The dislikes don't bother me, btw - and really shouldn't bother anyone (nor should the likes - commenting should be about discourse and not popularity contests). I look at it this way: At least I *think* you have read what I wrote and considered it, if momentarily. I could be wrong, but the general thought that, yet again, someone would rather skim a response in anger and return a dislike is in itself is a) not my problem; and, b) fairly indicative of the problem that got us here in the first place - an utter inability to see the clouds for the beautiful blue sky. Some of the most beautiful blue sky in the world is dangerously temporary, lulling many into a false sense of security.
Of course, the bluest, most moving sky ever described almost always is either the view from the top of a snow-capped mountain (we're definitely not soaring there right now...) or the eye of a hurricane (more apt). Stunningly beautiful - and horrifically deadly.
Perhaps in this case especially, the weirdly ethereal (and equally impossible-to-grasp) attempts that have been made to describe the situation the MSO faces present a step on the Kübler-Ross grief stages. Grief and disbelief couched in the strangest of terms can be, I guess, an indication of just how very much the truth of the closing-in hurricane winds is; they are a painful reminder of reality and impending loss - and anger (Kübler-Ross stage?) for how long so many have been snookered by the heads in the sand talking out of their telling tales of how "THAT could never happen here." Who in this institution is NOT trying to sell a city the eye of the hurricane? (Not the "Hurricane Elvis" ilk, but a very final closing of doors due to the destruction caused by "Hurricane MSO"). Perhaps planting the tree anew once the mop-up is complete and the Old Guard disassembled is not a bad idea. Never thought I would get to that point, but realizing how rigidly top-down (or down-top as may be the case) this institution has shaped itself - including the hateful relationships between "the labor" and "those jerks (not the actual word used) on the Board" (a problem in itself, eh?) appears to have been a piecemeal recipe for disaster. A sound plan for overall fiscal responsibility AND living wages for musicians should have been in place by 1970 - or 1980 at the latest; I've never seen or heard of any indication of this. By the 90s, as I said, most of us knew it was not if but when the MSO would tumble to the ground. The betting was they would of need fold when Cook came down. Never thought the MSO would see together inside of a completed Canon Center.
So it comes to this: Don't you ever wonder why so many conductors have left - and some to the farthest places on the globe from Memphis? And the same with fine musicians (far, far more than listed in the article of 27 Feb 2014 - perhaps deserving an article of its own on the scores of seasoned professionals who have left for greener pastures in the past decade or two - and why).
I guess I simply don't mind being the "unpopular disillusionist" Dick Deadeye. Not optimistic, not pessimistic, just realistic. I prefer to get down to truth rather than accept the party line sound bites (or rambling copy - even that which has seen kind editing), no matter how schismatic, disorderly, untenable, or downright wrong. Sentimentality for a wonderful music-making group of outstanding heart-and-soul players is one thing. Ignorance of fiscal responsibilities and realities - and the history of mistakes getting here - well, that's just a truly stupid other thing.
I'll return you to your Lord High Executioner now ...
(Points to those who caught the music references on the first read...)
N.B. Consider, too, that virtually every musician on that stage has an instrument valued at - at least - $25,000 and more often in the $50,000 range or a great deal more.
You may recall the incident in Minneapolis last month in which a musician was attacked and his on-loan Strad was swiped? An instrument valued over $2M? Fortunately it was found - safe - within a week as a half and the perpetrators apprehended by a mix of local police work and the FBI, but it ought to give you pause to consider just what it costs to become a world-class musician, not just in wages, but in the investment in a quality instrument. It would be nice if you could find a decent, healthy, well-maintained, open, vibrant instrument for less than $25,000, but those days have basically passed. Unless your parent or a generous friend was a musician and has given you an astounding instrument, you need to come up with funds to pay for that as well. So add that expense to those of housing and family - at an average salary of roughly $25,000?
Living wage, indeed.
No, the symphony was never that well "endowed" in your sense of the word - especially not for a decent orchestra. It was, for all intents and purposes, a "volunteer" symphony at its inception (albeit a good one), and over the years gradually added more and more paid positions (it also helped that several of the people in prominent positions with the symphony donated back their salaries for decades). I don't know exactly when the musicians' union finally (finally!) pushed the orchestra's management into "reasonable" wages, but I think that is when you can probably state the orchestra began its days as a wage-paying symphony.
Endowments? Some of the money came from retired players, many of whom, sadly, have passed now, and many from quiet and deep pockets in the community. But a "public" orchestra ostensibly run as a jewel of Memphis itself cannot remain sustainable without a strong open-books policy. Repeated requests over the years to look at the books on the part of many were simply - deflected. Lousy way to run a railroad - and especially so if you want solid donor support and to market yourself so loftily as a National Endowment for the Arts recipient (which requires open books). Times have probably changed since my last request, but, as I intimated in my comments in the other article, the writing has been on the wall for decades.
Anyone with any long-term collegiality or friendship with players has known how dire things have been - and how very desperate they have been at times since the mid-1990s (Lockouts, anyone?) The musicians have always been under belt-tightening restrictions - never a living wage; you cannot buy a home and raise a family on $25,000/year. By not paying a decent wage to the musicians, you really aren't investing in Memphis at all, are you, MSO?
Oh, except for the CEO. Don't know why he makes more than our world-class conductor, but evidently he must need a house and has a family? The mere fact that he makes roughly 5-times more than the average symphony player ought to say something very red right there. On whose backs will HE be making cuts? Not his own, obviously.
It would be helpful if the MSO were to look inward - to the Memphis region - to bring in extraordinary talent instead of always feeling that pulling in players from elsewhere - at higher cost from ads to auditions to hire - will magically return fivefold in dollars. That just doesn't happen these days. There are individuals in the Symphony who bear grudges - 10, 20, 30 years - and word gets around that there is a poisoned atmosphere, and why should a local musician who isn't well-connected even bother with them? And, these catty personnel problems are not just a problem for local musicians of talent - but word gets around, and it takes a lot anymore to convince a great player in the graduate program at the School of Music (University of Memphis) to even consider wrapping up their lives in this institution. Do they want to live here the rest of their lives? Or will the opportunities for sustainable work and a living wage be better in their hometown or elsewhere beyond this horizon. Virtually all take their higher ed experiences and degrees and hie themselves elsewhere.
You consider all this, then pull it together with what has been, for a long, long, time a symphony playing it's swan song (things have been more than dicey since the 1980s, though those were somewhat better economic times). We just never knew when it would finally - and quite publicly - but Skid Row.
It's too bad, really. A lot of people in the symphony are wonderful and shouldn't be judged so harshly by the company they keep, but honestly? With all the other tremendous opportunities for playing - and listening - why do we need to listen to the squabble every month or six months or year? Donors and listeners (and musicians) would much rather be a part of those venues and groups and truly make a difference by their physical and financial support - it's pretty obvious what money goes where and how responsibly in the other groups.
Perhaps they are all tuckered out listening to the doleful sound of someone shaming them into giving money when all it seems to do is fall into the Mississippi mud?
Sorry, Symphony, but you lost this subscriber years ago.
By Chris McCoy
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