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How a conference in Utah could help save the symphony world

America’s top symphony orchestras are about to go to summer camp. But instead of making music, players from 52 big-name orchestras are getting together to talk.

Thierry Fischer conducts the Utah Symphony on April 29, 2016, at Carnegie Hall for the orchestra’s 75th anniversary celebration concert.
Thierry Fischer conducts the Utah Symphony on April 29, 2016, at Carnegie Hall for the orchestra’s 75th anniversary celebration concert.
Chris Lee, Utah Symphony

SALT LAKE CITY — America’s top symphony orchestras are about to go to summer camp. But instead of making music, players from 52 big name orchestras are getting together to talk.

As members of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians gather in Park City this week, one of the most important items on their agenda is how to prove their value in an ever-growing and competitive entertainment industry.

Meredith Snow is the chair of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, and a longtime violist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Meredith Snow is the chair of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians and a longtime violist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Provided by Meredith Snow

“We have to remain relevant. That’s an issue for everybody, is how do the orchestras keep their profile in the public eye … as music education is being swept to the side by our public schools and nobody really comes up wanting to be a part of classical music or listening to it,” said Meredith Snow, chair of ICSOM and a longtime violist in the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “That is just becoming a smaller and smaller segment of our society, and so we have to fight to maintain relevance.”

Being relevant in a saturated musical world isn’t the only big issue the conference is tackling. The full-time musicians are also exploring how to find new donors, how to diversify their audiences and how to tackle the age-old trouble of salaries, exemplified best in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s current lockout.

Remaining relevant

Members of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians won’t have to look any further than their host state for ideas on how to make sure classical music doesn’t die out with the older generation.

Utah Symphony and Utah Opera spends $4 million on education outreach each year — about 20% of the organization’s overall budget. Every season, the Utah Symphony puts on 50-60 concerts in schools, and just a few months ago, music director Thierry Fischer conducted an orchestra featuring 250 teenagers from five high schools in a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird.”

Music Director of the Utah Symphony Thierry Fischer directs the Cottonwood High School orchestra in Murray on Thursday, March 14, 2019.
Music Director of the Utah Symphony Thierry Fischer directs the Cottonwood High School orchestra in Murray on Thursday, March 14, 2019.
Deseret News

“I don’t know of any other state that invests in the student experience, being inspired by professional artists, the way that we have,” Paula Fowler, Utah Symphony and Utah Opera’s director of education and community outreach, previously told the Deseret News. “Our professional arts organizations serve many more students than most professional organizations do.”

Introducing younger listeners to classical music in turn helps with another pressing issue currently facing orchestras nationwide: the quest for donors.

“Because we’re a nonprofit — unlike the movies or Broadway shows — we’re kind of more like museums in the sense that we need donated dollars above and beyond ticket sales to keep our doors open,” Snow said. “We are losing orchestras.”

Snow pointed out that over the last few years, several orchestras such as the Louisville Orchestra and Philadelphia Orchestra have filed for bankruptcy, while the Atlanta Symphony decreased its year-round season to 42 weeks.

“We’re a little bit like the canary in the coal mine because we’re so dependent on public support and funding that … we lose oxygen first,” Snow continued. “There’s no symphony orchestra that sells enough tickets to keep themselves afloat. It’s just not how the business model works. You have to have private funding and people who donate to keep the doors open … and those people are harder to find.”

Reflecting your audience

According to Snow, a key to finding those donors is knowing your community.

“You look at most orchestras, we’re very white. Our donors are white and our patrons are white, and that does not reflect the society that we live in,” Snow said. “We need to be looking at inclusion and diversity, and offering female composers and conductors and people of color and Latinx — all of those things are relevant to how we maintain ourselves. We’re definitely behind the eight ball.”

Orchestras throughout the nation are trying to catch up by diversifying their programming, although those efforts look different in each market. In recent years, the Utah Symphony has highlighted female composers, conductors and musicians, as well as works from composers of color. Snow pointed to her own orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which has sought to attract new audiences by being on “the cutting edge of contemporary music.” She referenced the Detroit Symphony’s recent push to attract a younger audience by emphasizing student deals and discounts, and how the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra has recently offered ticket subscriptions at a more accessible cost.

On March 23, 2019, members of the Utah Symphony swapped tuxes and dresses for jeans as part of the symphony’s new casual concert series, “Unwound.”
On March 23, 2019, members of the Utah Symphony swapped tuxes and dresses for jeans as part of the symphony’s new casual concert series, “Unwound.”
Provided by the Utah Symphony

“You have a target audience, which is going to be different in every city to some degree,” Snow said. “It is absolutely incumbent on the marketing department and the development department and the managers and the board and the players to (ask), ‘How do you market yourself? How do you define yourself? How do you get your … audience to show up?”

The lockout in Baltimore

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra musicians have had an even more troubling question on their plates recently: The security of their own jobs. It’s been over two months since the orchestra’s management locked the BSO musicians out of their concert hall.

