, I’ve pointed out the factual errors re most of your substitute musician perceptions, the only item you mentioned I didn’t address previously was related to committee service. In those instances, serving on committees is purely voluntary as are non-committee members attending rank and file meetings. Likewise, musicians serving on committees are not compensated for their time and even if substitutes wished to participate in similar fashion, most CBA’s prohibit them from serving on committees.

    In short, substitute musicians are held to the same artistic standards; meaning, they have the same core duties and responsibilities as section musicians (and in the case of wind and percussion, titled chairs) but do not benefit from the same protections. In MN, they are now paid a lower rate while held to the same standards.

    NYMike’s comment above should provide some additional light on the subject for you as well. I hope all of that helps clarify your confusion, nonetheless, it can certainly be puzzling so feel free to ask about any specific elements you still find confusing.

  3. Amy, as a frequent sub in 2 ICSOM orchestras, one with 100% equal pay and the other at 90%, I find your remarks ignorant and bordering on insulting. I have to learn my music very quickly, sometimes sightread it, I have to play it at the same level as my colleagues in the orchestras I’m subbing with, and I have to represent each ensemble as if it was my own. I am frequently met after a concert by patrons who thank me for the performances, thinking I am a regular.

    Orchestras who’ve taken cuts and reduce sub pay WHILE cutting down orchestra size are doing it on the backs of people like me. So while your desire to defend the MN musicians is understandable please know that it is not only incorrect but harmful to both substitutes and full time musicians alike.

    • I agree with Drew, and am quite glad there are people like him to bring up the double standards in the industry. It would be too easy to only side with management or musicians all the time, so good work Drew on keeping everyone honest. Amy, you should know that the descriptions of sub players is spot on, I apologize for pointing this out but how you can’t understand that demonstrates an unwillingness to realize when you’re wrong or a frame of reference that is so off base, you just can’t tell which direction north is even when the compass is right under your nose. Maybe both.

      you said it yourself. You nor your husband are musicians so your information seems to be, at best, secondhand. Yes, it IS fabulous that MinnOrch is back to work but realize this: it is directly on the backs of sub players. I doubt you realized it when you wrote it but your comment “Sub parity is a good cause” is nothing but disparaging becasue sub parity is NOT charity, it is not a “good cause,” nor is it something to aspire to only if there’s enough left over. Failing to provide parity is nothing short of full time musicians shortchanging their colleagues to create an illusion of a solid organization and artistic excellence.

      Ultimately, ideals such as yours are precisely what bad managers like Henson use to create animosity and make an argument for pushing back against maintaining a full compliment of full time players. Mark my words, this is the beginning of orchestras of MinnOrch size cutting down to a smaller core and hiring “associate musicians” the same way Columbus Symphony did. Shameful.

      And ask yourself this, who exactly did MinnOrch musicians take jobs away from in order sub elsewhere? Your ignorance of how things work is maddening and whether you realize it or not, you only hurt the people you’re trying support. So yes, the decision to shortchange subs isn’t just bad news, it’s the WORST kind of news.

  4. One very sad event that came right at the end of 2014 that didn’t get much attention in the States was the sudden folding with virtually no warning of Orchestra London (Canada). OLC is a salaried orchestra with a 28 week season that went dark this month when a $350k donation previously pledged to the orchestra did not arrive. The donor apparently gave that money to an initiative to build a new concert hall for the orchestra. The orchestra’s leadership approached city council for emergency financial assistance, a request that was denied. Some city council members stated that they support the idea of an orchestra in the community, but that they would not provide a bailout to the organization in its current form.

    The crisis seemed to come out of nowhere, but from the reported facts it seems to have been building for some time. There were communication issues and conflict between stakeholder groups, there was a six figure tax bill that the OLC board acknowledged it had not been aware of, allegations of improper accounting practices and an Executive Director who had in recent months taken a paid leave of absence from his position to run for public office. A well-loved music director recently departed due to a contract impasse. The news that the season was cancelled and the orchestra facing an immediate shut down did not even come from the orchestra itself – the media found out about it from the management of OLC’s home venue, and in response OLC’s ED denied that the problem was as serious as reported.

    My heart goes out to all the employees of OLC who suddenly lost their source of income just before Christmas. The orchestra’s 46 musicians continue to bravely soldier on, playing free pop-up concerts at venues in their community. I sincerely hope 2015 will bring a successful rebirth of the orchestra.

    • Mike thank you for mentioning Orchestra London. The news hit our office like a bombshell, and it is a situation we (two hours away in Windsor) have been watching very closely. The life of an orchestra is so often lived on the edge of a cliff – it doesn’t take much for the ground to give way beneath us, and it is a hell of a battle to get back on solid footing again.

      I find it hard to resist delving into the arguments about the importance of a strong cultural foundation in a thriving city, and how an orchestra is a key component in that foundation. I won’t get into that here–I know I would be preaching to the choir.

