A couple of days ago, an article appeared in Bloomberg that was so misinformed, so short-sighted, so petty, so ignorant, and so utterly ridiculous that to let it go unchallenged would be irresponsible.
The article came from Manuela Hoelterhoff, the Pulitzer Prize-winning executive editor for Bloomberg Muse and author of Cinderella & Company: Backstage at the Opera With Cecilia Bartoli. Clearly, a capable and decorated writer who has been in the business for many years and deserves respect from this lowly radio host.
Earlier this week, Hoelterhoff decided to take on the labor dispute at the San Francisco Symphony. She proceeded to rail against the SFS musicians for “sulking,” saying they “have stopped working because they don’t like doing what they are meant to be doing.” As if a labor stoppage is ever about enjoying one’s job.
“What do we want?”
“A more enjoyable way to pass the time between paychecks!”
“When do we want it?”
But this is only a simple misunderstanding of intent. The musicians of the San Francisco Symphony have clearly stated fair wages are the primary purpose for the strike. It has nothing to do with how much they enjoy playing classical music.
Hoelterhoff errs even further, though, when inelegantly brings herself into the story.
“That a bassoonist could actually make a nice living playing oompah-oompah is thrilling to know. I begrudge bassoonists nothing.
Long ago, I played second bassoon in the Nyack High School Band. That I might wish to continue playing oompah-oompah filled my parents with dread (so here I am in another endangered profession).”
With all due respect, the comparison between playing second bassoon in a high school band and in a world-class orchestra is about the equivalent of saying, “I once drove the bumper cars at a carnival; therefore I fully understand what it takes to be a champion at Le Mans.”
Hoelterhoff declares that “running an orchestra is actually a tough job.” She is correct. I have immense respect for the great orchestra CEOs of the world–chief among them, the LA Phil‘s Deborah Borda, who I know quite well and about whom I cannot say enough positive things. In the very next breath, Hoelterhoff goes on to level her biggest insult yet to professional musicians. She says, unlike musicians, “[Orchestra CEOs] don’t just rehearse, play and go home.” Again, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what it takes to be an orchestral musician.
One reason Borda and her predecessor–Ernest Fleischmann, who I was also fortunate to get to know before he passed away in 2010–presided over more than 40 years of labor peace at the LA Phil, is they recognized the contribution of their orchestra’s musicians to the ultimate artistic and box office success. Treat your musicians well: you will attract the best and they will commit to making your organization a success.
The San Francsico Symphony has done this…and they’ve been rewarded with Grammy Awards, a huge endowment (2nd-largest of any American orchestra), and considerable cachet on the world stage. The average salary of a musician in the San Francisco Symphony is $165,000. They are the third-highest paid orchestra in the United States, behind Chicago and the LA Phil. Certainly, $165k is a paycheck most of us would thrilled to see come our way each year. (As a public radio lifer, I’ll never see that kind of scratch.)
But did most of us begin training for our vocation as a five or six-year-old, like most top-level musicians did? Have we been slaving away in practice rooms several hours a day for decades? Do we have thousands of people scrutinizing every minute detail of how we do our job day in and day out, offering up snap opinions over a glass of bubbly at intermission? Do we have to pay six-figure sums just to obtain the materials necessary to do our jobs? Do we have multiple media outlets critiquing the articulation of our sixteenth-note runs, the intonation of that high b-flat, or whether or not we were in exact ensemble with the cello section on that passage in the slow movement? Is our professional benchmark perfection? When we achieve perfection, but fall short of transcendence, are people disappointed?
Oompah-oompah, this is not.
The San Francisco Symphony is one of the top orchestras in the world. Their musicians are some of the best in the world. Management admits as much:
“The performance of classical music at the highest level of excellence demands a lifetime commitment. The pursuit of perfection in performance requires extraordinary emotional fortitude, physical stamina, and tremendous innate talent.”
So, when Hoelterhoff suggests there are plenty of musicians–recent Juilliard grads, she says–who could fill the roles of the current SF Symphony musicians with no artistic depreciation, she betrays an ignorance of what it takes to be a great artist. Quite simply, there is not a world-class orchestra out there just waiting to be created.
Juilliard, by the way, costs about $55,000 a year. Roughly the same as medical school. Multiply that by four years (Bachelor of Music), six years (Master of Music), or eight years (Doctor of Musical Arts) and it means you have young musicians graduating into the job market with hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt.
We pay our recent medical school grads six-figure salaries straight out of residency. But the route from conservatory to top-tier orchestra generally runs through a regional per-service or part-time orchestra. A place like the Tuscon Symphony, where salaries are about $17,000 a year–or about $93 per concert.
Even in full-time orchestras, wages aren’t much better. The principal bassoonist of the Louisiana Philharmonic in New Orleans makes slightly more than $25,000 a year. The Alabama Symphony musicians make $39,485.90 per year. Base pay in the Buffalo Philharmonic is $43,134. Management of the Minnesota Orchestra wants to cut their salary by 34%. (Source.)
Part of the problem facing musicians is their skill set is so highly specialized From a management perspective, then, why not just cut pay? It’s not like there are that many principal bassoon jobs out there. Where are they going to go?
But that’s precisely why these musicians deserve a fair wage. Out of 313 million people in this country, they are literally one of probably 100 people who can do this job. They’ve been training their entire lives to do it. These musicians uniquely possess the talent, the artistry, and the dedication to skillfully and movingly execute the intricacies of the music of Mozart, Stravinsky, and John Adams. They deserve to be paid like the superstars they are.
They do not deserve public ridicule at the hands of a misinformed writer.
[Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly listed the Louisiana Philharmonic as a per-service orchestra.]