SSOPO: Does excellence matter?

The Seattle Symphony and Opera Players’ Association returned Leslie Jackson Chihuly and management’s fire from late last week. Hale’s manifestos read like “The Ninety Five Theses.”  They aren’t focused on any one particular issue but are all broad swipes at management, Ralph Craviso, and now Henry Fogel.

A Tale of Two Cities: Does excellence matter? Will the vision return?

By Timothy R. Hale, viola

Chair, Seattle Symphony & Opera Players’ Organization

Are we really living inside a Dickens novel? A Tale of Two Cities declares “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” On the one hand we have just given a week of historic concerts under the storied maestro Kurt Masur: arguably one of the finest sets of concerts ever given by the Seattle Symphony. On the other hand, our days are occupied fending off the tired and discredited schemes of a McKinsey-originated financial model, and responding to the disingenuous monologues of the board’s NYC based consultant, Ralph Craviso (running the SSO in the stead of Thomas Philion, the nominal Executive Director).

As we go back to the two cities analogy, let’s compare our great city with Cleveland, where the Cleveland Orchestra musicians have drawn a line in the sand and may very well strike Monday or Tuesday. While the Cleveland Orchestra is one of the world’s finest symphony orchestras, the city of Seattle has a few significant, but achievable steps to take before it propels the Seattle Symphony to top-ten status. We believe the next few years will define our artistic future.

This season and next, we celebrate and honor the 25-year legacy of Maestro Gerard Schwarz, who shares credit for the building of Benaroya Hall with Jack and Becky Benaroya and the visionary board and managers of the Dorothy Fluke and Deborah Card era. The optimism and the orchestra building from the Schwarz/Card era have created an orchestra poised to compete with the recent excitement in Dallas (Jaap van Zweden) and Minnesota (Osmo Vanska) where visionary boards have built concert halls, invested in fine orchestras and engaged outstanding music directors. I repeat: concert halls, fine orchestras and outstanding music directors.

It soon became clear that the board, too, realized the gravity of the situation. First Henry Fogel, then Ralph Craviso decamped to Seattle. Pronouncements were heard; commitments were made. Soon it was apparent that Seattle had ceded control of its beloved Seattle Symphony to two outsiders with checkered pasts and no status as stakeholders. Then it became clear. The intent, the brilliant idea, of these consultants was to spend the next months pushing an approach that uses the recession of 2009 as the excuse to revisit the failed McKinsey model of the mid-60s. Implement a “realistic” model, “accept the short-term consequences”, “stop viewing the orchestra as competitive”. Hearing these misguided statements at a meeting with management’s consultant following an inspiring rehearsal with the demanding and visionary young guest conductor, Ludovic Morlot, was saddening indeed. It is the best of times and the worst of times, indeed.

This weekend in Seattle, we will take a ratification vote on the contract offered by management. It seeks a total of $11 million in concessions, primarily in pay, across the next five years. We are well aware that these are financially difficult times. That’s why we have proposed a concession of our own. Certainly, no one has a crystal ball. Who would have guessed at this same time last year that the equity markets would rebound so robustly?

We remain optimistic that the Seattle Symphony can find the vision and collaborative spirit that we achieved in our contract with Seattle Opera. It is a flat-wages agreement that continues through August 31st, ensuring that our major arts nonprofits can manage their way through their immediate challenges and drive future revenues from today’s artistic planning.

In the case of the Seattle Symphony, and despite any short-term challenges, we are poised to chart a future course that ensures the successful selection and retention of a new executive director, a new music director, as well as other management and musician personnel. We are confident that success for all parties – particularly the greater Seattle community – is achievable.

Posted: January 17th 2010


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