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The Mostly Mozart Strike: Music, Money and Maybe Better Art

by Martha Hostetter, Sep 01, 2002
 

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Just before the opening of Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival, in August, the 42 members of the Festival Orchestra went on strike over an issue that had nothing to do with wages or benefits. Instead, it boiled down to a struggle over job security and artistic control-issues that underlie most cultural endeavor but only occasionally make it into the public eye.

The conflict was framed by Lincoln Center's search for a new music director to replace Gerard Schwarz, the director from 1982 to 2001 and the man widely credited with building the festival into what it is today-an extremely popular, generally acclaimed, consistent moneymaker. This summer, 60,000 patrons were expected to attend. Twenty of the festival's 31 concerts were cancelled as a result of the strike.

The orchestra players rehearse and perform for four to six weeks each summer and take freelance engagements for the rest of the year; the festival is thus an important and stable source of revenue for them. After settling on an 18-percent pay raise over three years, negotiations broke down over the issue of job security. Bill Moriarty, president of Local 802, the professional musician's union for the New York City area and the largest such union in the world, says that problems arose when Lincoln Center's management suggested amending a longtime provision regarding contract renewal for a tenured musician. (Players go through a period of probation, generally one to two years, before getting tenure. Just as it is hard to fire a tenured professor, it's hard to fire a tenured musician, and the issue has only been brought to arbitration once in the festival's history.)

Past contracts named a professional arbitrator to resolve disputes over the firing, or non-reengagement, of a player. According to Moriarty, management suggested doing away with this process and giving the music director control of such disputes. This set off alarm bells for the musicians, who worried that a new music director might want to "clean house" upon arrival. Many of the players had been with the festival for well over a decade, some since its beginning 36 years ago. "One of the sources of tension in this negotiation was the longevity of most of the orchestra members and their proprietary feelings about their place in the orchestra and the concern that they have for its quality," Moriarty says.

Jane Moss, vice president of programming for Lincoln Center, tells a different version of events. According to Moss, the union first brought up the contract provision, suggesting that disputes over hiring and firing be settled by a committee of the musician's peers. Management countered that such a group would not be disinterested enough, and Lincoln Center's president, Reynold Levy, told The Times that "first-class conductors wouldn't accept those terms." The compromise decision that emerged after a few days of the strike, about which both sides claimed victory, holds that future arbitrations will be settled by a three-person panel: one representative from the union, one from management, and a third party, agreed upon by management and the union. This third party-who may well carry a swing vote-potentially could be a musician.

Typically, labor arbitrators are squeamish about making artistic judgments, and tend to defer to the opinions of management. By bringing a musician to the table, arbitration will take into account the opinion of a peer. "At the very least," Moriarty says of the result, "we will stand more of a chance that the third arbitrator . . . will understand better what should go into an artistic decision and where the line is drawn for arbitrary and capricious action. Because that's what you're looking for; nobody is looking to keep people in an orchestra who cannot play well enough to be in that orchestra. You're dealing here with art. While [players] value their labor rights they also value their art."

The details of the dispute were perhaps too obscure for the Mozart-deprived public to understand; even in the press, the most-often repeated phrase was that the players belonged to "the highest-paid freelance orchestra in the country." Moriarty disputes the term "freelance," though not that the players are well paid. "We got a fairly decent economic package in this negotiation," he says. "We got that far more easily than we could get this non-renewal provision, which is a matter of power. To wrest some kind of decision-making power from management is always far more difficult than squeezing money out of them."

Clearly, the life of a classical musician has improved in past decades, thanks to the strength of music unions. "I worked part time in the St. Louis Symphony in the early 1960s," Moriarty recalls. "Basically, then, you were the same as a factory workers-you were an ad hoc employee, they could fire you at will, and in fact one of the things that often happened in those days, when a new music director would come in, he would change about a quarter of the orchestra, just to show the power he had." And there are precedents for power-sharing at Lincoln Center. The players of the New York Philharmonic have, over the years, won a measure of artistic control, electing an artistic committee, which gets involved in the hiring of new musicians and the evaluation of guest conductors. Jane Moss declined to comment on the issue of power-sharing among the new music director and Festival Orchestra players.

Conflicts over power-sharing arise in most artistic fields. Actors in a resident theater company or members of a corps de ballet often complain that they have no role in their institutions' decision-making. Most arts institutions are fairly hierarchical, with directors generally calling the shots in conjunction with managers and boards. This kind of hierarchy may to some extent be necessary: any kind of artistic collaboration requires discipline and boundaries, as a quick viewing of tapes of the less successful experiments of the 1960s shows.

And yet, it's useful to remember that directors-in music, theater, and visual arts-are relative latecomers to the arts scene. Theater directors began working in the early nineteenth century, when massive spectacles required coordination apart from the actors. Formal music conductors were not commonly used until the Baroque period, when music became increasingly complex and the number of performers expanded. It's probably inevitable for directors and those being directed to clash; but it's also true that sometimes this push-and-pull is what makes for great art.

Martha Hostetter writes for American Theatre magazine.


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