      My hope is that the community and musicians find a way to come together to breathe new life into Orchestra London. My heart, like yours, goes out to those musicians and staff who quite suddenly found themselves jobless.

  5. Dear Ms. Adams, I am a retired military band musician who did a great deal of substitute work in professional orchestras throughout the Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania area and I can attest that the substitute descriptions here are very accurate. It seems to be that your perceptions may not only be wrong but you are probably getting information from Minnesota Orchestra players who may be trying to justify paying subs less.

    But here’s the ugly truth no one seems to be willing to say: being the victim of abuse doesn’t justify abusive behavior.

    And accepting an agreement that pays subs less for the same work is nothing short of abuse. I do hope you and anyone with similar notions will take some time to think about that.

  6. The Memphis Symphony Orchestra actually took a triple hit in the losses department: In addition to the sudden loss of Doug Whitaker, we also lost former Executive Director Martha Ellen Maxwell (cancer) last spring, and violist Marshall Fine last summer (injuries sustained in a highway accident). Emotionally a devastating year for all of us connected with the MSO.

  7. I don’t know what coverage you’ve had here of Sacramento, but it’s been pretty dire. July 1 of 2013 the Sacramento Opera merged with the Sacramento Philharmonic to become the Sacramento Region Performing Arts Alliance. They hired a general director, who resigned effective in March or April 2014. The orchestra had it’s last concert with no season planned, no management, not tickets to sell. So far, there’s been no 2014-15 season, except that the musicians were able to play 6 Nutcracker performances for the Sacramento Ballet.

    The SRPAA board is being advised by a consulting group calling itself T3 and things seem to be moving forward. More later.

  8. Drew, you make excellent points regarding the unfairness of the wage disparity between subs and extras vs. contracted players. It’s a very important issue that is getting some needed attention, and I commend you for discussing it. However, finding solutions to this problem needs to be addressed from a broader constituency. Blame shouldn’t be laid solely (if any at all) at the feet of the Minnesota Orchestra musicians who, after a 16 month lockout, had to vote on an obviously imperfect agreement. As you well know, the playing field between labor and management is hardly level, being always tipped toward management. My understanding is that the wage disparity for subs and extras was a management proposal, among hundreds of changes to their work rules. In spite of having unprecedented support from their Music Director, an active audience association, and some dedicated and tenacious blogger/journalists, the musicians weren’t in the strongest bargaining position. After 16 months, there was a level of compassion fatigue with the lockout. Trying to get any productive communication with that management and board seemed an impossibility. It wasn’t exactly an environment to achieve an agreement that made everyone happy. There are more than a few orchestras on your list above that are in a much better position to advocate for fair treatment of subs and extras – perhaps that’s where we should focus our attention.

    • Hi Adam, I’m very glad to see someone bring up these questions; many of which were covered in discussion threads at related articles when everything originally unfolded ( here, here, and here for starters) but it is good to review them again here in this context. Likewise, thank you so much for taking the time to send in your comment.

      First and foremost, the notion that the pay disparity was a management proposal has not been confirmed but perhaps more importantly, I presented three questions to both sides that would clarify the situation beyond a shadow of doubt:

      1) Was the need for a pay disparity between contract and substitute musician base rates a deal-breaker for the MOA regardless of other terms?
      2) Did the musicians have a deal-breaker base salary minimum, even if it meant accepting a substitute musicians pay disparity?
      3) Once the final concessions were defined, did either stakeholder engage in zero sum bargaining in order to reach substitute and contract musician base scale parity?

      Both sides declined to respond and at the time this reply was composed, what we know is that even if the pay disparity clause was presented by the employer there is no evidence to support or refute any notion that an equitable solution was explored and/or presented by musicians.

      Having covered all of that, it’s important to note that the source of the clause is ultimately moot, however, the decision to accept or reject it was one that rested solely with the musicians. Even in the worst case scenario you proposed, via the employer refused to accept any agreement other than one that included the pay disparity, the musicians were, and are, entirely capable of rectifying the imbalance at any point in time. To date, any such organized effort has yet to transpire.

      In the end, the degree of attention focused on the Minnesota lockout is what makes this the ideal scenario to examine this issue. This is a crucial element behind why the original examination as well as why it contributed to being included in the Top 5 Worst items from 2014.

