High-altitude “ramblings” from the first casualty, Ed Stephan

High-altitude “ramblings” from the first casualty, Ed Stephan

For the bored among us, some long-winded ramblings while captive in a B737-900, high above Earth.

Being a professional orchestral musician is hard. Taking auditions is HARD. Working on the staff at a major symphony orchestra is hard. Being a CEO of a major non-profit performing arts organization is hard. Raising money is hard. Volunteering one’s time and money to serve on a board of trustees and to help preserve an institutional legacy that took decades to build is hard. Selling a product to people in the 21st century that requires some focus, openness of heart and mind, a bit of emotional and intellectual sophistication, and a desire to take time out and truly enrich one’s life immaterially…is hard. Advocating for one’s own and one’s colleagues’ value to society is hard (and frustrating). Witnessing people stand up for what they believe in, for what they value, and for what they think they are worth, however, is easy…just pay a visit to picket lines at Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, or Bass Hall in Fort Worth, Texas right now.

Two of my former orchestras are entrenched in ugly contract disputes.

I came upon a list of goals in an old practice journal that I made when I was a freshman in college. They were incremental goals that charted my career ambitions. There are 18 of them, very neatly and thoughtfully laid out. I’ve shown it to virtually no one. Every single goal on that list, with the exception of one, was accomplished, including where I am today. They were achieved by often practicing ten hours in a day. Certainly no less than four or five on any given day. They were accomplished with much self scrutiny, and by enduring brutally honest scrutiny from some amazing teachers, as well as some not so friendly peers. Not a single one of these goals addresses money or a dollar figure. The heart of the endeavor was to eventually be surrounded every day by people who had traversed similar paths, and to have the chance to put hard fought skills to rewarding use. The hope that people would appreciate it enough to provide a decent living was of course always part of a mental wish list. But, like all of the astonishing musicians I get to work with daily, the real pie in the sky was to live a life of bringing great music to music lovers and musically curious newcomers, surrounded by peers who challenge you to be your best.

The heart of the labor disputes in Pittsburgh and Fort Worth is complicated, layered, and wrapped in ideology. Think about the courage it takes to voluntarily suspend one’s income and cash flow in order to take a stand for a greater cause. Can the matter honestly be reduced to a mere income dispute? Money is a giant part of the issue, of course! It takes money to accomplish nearly anything of value. As individuals, most of us in an orchestra have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in our craft, much of it before we are ever offered a contract. We know that this is a necessity if we are to stand even the slimmest chance of getting hired. The same applies institutionally. Communities that are able to invest in top talent will naturally have more buying power for their symphony orchestras. Top talent wants to settle where other top talent congregates. Period.

Recent studies show that while a small percentage of people actually attend symphony orchestra concerts (3-7 percent), a far greater percentage see the value in having a world class orchestra in its community, even if they never take advantage of it..AND, would actually give money if they knew the institution was in trouble financially. The PSO’s own relevancy study reveals this. Top orchestra musicians are expensive. But they are not as expensive as nearly any other skilled professional that is traditionally compensated well (athletes, surgeons, actors etc). The training is equally extensive, and in terms of a life’s devotion, MORE extensive. I began this endeavor at age six! The difference is that much of an orchestra’s income relies on contributed funds by individuals, corporations and foundations who believe in the institution’s mission and who recognize the value of having the best orchestra possible for their community. There is, of course, also the element of civic pride that accompanies bragging rights. That motivator should not be undervalued. It is perhaps the thing most responsible for the quality of contract terms that is offered in the largest cities. The comment often tossed about in Pittsburgh goes something like “Wow! Amazing that a city this size can produce an orchestra like this!!”… I agree! But this is already an admission that the city has over performed in many ways in order for the PSO’s virtuosity to have been made a reality and not just lip serviceable. The Pittsburgh community should be endlessly applauded and praised for what it has built. They deserve to have their efforts, and their ancestors’ efforts, honored with better efforts from the institution’s leadership.