Facing deep financial struggles — a reported loss of $16 million over the past decade — the management team has proposed reducing the orchestra’s season from 52 weeks to 40 weeks — a move that would impose about a 20% pay cut on the performers.

“We’ve accepted seven concessionary contracts since 2003, and unfortunately, I believe what that has taught our leadership is that when they feel like they are financially pinched that they should just come to us and ask for more concessions,” BSO violinist Greg Mulligan, co-chair of the orchestra’s negotiation committee, recently told the Deseret News. “Meanwhile they’ve run up their spending in other ways, so we’re not going to give them the concessions this time.”

In this June 13, 2019 photo, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra oboist Michael Lisicky, second left, conveys a message to Gov. Hogan as fellow members of the brass section play music as they protest at the State House in Annapolis, Maryland. The BSO’s players h
In this June 13, 2019 photo, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra oboist Michael Lisicky, second left, conveys a message to Gov. Hogan as fellow members of the brass section play music as they protest at the State House in Annapolis, Maryland. The BSO’s players have been locked out of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall since June 17.
Kenneth Lam/The Baltimore Sun via AP

The orchestra’s fall season is scheduled to begin Sept. 9 at Baltimore’s Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, but Mulligan said the upcoming season could be in jeopardy if management and musicians remain unable to reach a contract agreement. The next negotiation session is scheduled for Aug. 21 — the day the ICSOM conference kicks off.

“Their offer hasn’t changed. All we have been asking for is a cost of living raise of 2% and for them to honor the minimum number of full-time musicians that we’ve had in our contract for several years and until a few years ago was always honored,” Mulligan said. “If we can negotiate a decent settlement … then of course we’ll go back to work. But at this point, we need to see a much better offer than we are being given. … We don’t feel like we’re asking for too much.”

The lockout in Baltimore is a reminder of the strength an activist group like the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians can bring during challenging times. Although the 2011-12 season was a tumultuous era for American orchestras with many battling labor disputes, Mulligan said that because of ICSOM, he knows that Baltimore’s salary problems today aren’t typical among full-time symphonies.

“One of the things that ICSOM does is track internally all of the settlements, all of the contract agreements that are made between orchestral musicians and their managements, and something like 29 out of the last 30 settlements have resulted in pay raises for musicians,” said Mulligan, who serves on the ICSOM governing board and will be attending the conference in Utah.

That includes the Utah Symphony, which just last year reached a four-year agreement that among several benefits included an increased base salary for musicians. In this contract, effective through Aug. 31, 2022, the symphony’s existing base musician salary of $72,968 steadily rises each year, reaching a minimum salary of $81,496 in the 2021-22 season.

“It’s generally the bad news stories that get a lot of press. All the way back to the 1930s there have been a lot of stories about the death of symphony orchestras. Well, here we are. We’re still here,” Mulligan said. “The trend has been quite positive. After the big recession, there was some retrenching and a lot of orchestra musicians took pay freezes or even cuts, but that has not been the trend in the last four or five years.”

A rallying cry

Snow knows symphony musicians won’t walk away from the three-day conference in Utah with end-all solutions. The problems are too big for that to happen. But what the conference can achieve is the power to draw attention to those issues by rallying together.

“There really is no way for us to step in and change the paradigm. All we can do is try to change the optics from the outside,” she said. “Instead of having the 80 musicians of Baltimore by themselves struggling with their management and their board, you have the almost 5,000 musicians of ICSOM standing behind them and saying, ‘We’re watching! We’re looking at what’s going on here,’ in addition to offering them legal support and advice and whatever else we can do. They’re not operating in a vacuum all by themselves. It’s national news what’s going on in Baltimore, and I think that (this group is) a huge help to any orchestra when they get in trouble.”

The issues symphonies face are always changing and always complex, but for Snow, a musician who has been a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for more than 30 years, the rewards undoubtedly outweigh the challenges.

“I love music and I love playing the viola and I feel that it’s a crusade, in a way, keeping this music alive,” she said. “When you bring an audience together, it’s a tremendous emotional, uplifting experience, and how lucky am I to get to do that every week?”

It takes an army of musicians working together to perform the repertoire played by top symphonies throughout the country. When it comes to orchestras, there’s strength in numbers, and ICSOM is no different. As a vigilant advocacy group for professional musicians, ICSOM’s members will come together Wednesday to help ensure that symphonies across America will remain viable for a long, long time.

Thierry Fischer conducts the Utah Symphony and Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square on Feb. 20, 2016, as they perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 for the O.C. Tanner Gift of Music.
Thierry Fischer conducts the Utah Symphony and Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square on Feb. 20, 2016, as they perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 for the O.C. Tanner Gift of Music.
Provided by the Utah Symphony

“It’s vital that people become involved in a political sense to promote orchestras. ... If we don’t preserve the orchestras, preserve this art form, it’s just going to die on the vine, and that tremendous accomplishment of humanity would be lost,” Snow said. “You just have to keep your community alive and connected and vibrant, and I think that the arts, that’s what they’re there for.”