Newsflash: conductor doesn’t like unions
polyphonic.org by Robert Levine
In this week’s edition of The New Yorker (paywalled, unfortunately) is a fascinating piece by Alex Ross on Iván Fischer, the Hungarian conductor and founder of the Budapest Festival Orchestra. While the piece focuses largely on his unhappiness with the current rightward lurch of Hungarian politics, Ross also reports on Fischer’s views on the orchestra business. He’s not happy:
“It took me a few years [after he began conducting American orchestras] to ﬁgure out why I was so unhappy,” he told me, over lunch at the Palace of Arts. “Everyone was congratulating me. My manager in London was quite contented. But I thought deeply, and came to the conclusion that the entire orchestra system was flawed. Especially in America, it is a very boring, very bad system. Everyone complains about governing boards and managements”—when we met, a ﬁfteen-month lockout at the Minnesota Orchestra had just ended—“but I also blame the unions. They are too rigid in their attitudes. Let us imagine, say, a ﬁrst—trumpet player who can no longer play well. The union should look after the musical interests of the entire orchestra. But, instead, they defend that one player to the end. I dislike also the audition system, which is based on playing certain famous excerpts from the repertory. The trouble is that some players give perfect renditions of the excerpts but turn out to be useless in the orchestra, while others do poorly in the audition but are fantastic in the orchestra. There should be more flexibility, more competition.”
Fischer speaks from some experience: he has appeared with many leading American ensembles, and from 2008 until 2010 he served as the principal conductor of the National Symphony, in Washington. Over time, his pessimism has only deepened. “Unfortunately, I think that all these orchestras will die out in twenty or thirty years,” he said, sitting back and shaking his head. “They have become too big. Like dinosaurs, they must feed themselves all the time. And the real problem is that they are no longer organizations where real music—making happens. Instead, they exist to satisfy other needs. They satisfy a necessity for job security among the musicians; they satisfy a kind of career mania of soloists and conductors; and they satisfy the interests of a small margin of society that likes to go out and be seen at some kind of ”—-his face clouded over, as if contemplating a mystery—- “unidentiﬁable social event.”
Such scathing assessments of the orchestra business have been delivered at regular intervals over the decades. Fischer takes pride in not just criticizing the status quo but putting an alternative model into practice. “I knew the orchestra had to be smaller in proﬁle—not a dinosaur but a tiger. Or some fast, small mammal. Doglike! And I imagined a different driving force for the organization. This would be the artistic fulfillment of the musicians. It is their passion that must be satisﬁed. But for that to work there would have to be a big change in structure. So: no union, no job security. They are free to pursue other work, and they come back refreshed.” The resulting structure is atypical, but it appears stable, and a core group has been with the orchestra for years.”
Music directors as successful as Fischer have little trouble paying their mortgages and feeding their families while “satisfying their passion.” And, of course, they have “other work” to pursue, from which they come back both refreshed and richer. I wonder if he realizes what trying to survive economically looks like to an orchestra musician without unions or job security – especially those not lucky enough, or politically adept enough, to be in the “core group” that can stay out of trouble with music directors and remain employed over a long period.
I don’t have to imagine it: I’m old enough to have talked to enough musicians who tried unsuccessfully to do just that before the trade union movement finally reached the American orchestra business in the 1960s. Most of them had day jobs in order to make ends meet, and even then had the ends failed to meet all too often. Many of them had been fired from orchestras (some more than once) because of their activism, or because something about them prevented their bosses from satisfying their passion.
It’s more than a little ironic that Fischer’s anti-union sentiments are voiced in the context of an interview featuring his unhappiness with right-wing politics. I suspect that Fischer would strongly defend the right of Chinese workers to unionize, or would believe the Communist government under which he grew up should have recognized the rights of workers. Somehow, though, “art” makes it all different.
There’s a reason that musicians negotiate for salary increases, medical benefits, and tenure, and not for “satisfying their passion.” Actually, there are two reasons. The first is that, while it’s nice to have fun at work, for most people it comes second, in terms of priorities, to things like eating and sleeping under a roof. The second is that orchestra musicians don’t have a whole lot of control over whether or not their passion gets “satisfied.”
The interview reminded me of two incidents at a seminar in Salzburg I attended in 2002. The event was titled something like “the Alberto Vilar Seminar on Critical Issues in the Performing Arts: Orchestras” and was attended mostly by orchestra managers from Europe and the US; I was the only labor person (or orchestra musician) in attendance.
The first was after I made a presentation on why orchestra musicians almost invariably supported unionization. One of the questions I got was from Joe Kluger, then CEO of the Philadelphia Orchestra (and a long-time friend). He asked why musicians were so afraid they’d be fired without unions, and whether I’d feel the same way if I was working for him as a staffer. My response was that I’d be happy to work for him, or most managers, as a staffer without tenure protections; the difference was that, to another staffperson – even one I reported to – I would be regarded as a person. To most conductors, I’m regarded the same way as a violinist regards a string. I’m simply part of the instrument, and equally fungible and discardable. I think I saw a light go on with at least some of the managers in attendance.
The second incident was during an early panel session on cross-cultural perspectives on running orchestras. One of the panelists was the manager of Fischer’s own Budapest Festival Orchestra, a rather mad-eyed Hungarian gentleman, who proudly told the gathering of how his orchestra auditioned its entire membership every two years, bringing audible gasps from those present. Two panelists later, the manager of the Kwazulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra (South Africa), prefaced his presentation by saying:
“A mystery has finally been cleared up for me. I’ve not understood until today why, every two years, a wave of Hungarian musicians come to audition for us.”