Despite the ensemble’s widely admired stature and its glorious history, its musicians are currently being asked to accept a bundle of drastic changes.
Media attention has focused on management’s demand for a $40,000 cut in annual pay. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Management is also trying to dismantle many existing contractual agreements governing working conditions. Medical benefits would be cut, hours worked would increase, and the orchestra would play more “pops” concerts. (See here or here for more information about the situation.)
And the orchestra’s music director, Osmo Vänskä, says – nothing.
At least, he hasn’t yet said anything publicly. And that’s pretty much standard operating procedure, according to The Music Director’s Guide to Good Decorum and Self-Preservation. (A well-thumbed copy of this handbook may often be found on conductors’ shelves, next to the Mahler symphonies.)
I touched on this question last year, with Leonard Slatkin, in an interview shortly after his Detroit Symphony Orchestra ended a bitter strike.
“What’s it like to be the conductor of an orchestra that’s on strike?” I asked him.
“Mostly,” he replied, “my job during the strike was to not get involved in it: to stay informed but not participate. I couldn't do anything to assist in the negotiations. What I did, however, was discuss the strike with both the board and the musicians, and encourage people not to give up.” (You can read the rest of the interview here.)
In our conversation, he also pointed out that his neutrality became an asset after the strike was over, because he could help heal the hard feelings between labour and management. Since he didn’t take sides, he could serve as a bridge between opposed parties.
Slatkin made a sensible-sounding argument for siding neither with managers nor with the players. However, it seems to me that a conductor should always take the side of the music. As an orchestra’s music director, it’s his or her responsibility to say or do something if anyone – either the management or the players – tries to do anything that would harm or diminish the artistic quality of the orchestra’s performances.
And that’s what seems to be happening in Minneapolis right now. The cuts management wants are so severe and far-reaching that they will lead to demoralization – and ultimately to players leaving the orchestra.
The tendency for North American music directors to stay out of the fray when their musicians are pressed hard for concessions – so hard that negative artistic consequences are likely to ensue – may not always be the best policy. Ultimately, the audience loses out. And it gives the impression that the conductor (who generally earns about ten times as much as the players) has taken a complacent, “I’m alright Jack,” view of the situation.
Perhaps Vänskä is saying plenty, behind closed doors. And perhaps that’s the wisest course of action at this point in time. But if the management of the Minnesota Orchestra “wins” this dispute, and forces a harsh contract on the players, and Vänskä seems content to go along with it all, then the artistic damage done will be on his head.
© Colin Eatock 2012