Is the Seattle Symphony heading toward a civic calamity?
The changing economics of the arts industry has left many orchestras on the brink of catastrophe. The Philadelphia Orchestra is the highest profile example. A large deficit, no permanent music director, and general disdain for the musicians is jeopardizing the future of this Big Five orchestra. Other orchestras are suffering too. The future of the Everett Symphony is uncertain, while the Bellevue Philharmonic is still on shaky ground after a leadership brawl last year. And not long ago, the Columbus Symphony, the professional orchestra for Ohio’s largest city, disappeared entirely for a period of time.
As grim news filtered in from the rest of the orchestra world, locally there was always a sense that the Seattle Symphony was different and remained fundamentally strong. I certainly felt this way. I am sure many of the orchestra’s die-hard supporters continue to feel this way.
However, just before the start of the 2009-2010 season, my own opinion of the orchestra’s health began to shift. The SSO had only just begun the search for Schwarz’s replacement after he announced the year before he wouldn’t seek to extend his contract after 2011. In recent weeks, other signs of ill health surfaced, particularly with the revelation that SSO president Thomas Philion would step down at the end of his current contract in June 2010. Most recently, I patched together details of stalled contract negotiations between management and the musicians. These revelations have put me in a pessimistic mood.
The Seattle Symphony, its management, and board directors stand at a crossroads. Soon, the future of the orchestra will be decided by a handful of critical decisions. The course set in the next few months will determine whether the SSO can shed itself of it’s provincial mindset and compete with the likes of Pittsburgh, Dallas, Minnesota, Saint Louis, and even San Francisco for talent and attention.
The most important decision facing the orchestra today is what to do about the musicians’ contract. Negotiations have seemingly stalled between management and players. The orchestra management hired Ralph Craviso – a notoriously tough negotiator – to strong arm musicians into a contract with drastic cuts to their salaries and benefits. Now that outgoing president Philion’s influence is waning, Craviso is reportedly assuming some of the day-to-day management responsibilities for the orchestra. But, his record is mixed. Before helping orchestra management negotiate musician contracts, Craviso was a bare-knuckled airline industry negotiator. Since leaving the airline industry, Craviso’s critics contend he has built a reputation for squeezing cost savings out of musicians at the expense of orchestra morale and standing in the community.
Musicians say management has been coy about the health of private fundraising. One might infer from the furlough days imposed on staff last summer, the hardball negotiating tactics, and the revolving door at the top levels of management, that private donations are a weak funding source for the symphony. When Thomas Philion joined the orchestra as its president, I commented that any job requires time to learn the position, and to learn the key figures interested in and involved with the orchestra. One of the most important roles for an orchestra president is as chief fundraisier. Fundraising is a difficult business because it depends on building strong relationships between an institution and its donors. Philion and his predecessor, Paul Meecham, both had short tenures as SSO president. In both cases, one wonders if either had sufficient time on the job to establish the relationships necessary to increase private donations.
Hale, echoing a similar conclusion, writes in a piece posted on the Seattle Symphony and Opera Players’ Organization website, “The SSO is troubled by the need for greater unearned revenue…Unearned revenue remains the steep road to climb in order to reach the current levels of the Seattle Symphony’s peers.”
For a moment, imagine what Seattle’s orchestra would look like if, five years into the future, vacancies in the orchestra aren’t filled with permanent appointments. Key positions in the symphony instead filled on a temporary basis – creating an orchestra of part-timers. A contract like that tells me, and all others who care deeply about the orchestra, that neither its top managers nor its board of directors are serious about the future of the orchestra. The future music director of the SSO – regardless of who it might be – would join a situation where they had little or no ability to shape the sound of the orchestra or the artistic growth of their new musical charge. There are already too many vacancies in the orchestra, especially principal cello. Retirements and other departures could mean that up to 20% of the orchestra’s members – including principal positions – would be filled by cheaper, temporary musicians.
Stagnant or reduced musician salaries would also prevent the orchestra from improving the quality of its playing. SSO player salaries already lag far behind the salaries of musicians in other orchestras nationwide. Even the musicians of the Indianapolis Symphony earn more than their Seattle counterparts. Further reductions would make the SSO the least competitive orchestra in its class. The effects of Seattle Symphony’s low musician salaries were seen this past summer when Amos Yang, the San Francisco Symphony’s assistant principal cello, was offered the principal spot with the Seattle Symphony. Yang is an exceptional cellist and would have been an excellent section leader, but he turned the position down allegedly because the SSO couldn’t meet his salary demands. If the SSO is going to become one of the best orchestras in the country, it is going to have to do better than a roster of second-bests and temps. Otherwise, the SSO would effectively become the Wal-Mart of orchestras.
The only scenario worse than an orchestra limping along artistically, in a perpetual state of decline, would be for management to lock-out musicians and shut the orchestra down for 2010, much like what happened in Jacksonville. A move like this would be a fatal blow, and toss the SSO onto the heap of decaying classical music institutions with the Honolulu Symphony, the Baltimore Opera, and the Columbus Symphony. If this happens, SSO management should be generous with the lye before the public is able to ask too many questions. With Philion on the way out and Craviso merely fulfilling the requirements of his contract, neither having a stake in the long-term health of the SSO, this is an option that could very well become a reality.
As we head toward 2010, there are reasons to be hopeful about the SSO’s future. Foremost on the list is that the SSO will have a new music director either by the end of the 2010-2011 season, or not long after. Schwarz has boldly mended fences with musicians, and his departure will leave new blood guiding the orchestra to the next level of artistic excellence. Vacancies will give the new music director a chance to shape the orchestra’s sound, and renewed good will among the musicians will allow the new music director to experiment with repertory, programming, and those deceptively mundane decisions like where musicians sit on stage to create holistic unit.
The board will hire a new president as well. The prospect of being involved with an orchestra about to hire a new music director, should make it easier for the SSO to attract and a hire a top candidate. Most ambitious administrators are probably salivating at the chance to be with an orchestra in the SSO’s position. If given time and latitude, the new president could shift the orchestra’s finances from a sales-driven to fundraising and donor-driven revenue stream. The new president will have a crack fundraising team of eight employees that could be used to wage a concerted campaign to secure the orchestra’s financial future.
Most important in discussions about the orchestra’s future, is the opportunity implicit in a crisis. Musicians, management, symphony boosters, and even civic leadership (don’t forget that Seattle owns Benaroya Hall) have a stake in the future of the orchestra. As 2009’s final days fade, now is the time for musicians and the symphony board to recognize current contract negotiations will determine nothing less than the orchestra’s future. I would urge the SSO board to rely on their own aspirations for the SSO and not the advice of managers and consultants who will be gone from the picture by the time the sun returns to Seattle skies. They should ask themselves what they want from the Seattle Symphony. Greatness should be their answer.