  9. I appreciate your response, Drew, and fundamentally I think you and I agree on the big picture: there’s no good reason why a substitute or extra musician should be paid a fraction of the scale paid to a contracted one. However, I still can’t agree that Minnesota is “patient zero” for this problem. I have more thoughts in reading your comment and other posts to which you linked:

    1. Following any dispute, particularly one of this magnitude, the parties usually agree to coordinate their communications to the media. In reality, that message is firmly in the hands of the employer. If the MOA did not answer your questions, it is unlikely that the Local Union or the MOMA was in a position to go rogue on the record outside the coordinated media efforts. Granted, that’s conjecture on my part, but as I’ve had to personally abide by such an agreement, it leads me to think that this is a likely scenario. Speaking of conjecture:

    2. If we don’t know who made the proposal, or who did or did not engage in zero-sum bargaining, then why pass judgement to such an extent that the MO musicians land #1 on your “worst-of” list? Because they or the Local Union didn’t immediately set up a fund to rectify the disparity? I think context is vitally important. The Twin Cities Local was dealing with not one, but two lockouts in its jurisdiction, effectively eliminating most of its income. One donation from the AFM delegates at the convention isn’t enough to make up for such a shortfall. Additionally, even with donations from other ICSOM orchestras, I can’t imagine that the MOMA had much money left after a 16 month lockout. At the present time, the orchestra hasn’t been working as long as they were locked out. I don’t think they’re as financially capable of immediately rectifying the problem as you do and I think they deserve some time to heal as an organization. I’d be interested to see what happens in 2017 if they continue in their current positive direction. Give them another year or two. I hope we’ll see them address the problem.

    3. I don’t think the question of who made the proposal is necessarily moot for the purpose of our debate here. The employer could rectify the disparity much more easily than the Local Union or the MOMA, yet they also have not. Wouldn’t the employer at the very least share in the culpability? I’d further argue that a ratification vote by the musicians isn’t a tacit personal approval of any given clause in the agreement, nor does it mean that they held the ultimate trump card. What we know is that in the 15th month of the lockout, the musicians began to meet with a small group from the board outside of its designated negotiators. Even with the city pressuring the MOA with forfeiture of its Orchestra Hall lease, the board leadership did not stray from continuing the lockout. When real negotiations actually started happening, they were under the worst of circumstances. Trust between the parties was at an all time low. Since neither you or I were at the table, we don’t know how the tentative agreement was reached or what kind of changes were even possible. I’m uncomfortable being an armchair quarterback in this situation, hindsight always being 20/20.

    4. While the Minnesota lockout was a huge story, I wouldn’t agree that it provides an ideal lens with which to examine the real problem of sub and extra wage disparity. You run a highly respected and widely read website and have an ability to shed light on this problem from a broader perspective; a perspective that I would welcome. You compiled a considerable list of orchestras with this wage disparity. I think it’s a good story – let’s look at orchestras that don’t have the burden of rebuilding their stakeholder relationships and where there is an active freelance scene in the city. For instance, why is the LA Phil on that list? I don’t mean to call them out – The Boston Symphony would also fall under that category as well, especially since its endowment is one of the largest in the country – but LA is an orchestra widely viewed as an all around success, awash in money, with a dynamic charismatic conductor. I would be fascinated to hear from both Deborah Borda and Union representatives on this subject.

    • Thanks for taking the time to send in an equally thoughtful reply Adam and I’ll see if we can address each of your points here.

      1) The musicians released multiple independent press statements and responded to media inquiries in the wake of the agreement. Likewise, there was a great deal of acrimony in place at that time, don’t forget that Vanska had not yet returned and Henson had not resigned. Consequently, no such coordinated media efforts were in place and there were no outside forces and/or variables preventing them responding.

      2) The context you cite doesn’t have any bearing on the musician’s decisions related to bargaining, ratification, or potential efforts to resolve the disparity directly. In the end, resources to fund a disparity mitigation fund would transpire via a cycle that parallel’s the MOA payroll disbursement schedule (i.e. the funds come from the full time musicians via that established cycle). Consequently, the state of either the Local or MOMA coffers isn’t germane to implementation. And why wait until 2017 to rectify the disparity? Short of negotiating an amendment and/or side letter to the existing agreement instituting the disparity mitigation fund is something that can happen at any point in time.

      3) I wholeheartedly agree that the employer was in a position to rectify the situation more easily than the musicians but the point regarding which side was the source is still moot in the sense that regardless of ease, the musicians still had the capability to rectify the disparity, either via proposing alternatives, refusing to ratify, and/or addressing it directly. But your comment about hindsight is particularly apt here because regardless the variables at the time when an agreement was reached, the musicians still have complete control over rectifying the disparity yet have failed to take that action. Simply put, money isn’t a problem (see point #2 above).

      4) Thank you for the kind words and in the end, any other orchestra that currently maintains a disparity is no different an example than another because they all boil down to the same basic element: it is a contractual clause that the musicians can vote to accept or reject. To that end, it is no different than any other basic wage component. For example, if the musicians believe that the employer does not genuinely have the capacity to provide funding for substitute parity then it becomes a simple zero-sum equation in that they can lower their own base wage enough to provide the gap funding. If they believe the employer does have the capacity to fund parity they can take action accordingly as they would for full-time base wage requirements. In a nutshell, why should substitute base wage parity be treated any differently than it is for full-time musicians?

  10. In my opinion, the disparity epitomizes full timers’ willingness to sell out their part time co-workers and demonstrates the limited scope of ICSOM style solidarity. Sunlight being the best disinfectant, I am pleased to see the Minnesota example listed as one of the worst things to happen in 2014.

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