The realities of the effects of contractual strife are real. I hear reports that Detroit lost some 30 musicians while on strike. Minnesota took a similar hit during their 16-month lockout. Pittsburgh is starting to see signs of similar motivations. Historically, one could count Pittsburgh’s orchestral peers in the United States on one hand. Those in our industry who are in the know, and are willing to be honest about it, know this to be true. Reiner, Steinberg, Previn, Maazel, Jansons, Davis, Honeck…please show me an American Orchestra’s music director lineage that is more impressive, and more steeped in tradition. I simply cannot believe for a moment that this is not important to enough people in Pittsburgh. In fact, it is an insult to the collective intelligence of the Pittsburgh audience and population to suggest that they cannot preserve this amazing tradition, or don’t care to. This remains management’s ongoing position. The dispute is no longer about earning the same kind of money that musicians in New York, Boston, San Fran, LA etc. are earning. It is about staying committed to growth, carrying contractual stability forward from previous concessions agreed to by musicians, and demanding that the leaders in management be as creative, skilled and passionate as the musicians that decades of artistic vision and leadership have lured to the Heinz Hall stage. Traditions of music making cannot be nurtured and preserved if musicians are coming and going. Pittsburgh’s tradition is real. It’s identifiable, unique and virtuosic. It has been a city and regional treasure that is deserved (and needed!) today as much as ever.

The situation in Fort Worth is different, though the core of the dispute is equally challenging and honorable. I still think that my happiest days in my career were my early years in Fort Worth. The energy was high. We were working hard and steady, playing a lot of music and enjoying a nice variety from week to week. There was less pressure than I’ve grown used to, and it was a great place to live, work and grow – all the while earning a decent wage, and enjoying working conditions that at least made one feel appreciated. Things changed there so quickly when leaders went on ego trips and management and board adopted a change of attitude toward the musicians as a result. Personally, I believe it was one incident that led to all of this. Those inside will maybe know what I’m referring to. There’s simply no reason or excuse for what is going on otherwise. Fort Worth will likely never be competitive with the top tier of American orchestras, but what the wonderful musicians there deserve is contractual stability, growth that is reflective of the vibrant city they live and work in, and the ability to share their craft with a deserving audience without the constant threat of loss of income and benefits. Their wages and benefits packages have never been extravagant, nor have there been demands for them to be. One has to believe that Fort Worth can do much, much better for its invaluable orchestra musicians.

Between what is done in the community, in churches, in retirement homes, in cities abroad, and on the stages of their beautiful concert halls at home, symphony orchestras enrich communities in ways that are too numerous to include in a single conversation or a silly Facebook post.

We need more depth of programming. Our audiences should be made to feel smart. We shouldn’t feel the need to pander to the needs of just any “entertainment seeking” individual. We don’t merely entertain. We enrich. Let’s please focus more on that. This was the draw to San Francisco. It is an amazingly impressive operation at the SFS, and the orchestra’s quality has spoken for itself for many decades. They command the attention of top orchestra musicians worldwide. I feel very lucky..

But my heart aches for what my friends and colleagues in Pittsburgh and Fort Worth are experiencing. It is no fun to be forced to defend your own worth publicly, and to have to defend a legacy that others are hired to protect and preserve. The devaluing of the artist in a community has consequences that cannot be realized until long after the damage has been done. I wasn’t in the Dallas Symphony long enough to develop an institutional attachment, but I did make many lasting friendships there, and as a result of working there I am able to add another 100 people to the list of talented, intelligent, grateful, proud individuals who I’ve had the pleasure of working with and being inspired by. These people live in your cities!

The staff at the PSO are overworked and grotesquely underpaid. But they are doing an amazing job. The musicians have done their part by being the best and bringing immeasurable joy to their audiences locally and abroad. The board is generous with their time and money, and one wants to assume that these are good, civic-minded people. Donors have given generously, as have the staff and musicians. The indexes for success are ticking way up in Pittsburgh, and the city is more vibrant than ever. I grew up there. My family is there. My teachers are there. My students are there. The orchestra that inspired me to love music is there. It is “home” forever, no matter where I am settled. The resources are there, and love for the PSO can be nurtured and grown still, just as it can be in Fort Worth.

People keep bemoaning that the upper management aren’t taking pay cuts themselves. I don’t want them to. They should do the quality of work that justifies their giant salaries, or they should be replaced with people who can. All of the musicians wrapped up in this mess have done their jobs in excess of what they receive in return. They deserve a contract that galvanizes the artistic fabric of the orchestra by remaining attractive, competitive and dependable.

To the leadership of the PSO and FWSO– you are doing it wrong.

-Ed Stephan, Principal Timpanist, San Francisco Symphony