Sounds of disharmony

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra strike's long-term effects

Feb 2, 2011 at 12:00 am

There is one effect the four-month-old Detroit Symphony Orchestra strike has had. Folks are hearing our good musicians elsewhere. For instance, bassist Alex Hanna has worked with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra and the East Coast Chamber orchestra, and he's got work lined up with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra.

"Any orchestra that has an open spot for a week or a weekend, they know that there are 84 top-notch musicians in Detroit who are probably available," Hanna says.

Traveling all over the country to pick up work isn't what Hanna had in mind when he joined the DSO in August 2008. Then the 24-year-old musician was elated to be coming to Detroit to join one of the nation's top orchestras as its principal bassist.

Hanna, who was born in Bowling Green, Ohio, says he's "dedicated a tremendous amount of time and effort" to the DSO as the ensemble where he'll make a name for himself. "I haven't played with them in Orchestra Hall since August. It's frustrating not to be doing what I came to Detroit to do."

The strike started Oct. 4, after DSO management implemented a more than 30 percent pay cut for musicians. Union negotiators offered a 22 percent cut. Management's offer was built around an overall total compensation package of $33 million over three years; the musicians' offer would have cost about $39 million.�

The initial management offer would cut base pay from a guaranteed minimum of $104,650 to the low $70 thousands. Although orchestral musicians' pay can vary based on seniority and which chair the musician has, according to several websites, starting pay at top U.S. orchestras — Cleveland, Chicago, New York, Boston and Philadelphia — is about $110,000. A first chair violinist can make about $300,000.

"When I first got this job, it was definitely the greatest job available," says Hanna. "I had the best job a classical bass player could have in the United States except maybe three or four positions. If we accept management's proposal there would probably be hundreds of jobs that are this attractive."�

A couple of weeks ago, each side was to have submitted $36 million packages to a federal mediator, a number based on a December proposal from former Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Sen. Carl Levin. Each side's proposal includes draconian cuts, although there are also differences on work rules, pensions, and community outreach and education issues. Last week, the union hand-delivered letters to DSO board members rejecting the management offer, claiming it's actually for $32 million over 40 months.�

"They [management] believe Detroit is down for the count, it's not a major city anymore and cannot support a major performing arts institution," says cellist Haden McKay, a union spokesman.

"I really can't predict what's going to happen at this point. If there is a contract, we'll do our best to go forward, bring the audience back and bring the music back. We're trying to get through a difficult period without losing what's wonderful about the DSO and trying not to have such a terrible impact on the orchestra. They seem to want to change the work place once and for all and don't really care were the pieces fall."

There is an official media blackout agreed upon by the two sides, and McKay won't go into the details of negotiations. The DSO executive committee of the board has a meeting scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 2, to discuss possible contract offers.�

"I think our survival is at stake. I got that while I was interviewing for the job," says DSO senior manager Paul Hogle who's only been here since last May. "It's still true. You cannot run multimillion-dollar deficits indefinitely into the future. ... I would describe the executive committee as being passionate about coming to a final offer that will secure our future sustainability."

If the sides are close enough, they will go back to the negotiating table. If they're too far apart, it's possible the board will cancel the rest of the season.�

Either way, it seems that things are coming to a head and the next steps will happen quickly.

"We could be back on stage next week if a settlement is reached," says Hogle, adding that the next offer "won't be the same old thing."

At this point things have dragged out longer than anyone expected. DSO musicians have been appearing as guests with other orchestras, and one member has accepted a full-time position with another group. It wouldn't be surprising to see more of that, especially if the board cancels the season.�

It's beginning to look like the 1995 Detroit newspaper strike, and, as a former Freep staffer, I know the strikers' perspective on that one only too well. As time passes, part-time work to make ends meet turns into an opportunity to move on. DSO musicians who have been here a long time and have deeper roots in the community may be able to hold out longer. But a musician such as Hanna who's been here only two years has got to be looking around.

His fiancé is operations manager and outreach coordinator for Detroit Chamber Winds. That keeps some money flowing into their household and gives them more impetus to stay in Detroit. But as time passes, it gets harder.

"I'm young and I tend to be an optimist," Hanna says. "I thought the strike would be a week or two. We are in week 18 or 19 now. I knew there would be a big disagreement, but I didn't think it would go on. This stinks. I thought that the sides would realize that we strongly believe in the very legitimate reasons that we are on strike and we would move forward to get a deal. That hasn't happened."

In the meantime, he puts his time in practicing, if not for a specific program then just to keep his skills sharp. That's the thing about being a top musician. You always have to practice just to maintain where you are and to guard against injury, let alone advance in the music world.�

"A lot of people have families and mortgages and all this stuff. They're just ripping their hair out," Hanna says. "To see people who've worked very hard and done their job well then have to deal with this is frustrating. Some people have already moved away to places where there are better freelance opportunities."

Upheaval has become part of the territory in Michigan, particularly here in the southeast corner of the state. But at some point it becomes a question of who you are. Do we deserve a great orchestra in this region? Can we have a great orchestra in this region? Are the arts an essential part of our landscape or are they window dressing to be tossed off during financially trying times?

These are the questions being wrestled with at the DSO right now, but the questions will come again and again in municipalities across the region as we struggle to regain our economic footing.�

As a metropolitan area the DSO is also part of what makes us attractive to others, either tourists or potential businesses. If we cannot maintain an orchestra here, it's yet another sign that things are indeed dire.