TOPICS > Arts

Detroit Orchestra Back for Encore After Labor, Budget Discord

April 11, 2011 at 6:31 PM EDT
After a sixth-month strike over pay cuts and balanced budgets, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra returned to the stage this weekend for two free concerts thanking fans for their support. Ray Suarez talks to Mark Stryker of the Detroit Free Press about how the symphony's return impacts the struggling city.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, the city of Detroit gets its symphony back, after a long strike that captured national attention.

Ray Suarez has the story.

(MUSIC)

RAY SUAREZ: It was the symphony’s way of rewarding an audience that stood by it through a long absence.

Amid cheers and applause, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra took to the stage this weekend for two free performances, their first since a six-month-long strike. Much of the dispute was over how deep a pay cut musicians would have to take to help the struggling symphony balance its budget.

After marathon negotiations, a salary decrease that averages 23 percent over three years was finally agreed upon last week. That brings the minimum salary down to roughly $80,000. The orchestra will also have fewer musicians.

The union did manage to preserve workers’ health insurance and even improve pensions. When the reunion concerts were announced, every ticket was quickly snatched up.

The orchestra’s musical director, Leonard Slatkin, told Detroit Public Television he believes the six-month absence may have presented a new opportunity.

LEONARD SLATKIN, Detroit Symphony Orchestra: We learned that there is a global community out there who is phenomenally interested in what we do. Our job now is to capitalize on all those people who were involved in the discussion and to say, how can we reach you? How can we become actively part of your life?

RAY SUAREZ: Local supporters hope the publicity will help bring the Detroit Symphony Orchestra more business. The DSO still faces a $3 million deficit for this year.

For more on the symphony and the backstory, we turn to arts reporter and music critic Mark Stryker, who’s been covering the dispute for The Detroit Free Press.

And, Mark, it looks and sounds like the orchestra got a rapturous welcome home. How did this all get started?

MARK STRYKER, Detroit Free Press: Well, the economy here in Detroit has simply battered all of our cultural institutions and the symphony in particular. The orchestra has lost about $20 million since 2008.

It has lost — ticket sales have been down, donations, corporate support. They have a ton of real-estate debt, and all of which had put the orchestra in a situation where it needed to drastically reduce costs. It turned to the musicians, asking for at one point as much as a 30 percent pay cut.

And the musicians resisted on a variety of grounds, including the fact that they were afraid that, if pay fell too much, the orchestra would lose its status as one of the top 10, 11, 12 best-paid orchestras in the country, and it would be impossible to attract and retain the best musicians.

RAY SUAREZ: By this point, the orchestra had lost 75 percent of its season. Was pressure increasing on both sides, the risk increasing on both sides for not settling?

MARK STRYKER: Well, absolutely.

The subscription base had fallen to its lowest point in decades. And there was great fear that, if the strike had gone on much longer, if we had lost the entire season, you would enter into, you know, what people have described as a kind of a death spiral, and it really would have been impossible for the orchestra to pull itself out.

As it is, it is going to be very difficult.

RAY SUAREZ: Is the orchestra trying to come up with a new business model as the musicians come back to work?

MARK STRYKER: Well, absolutely.

This whole thing, in many respects, is about restructuring the business to create a sustainable institution here in Detroit that can take this orchestra another 20, 30, 50, 100 years. And we had reached in many ways an analogous situation to the car industry. And we were at a point where the orchestra needed to make drastic changes.

It went in many different directions here, not just on the pay-cut side, but there was a lot of talk during this dispute over what the role of — job description should be for a 21st century orchestra musician. And the management here had sought in some ways a redefinition of that role to include much more community outreach, chamber music, teaching, coaching, that kind of work, to create a more — what people would talk about as a relevant institution here in the city of Detroit.

And the musicians had resisted those kinds of changes being built into their contract.

RAY SUAREZ: How much of these problems have to do with Detroit’s well-publicized economic woes, and how much are common to cultural institutions like dance companies, opera companies, symphonies across the country?

MARK STRYKER: Well, it is a little bit of both, of course.

I think that Detroit, as an extreme case economically, throws all of the issues that were pulsating through the industry, the orchestra industry in particular, into really bold relief. So, I think that the problems that we faced here are issues that are — have been of great debate all across the country in the symphony orchestra world for a long time now.

And I think you are going to see, in particular Rust Belt cities, places like Cleveland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, the conflicts and issues here in Detroit, I think, are going to play out in years to come in those cities as well, as they begin to renegotiate contracts and try and come up with sustainable models that make sense for a 21st century orchestra in our culture today.

RAY SUAREZ: Detroit and many of those cities that you just named have had trouble attracting people from inside the historic urban core to come to the concerts.

Has the DSO managed to do any better? Does, really, its future lie with reaching into its geographical center?

MARK STRYKER: Well, the audience largely for the Detroit Symphony is a suburban audience. So, you are talking about people driving 15, 20, 25 miles or more to get to this extraordinarily wonderful old historic concert hall in the center of our Midtown cultural district.

So, you have a complicated equation here in Detroit. You have an institution that needs to reach into all communities here, inside the city and outside the city. One of the things that Leonard Slatkin, the music director, is instigating is a program in which the symphony will go out into the suburban areas and play concerts, as well as playing concerts here at its home at Orchestra Hall.

So, you have an institution that is fighting a battle on many different fronts.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Mark, you attended the weekend’s concerts. What was the atmosphere in the concert hall?

MARK STRYKER: It was extraordinarily thrilling and very, very emotional.

I have been attending concerts here for 16 years. I have never experienced the — the overwhelming sense of cathartic release that was expressed when musicians walked out en masse a few minutes after 8:00 on Saturday night.

It really — it was as if someone from the Detroit Tigers had hit a home run to win the seventh game of the World Series. It had that kind of electric feeling about it.

RAY SUAREZ: Mark Stryker of The Detroit Free Press, thanks for joining us.

MARK STRYKER: Of course. Thank you.