The Hartford Symphony: Facing the Precipice
Sadly enough, I take the shutdown threat as being real.
So it’s down to this: the Hartford Symphony Orchestra -- which was born in the 1930s in the depths of the depression, which has weathered repeated fiscal crises and work stoppages, but which, in the end, has been our community’s shining flagship musical organization for three generations -- is declaring it will shut down if management and the musicians can’t agree on a contract in the next few weeks.
It’s hard to know what to say. One’s first impulse is to grab the key figures on both sides by the collar and throw them into a locked room and say: “Dammit, solve this!”
A few days ago in Paris, 195 countries – rich and poor, democratic and despotic – reached an immensely complex agreement on how planet Earth might stave off the devastations of climate change. Yet we in Hartford are hung up on how many annual services (a rehearsal or performance) can be guaranteed to 33 members of a part-time orchestra. Solve this.
Quick context: The idea of services and guarantees grew out of an optimistic (and as it turned out, brief) period of growth in the '80s and early '90s, during which there were people who sincerely believed that the HSO might one day be a full-time orchestra. To that end, they instituted the idea of the core, a kind of designated nucleus of the full orchestra, whose members were guaranteed a certain number of services along with a guaranteed base salary.
Skip ahead to today.
Management – which now basically means the Bushnell Performing Arts Center, under a contracted managerial arrangement put in place a year and a half ago -- said it can’t continue to pay the core for services that it believes will go unused.
Under the previous contract, the guarantee amounted to 180 services. The latest management offer – terms of which have not been made public – calls for a sharp reduction in that number, presumably on the order of 30 percent or thereabouts.
The core musicians say that while they could accept some reduction, a cut of that size is both unfair and unnecessary – that other ways can be found to close the HSO budget gap.
There are other issues, but this is the main sticking point.
As the conversation heats up, and now that the management has publicly revealed its doomsday scenario, I’d like to offer a few thoughts about -- and to -- both management and the players.
First, it’s important to say that when management claims it will shut the doors of the HSO permanently if a settlement is not reached soon, I -- apparently unlike many of the musicians -- believe it. That’s not an expression of faith in this management’s truth-telling, it’s just that the organization is clearly running out of money, and I don’t see any inclination to put in place a last-minute public appeal or other device that would delay, much less prevent, bankruptcy.
So, sadly enough, I take the shutdown threat as being real.
There’s probably no point, at this late hour, in talking about what went wrong or whether this crisis could have been avoided. The only questions worth asking are the ones that pertain to the future of the HSO, assuming there is one.
Management, here are a few such questions. If you’re going to ask the players to accept your “last best” offer, and do it under the threat of a shutdown, you have to tell us:
• If a settlement is reached, will the promise of significant fundraising actually come to pass? As the players correctly point out, the nationally admired orchestra executive and consultant Tom Morris was hired by the HSO in 2007 to assess the fiscal health of the organization. His main insight was that only a major endowment campaign could put this orchestra on solid footing. Yet no such campaign has thus far materialized. We need to hear, in concrete terms, that the organization is committed to a meaningful campaign. And by meaningful, we are talking, by Morris’s and the organization’s own estimates, about something in the neighborhood of $10 million. Is there the energy and the appetite for a project of that magnitude? Do the development gurus in town believe this is realistic? Unless the answer to all of those questions is yes, a new contract probably only puts off the grim reaper by a few seasons, if that.
• Will the structure of the Bushnell’s managerial “alliance” with the HSO truly evolve, after the two-year initial phase ends this spring, into something more workable and less costly, as we were originally told it would? In particular, a new CEO (or general manager or whatever title is selected) needs to be promptly engaged to actually run the orchestra. I think everyone agrees, including the incumbent, David Fay, that for a variety of reasons it is not tenable, long-term, for the CEO of the Bushnell and the CEO of the HSO to be one and the same person. If these kinds of changes are indeed being planned, as I’m assured they are, let’s make them specific and write them into the proposed agreement.:
• If the core orchestra’s service guarantee is, temporarily at least, lowered to a number you feel you can deliver, can we have your pledge that you will work in good faith to push that service number back upward in future years, as you discover/restore/create/expand opportunities for the HSO players to perform both inside and outside of the hall? After all, this was one of the original selling points of the alliance – the Bushnell’s putative ability to do that very thing.
There’s one other point, which is not a question about the future. Rather, it pertains to reaching a settlement. It’s the issue of so-called shared sacrifice. The players, understandably, have been saying that if they are being asked to take steep pay cuts, people on the management side should experience some of that pain as well. (Please, by the way, don’t say that management has already moved in this direction by virtue of trimming the size of the staff. That’s fine and necessary, but it’s not sacrifice -- it simply reflects the efficiencies that the alliance was designed to produce in the first place.)
