The Corner

A Woman and Her (Former) Orchestra

Yesterday, here in the Corner, I said something about unionism and the music business. Someone very close to the New York Philharmonic said to me, “You may think of them as an orchestra. You should think of them as Local 802.” The topic of unionism and music is an important, painful, and vexatious one. I have done a fair amount of writing about it.

Let me share a letter, which is rather long, but very good. I’ll publish the letter after the “jump” — click if you like. It’s not anything like the last word on the subject, but it is certainly one word — one woman’s word, and experience. Worth listening to, too. I think that many across the country, if they read this letter, will know exactly what our correspondent means.#more#

Dear Mr. Nordlinger,

When I was a kid in the early Sixties, living in rural southwestern Virginia, I discovered classical music by fooling around with my dad’s old short-wave radio and tuning in stations out of Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh, and other places. The Philadelphia Orchestra, led by Eugene Ormandy, was my absolute favorite.

Let me interject to say that, thanks to unions, or the union, there are virtually no radio broadcasts of orchestras anymore.

When I was an older teen, in the late Sixties / early Seventies, my music-geek friends and I would pile into the car on a Friday after school and make an eight-hour drive to Philadelphia. We would line up our sleeping bags on the living-room floor of a friend’s apartment to spend the night, hang around Philly on Saturday, and end our day in the city by being first in line for “rush” tickets to that night’s orchestra concert.

After the concert, we would go backstage at the Academy of Music and talk to the players about music, their instruments, their technique, and so forth. If there had been a guest soloist, he would hold court in the green room, shaking hands and signing autographs for the public. (I chatted up Isaac Stern! Nathan Milstein! A verrrry young Pinchas Zukerman, Itzhak Perlman, and Lynn Harrell!) It was quite heady to rub elbows with the de Pasquales [a family well represented in the orchestra], Norman Carol [the concertmaster], and so many others.

After leaving the Academy, we would head a couple of blocks up Broad to a wonderful ice-cream parlor. The place would be packed with concertgoers, and we would enjoy spontaneous and spirited conversations with complete strangers about the orchestra and the music.

I can assure you, this was not an atypical experience for music-minded people, all over the country.

Today, I am a 50-something, living in Philadelphia. Twenty years ago, when my husband told me we were being transferred to Philly, the first thing I did was call to get orchestra season-ticket information. I was going to live my dream of going to the Philly orchestra every week! I would spend my summer nights at the Mann [a park venue] and travel up to Saratoga for the month of August to see my orchestra!

The dream never became reality.

Our first year in Philly, the orchestra was on strike for two months at the beginning of the season. What a letdown! During the next couple of years, the orchestra performed lots of new music, and we were deprived of the fabled “Philadelphia Sound.” The next year, we boycotted the orchestra and switched to the New York Philharmonic after the Philly musicologist arrogantly insulted an elderly gentleman who complained about the programming of the orchestra. (This was at a pre-concert lecture.)

The next few years, we subscribed again, and moved with the orchestra into their new home at the Kimmel. This past year, we let our subscription slide, and I don’t really miss going. As for spending the summer at the Mann, we dropped that subscription too. The orchestra that performs at the Mann is not the Philadelphia Orchestra. The musicians filling the chairs are not the musicians we see at the Kimmel during the regular season.

It’s just no fun going to the orchestra anymore. We are barred from going backstage, so we don’t get to meet our orchestra members. The concert is over at 10 p.m. sharp. The musicians get up and leave even if the audience is still applauding, and there are never encores. Sometimes we recognize orchestra players in their cars driving away as we cross the street to our parking garage. Their seats onstage are still warm! My husband and I suspect this is because the orchestra demands overtime if they go past 10 p.m. No more schmoozing with the folks! We also suspect that union rules have turned music performance into an impersonal job.

We have no bond with the orchestra anymore . . .

We get our music “fix” now by attending student recitals and concerts at [the] Curtis [Institute] . . . After a concert, the kids love standing around in the lobby talking with each other, their teachers, and their audience. We feel like these are our music buddies now. If the major orchestras could figure out how to create this bond with their audience, there might be hope for them. As it is, I agree with your insider who said, “Don’t think of the Philharmonic as an orchestra. Think of them as Local 802.” That’s exactly how we think of the Philly.

Just another quick word on unionism: Last year, I attended a master class on singing conducted by James Levine. Levine instructed an accompanist to put the lid of the piano down. As the student made to do it, a stagehand rushed the stage, to put the lid down before the student could: union rules. I believe that, at this point, a pianist is still able to adjust his seat. Not entirely sure.

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