Management taking an actual “haircut” is a pretty standard and time-honored gesture in situations like this, and of all the issues that are causing people to wonder whether the organization is serious about a solution, this is the one, in my conversations, that comes up most often. Such a gesture might be more symbolic than real in terms of getting to a balanced budget. But given the powerful emotions that run beneath the surface of this impasse, symbols can be important. And besides, this issue is certainly real enough to the musicians, who, if they are going to continue to play, need to be convinced that they themselves are not being played.
2. The Players
The HSO musicians believe they have the moral high ground in this fight. And in most respects they do. They are gifted, conscientious artists, devoted to their art.
And they are, let us acknowledge, modestly paid. The per-service rate for regular section players is less than $120.
That’s not a great number but it seems to be more or less what the market around here will bear; it’s pretty similar to what players in the New Haven and Springfield Orchestras make, to take our two closest and most comparable groups. Out of respect to the players, we should always be looking for ways to edge that number upward, and giving credit where it’s due, my unofficial understanding is that the contract proposal does call for small annual incremental boosts to the rate.
To the players – especially the core members -- I would simply say this: you are being confronted with a lousy choice.
But if we respect and admire our musicians, the same cannot always be said about the union that represents them. The union – the American Federation of Musicians – seems to pride itself on its combative, rigidly Us vs. Them mentality.
(My perspective on this point is not entirely theoretical, since, at various times in my life, I have been a member of this union.)
I have nothing against old-fashioned, bare-knuckles contract negotiating. It seems to be the American way, even if sometimes it feels a little silly when applied to a 21st century non-profit classical arts group.
Quaintly, perhaps, I assume in a situation like this that it’s the union’s task to basically decide what the best possible deal is at this time, in this place and under these circumstances, and then try to get as close to that deal as it can. Then, after the agreement is signed, everybody shakes hands and poses for smiling pictures with the board and donors, and folks get back to work.
But I fear that the goodwill and sympathy that the public naturally feels for our musicians is often undone by the union’s barking, finger-pointing tone. Over the long months of this contract dispute, the union’s press statements, rather than offer a path to possible solutions, have instead often lectured us about past institutional failings and insufficient giving. These things take a toll. I’m aware of several donors who have been deeply hurt by the union’s pointed language, and it’s not clear that these folks will still be donors when and if the dust settles. Alienating known supporters is not considered the ideal way to plant the seeds of an endowment campaign.
Granted, there is a historical backdrop to the union bluster. A lot of the players go back a long time with the orchestra, and their attitudes have been shaped by bitter history. They can recall being jerked around in various ways; they can recall making concessions only to see those concessions be followed by demands for additional concessions.
Given that history, I understand why the players might be tempted dismiss the threat of the HSO closing its doors as just another ploy. I get that.
But, folks, I have to tell you that I’m convinced the bus really is poised to go over the cliff, so talking about ancient slights and indignities is just a bit beside the point.
On the plus side, here’s what I know: the new HSO board president, Jeff Verney, is a man of good will and integrity. You say you’re looking for somebody you can trust down there? Please get to know Jeff.
He says he is aching to go out and begin the task of fundraising in earnest, and I believe him. He wants to explore ways to increase the services beyond whatever the contractual guarantee turns out to be. He has good ideas about expanding the HSO’s brand and increasing its visibility.
He needs a signed contract to do any of it.
And he needs it soon.
To the players – especially the core members -- I would simply say this: you are being confronted with a lousy choice, no question about it. The cuts you’re being asked to take are severe. And as I said earlier, I think you’re entirely justified in asking management to submit to some reductions of their own, if only to signal a basic human understanding of what this change will mean in your lives.
If you’re even remotely in a mood to look at the glass-half-full perspective, you could reflect on the fact that for quite a few years you enjoyed the fruits of a noble – if ultimately unrealistic – vision: that Hartford’s orchestra could steadily grow and expand.
As we know, it didn’t happen. We can talk another time about why it didn’t happen – a combination, I would argue, of local missteps and a rapidly changing wider culture. And we can talk about how to get the HSO back on an upward path, which is certainly doable.
But at the moment you seem to have only two options:
(1) take the best version of the deal you can get, and then challenge the board and its energetic new president (and, soon, new general manager) to build back up the level of activity while making good on the promise of an endowment drive; or
(2) continue to hold out, and hope that management comes around.
It might appear that I framed those options to make only one feel real and viable. But I honestly don’t mean to suggest that. If, as a group, you really are convinced that the offer you’ve been given is unacceptable, then, as a matter of principle, you certainly are within your rights to reject it.
But along with everybody who cares about the future of the orchestra -- and by extension, cares about you -- all we ask is that you make your decision carefully, with eyes wide open. It doesn’t look like you, or this orchestra, or this community, will be getting multiple chances.
Steve Metcalf was The Hartford Courant's Fulltime classical music critic and reporter for over 20 years, beginning in 1982. He is currently the curator of the Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series at The Hartt School. He can be reached at email@example.com.